We just got back from a wonderful dim sum at Western Lake. It was the first time we had been back since March 8 just days before the world closed down. They have made a lot of changes to meet covid-19 standards.
First, there are far fewer tables, and I didn’t see any parties larger than four persons. Formerly, no matter the day or the hour, the place was jam-packed and you were always rubbing shoulders with people at the next table, making new friends. It gave the restaurant a particular noisy vibrancy that I loved. Now, there is a lot of space and the feeling is very different — not bad, just different.
There also used to be crowds of people waiting in the vestibule, spilling out onto Victoria. No more.
In the scores of times that we have been there over the years not once have I ever seen an empty table, until today when there were a few. However, I doubt they have lost much business. They had a double-length table set aside for Skip, Uber, and online order pickups where dozens and dozens of bags filled with food went on and off that table in the time we were there.
Finally, all the staff wore gloves and masks, which I guess is standard now. More interestingly, I noticed that about 90% of the Chinese customers arrived at the place wearing masks, while only about 25% of the westerners did.
The food was as always hot, fresh, and absolutely delicious. I miss the almost frenzied atmosphere of the past, but it won’t keep us away.
A couple of weeks ago I made a gluten-free chocolate cake that was divine to taste, but my photograph was terrible. Tonight I made it again, and here is a much better shot of it, served in my favourite way with sour cream and raspberries.
Made only with 75% cocoa chocolate and eggs, I find that this does not negatively affect my blood sugar levels.
Tonight I made a wonderful chocolate cake (apologies for the poor image). The thing is, there is no flour involved and it it made entirely from chocolate and eggs — quite amazing, and gluten free. It feels, tastes, and crumbs just like real cake!
One of the joys of a full English breakfast are Heinz baked beans. At college, beans on toast were the staple supper whenever money was tight (like always). I doubt there is a larder in England that doesn’t have a can or two on a shelf.
I always assumed that the “Beanz Means Heinz” slogan pre-dated me but that is not so; I was in my late teens when Maurice Drake came up with one of the most durable of advertising lines in 1967. I know this now because of an article in the incomparable Creative Review. From the same place I learn that Selfridge’s department store has made the bean can a feature of its displays this spring.
When I first arrived in Canada, it was a grave disappointment to me to find that cans of Heinz beans in North America were not the same as the English beans I grew up with. However, I am glad to say that the original English flavour is now available here, if you know where to look — SuperValu on Commercial, for example.
They are one of life’s simple pleasures.
The enforced requirement to stay home does allow us the ability to do things we might not otherwise find time to enjoy — such as learning the history of ketchup and mustard. Sit back and relax for 15 minutes ….
Tonight I made Vietnamese Caramel Chicken.
Usually, of course, I take a photograph of whatever food I want to celebrate. However, I forgot in the rush to eat this beauty. But it was so good that I didn’t want to wait to share. So here is a photo from Marion Grasby’s blog:
Tonight I made Marion Grasby’s wonderful spicy garlic butter linguine. It was the second time I’ve made it, and this one was exactly what I hoped for: rich and satisfying, as spicy as you want to make it, and with a multitude of flavours.
Select the image for a much better view.
The other day I mentioned on social media that the Everloving and I were going for dim sum today. Normally, that would not have elicited a moment’s interest from anyone but these are anything but normal times.
As a society we are in the midst (or perhaps just the beginning) of a virus pandemic panic that is beginning to paralyse everyday activities: business and recreational travel has almost ceased, sports events have been cancelled or closed to the public, major gatherings of people are discouraged, handshakes have given way to elbow bumps, and there are reports of toilet-paper riots at Costco, Even some of my most rational acquaintances have become besotted with following every drip of news about covid-19.
So, my announcement was met with shock in some quarters. I was advised not to go (the risk of infection was too high), I was told that Chinese restaurants are empty these days (and so eating there would be weird), and our continued good health was wished for several times.
Well, we went. On the way, the cab driver told us that all Chinese restaurants were empty and some had even laid off their staff. It would have been a surprise to him, I am sure, to see the crowds of people outside Western Lake’s door happily waiting for their number to be called. It took us a while to barge through the crowd to get to the reception desk but, once there, we were soon seated for our reservation. It was packed, every table filled to the brim with contented customers, none of whom were wearing masks, and attentive servers, most of whom we have known for a decade and more.
We stuffed ourselves with sui mai, ha gow, deep fried squid, chow fun, spicy green beans, and finished it off with chilled goji berry with lychee gelatin. It was a feast, each bite tastier than the last. In the hour or so we were there, there was always a lineup, and the crowd at the door when we left was thicker than when we arrived. There seems no chance that Western Lake is going out of business any time soon.
But they were definitely aware of the virus. We were chatting with the manager. His uncle (who was our very friendly landlord for 17 years) just came back from a Mediterranean cruise that included Italy. He and his wife are self-quarantining for two weeks.
Other than that, whatever pandemic panic is gripping the city, the Province, the world, there was no evidence of it all today at Victoria & 34th.
As a really interesting article in Bon Appetit proclaims: There is an entire industry intent on producing crispy crunchy food; an industry built on “biology, psychology, and an incredible amount of engineering.” It seeks to answer the question:
“[W]hy is crispy so alluring, so valuable, so desirable? Bon Appétit used it around 500 times (I’m rounding up) last year to describe everything from salmon skin to the top of baked French toast. Frito-Lay yearns to achieve hyperbolic levels of crisp. Popeyes has us lined up for crispy chicken sandwiches. The opulence-forward restaurant Benu in San Francisco has served “pork with inverted crispy skin” on its $325 per person tasting menu. In the datasphere, the use of crispy/crispiness in U.S. reviews on Yelp has increased 20 percent in the past decade. In close to 7,000 menus analyzed by Stanford’s Dan Jurafsky, crispy is by far the most frequent adjective used to describe texture. The Cheesecake Factory uses the words crisp or crispy nearly 50 times on ONE menu.”
There is no doubt that “crispy” and “crunchy” are high octane selling features. But it wasn’t always so:
“Scientists weren’t paying close attention to food texture until the legendary General Foods research scientist Alina Szczesniak broke it wide open in the ’50s. Me summarizing her work: ‘Everyone’s obsessing over how foods taste and totally ignoring how important TEXTURE is to the experience of FLAVOR’ … Crispiness is a ‘stimulant to active eating,’ wrote Szczesniak with a colleague, and ‘it appears to hold a particular place in the basic psychology of appetite and hunger satiation, spurring one to continue eating’.”
This prompted a lot of engineering and laboratory studies and consumer tests. One of the fascinating results:
“Female consumers were more likely to notice food texture, especially crisp and crunch, than their male counterparts, whose attention first goes to food color and flavor.”
The whole sensation is extended through the medium of marketing:
“Frito-Lay sustains crisp with packaging. The bags are puffed with nitrogen-infused air that keeps the chips fresh. Packaging is also how they promote crisp. The pop and whoosh of released air. Classic Lay’s bags had a makeover recently and on the back there’s a list of words with “CRISPY!” up top—where they know consumers’ eyes go first because, of course, they do eye-tracking experiments. You thought we lived in a world without chip surveillance?!?! And don’t forget the sound of the crumpling bag, or the pop-off of the Pringles lid. Those signify crispiness as much as the chip itself.”
The article goes into a lot more detail about sound testing, colour matching, and a lot more. Definitely worth the read.
Tonight I made Marion Grasby’s Tomato Egg Drop Soup; it was pretty good. Next time, I would definitely punch up the tomatoes (a dash of tomato paste or crushed strained tomatoes) and I suspect a vegetable broth would be a better compliment than the chicken stock I used. But it was more than OK as is.
In the late 1990s, I spent a lot of time in Bukowski’s, a raucous bar and restaurant at Commercial & Grant that is sorely missed. I went there to drink, to eat, to party, and, just about every week, to shout my poetry above the din of the bar crowd. If your performance could grab attention at Bukowski’s, you were doing really well.
With the likes of RC Weslowski, Shane Koyczan, and Angus (the Svelte Ms Spelt) Adair also performing, I was never the best or the most popular, but I had a wonderful time; and that period of my life was heady and life-affirming and just plain fun.
I am sure my memory has gaps, but it seems to me at this distance that all I ever ate at Bukowski’s was their wonderful patatas bravas, a dish which, when Bukowski’s closed, was lost to me. So it was a joy when I was looking through some food videos on Youtube and came across a patatas bravas recipe from Food Wishes, one of my go-to video chefs.
I made it the first time (with some deliciously sauteed chicken) and it was, all modesty aside, just superb: I could eat that sauce with just about anything. Moreover, all those memories of Bukowski’s came flooding back to delight and entertain.
Proust was right.
We had another great meal at the Absinthe Bistro on the Drive tonight. Excellent food and gracious service.
Between us we had the goat cheese terrine, rib-eye steak, scallops, and rice pudding. Each was beautifully presented and perfectly cooked. Moreover, they were more than happy to explain the ins and outs of the sauces, reductions, and special sides; the chimichurri (with the beef), the endive marinated in lemon and the pink apple confit (with the terrine) were particularly good. The rice pudding with caramel was the perfect finish.
So happy to have somewhere so special so close to home.