One of my least favorite parts of traveling internationally is the customs process at the airport. The lines are crazy and the whole experience of trying to figure out which one you belong in is confusing after a long, tiring flight. Plus, the agents ask a lot of questions that seem basic, but that never fail to make me all tongue-tied.
When we landed in Vancouver, for example, the customs agent asked “What, all of a sudden, made you want to come to Canada?”
“Uh…” I stammered, “just for something different.”
He looked at me like I was an idiot, but at least he didn’t put a big “DENIED” stamp on my passport and put me on the next flight back to Philly.
Obviously, Chester and I didn’t decide all of a sudden to go to Canada. We had put Vancouver on our list of places to explore after the 2010 Winter Olympics and, in fact, we did want to do something different for vacation this year.
Vancouver’s Olympic Torch
You see, this baby that I’ve been carrying around has all sorts of side effects. I’m frequently hungry and tired and I don’t enjoy excessive heat. So, when we started planning our vacation this year, we considered places where we could enjoy good food (that wouldn’t be too exotic), that would provide us a good balance of activities and time for relaxation, and that would not be too hot. In short, Vancouver fit the bill perfectly this year.
Did the customs man really want to know all of that? I think not.
But, we’re all friends here, so you care, right? Of course you do.
Anyway, that’s enough about how I can sometimes be an awkward traveler. I’ll just tell you about our trip.
Vancouver was originally settled as a small logging town. By the latter part of the 19th century, people recognized that its large, natural seaport was ideal for trade. So, the transcontinental railroad was extended to the city, helping it grow in terms of population and importance.
Today, Vancouver is home to more than 2 million people. It is one of the most ethnically diverse cities in Canada and still celebrates the heritage of the First Nations people who lived in the area thousands of years ago. Totem poles dot many of the city’s parks and public areas and there is a wonderful Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia that tells the story of these people.
“The Raven and the First Men” by Haida artist Bill Reid
One of the things I loved the most about the city is how the old and modern elements, as well as the urban and natural landscapes all exist together. The modern glass and steel skyscrapers, set among the mountains, lush green forests and the sea make for a striking sight. One of the best places to take in these scenic views is Stanley Park, a 1000-acre park with gardens, First Nations art, restaurants, bike trails, a swimming pool and other activities.
We stayed at a hotel in the Downtown area, where most of the high-rise buildings, banks and chain stores are located, but we spent most of the time exploring the surrounding neighborhoods, which each have their own unique character.
Gastown, is the historic city center of Vancouver. It’s name comes from “Gassy” Jack Deighton, a sailor who opened the first tavern in the area in the late 1800s, turning it into the neighborhood where laborers could go to have a good time. Much of that same character has been maintained today, as the area houses plenty of bars and restaurants, independent boutiques and antique stores. The neighborhood’s beautiful Victorian architecture and artifacts have been preserved, including its steam-powered clock which was built to cover the steam grate for the city’s heating system.
Just a short distance from Gastown is the largest Chinatown in Canada, where you will find many traditional restaurants, banks, tea shops and grocery stores. One of my favorite stops of the trip was the Dr. Sun-Yat Sen Chinese Garden, the first-full sized Chinese classical garden to be built outside of China. Using natural elements and building materials imported from China, the garden is designed to reflect the harmony of four main elements: rock, water, plants, and architecture. For a few moments, you can almost forget that you are in the middle of a bustling city (until you see the skyscrapers reflected in the ponds around the garden).
Granville Island is a quick ferry ride from downtown and a great place to spend at least half a day, if not longer. This former manufacturing neighborhood has been redeveloped into an upscale area with a marina, art galleries, theater companies, hotels and the Granville Island Public Market which houses hundreds of vendors specializing in gourmet food and handmade crafts.
We got there just after the market had opened for the day and had coffee and pastries for breakfast, did a little bit of shopping at the craft stores and boutiques on the island, and then picked up cheese, meat, bread, salad and dessert from a few different vendors for a picnic lunch by the water. The tour buses and crowds seem to come out in force by the mid-to-late morning, so it’s definitely worth waking up early to get to the market, so you can have the place mostly to yourself, at least for a little while.
On the subject of food, Vancouver is also one of the region’s top dining destinations. Of course, it’s located in a region best known for fresh seafood, but the options go way beyond those ingredients, due in part to the broad spectrum of ethnicities that call the city home. Here are a few recommendations, if you find yourself in the area:
The Templeton (1087 Granville Street) is an old-school diner was located close to our hotel. We liked it so much that we visited twice–for dinner after our long day of travel to Canada and for a substantial breakfast on a day when we knew we would be doing a lot of walking. The Templeton has been open since the 1940s, and many nostalgic touches remain, such as jukeboxes at every booth and vintage postcards, comics and posters protected under the plastic tabletops. Prices are reasonable with the most expensive breakfast item topping out at $8 and dinner entrees hovering between $10 and $13.
The Templeton uses organic ingredients in its menu of comfort food classics and also features plenty of creative vegetarian and vegan options. I’ve already tasked Chester with recreating the carrot coconut curry soup that was served with my open-faced grilled cheese sandwich, topped with hummus and thick cuts of grilled eggplant and zucchini.
Breakfast is served until 3 p.m. everyday. Options run the gamut from the healthy (like the Breakfast Sundae with granola and Greek yogurt) to the hearty (like the Trucker’s Breakfast, piled high with eggs, bacon or sausage, toast and potatoes).
La Brasserie (1091 Davie Street) is a casual Franco-German bistro in the West End. So, you’ll find sauerkraut and schnitzel on the menu, alongside escargot and foie gras.
Although the food was tasty, I wish that the kitchen had paid closer attention to the preparation of the meat in the main dishes. My steak was well seasoned and flavorful due to it’s preparation in a rich mushroom sauce, but was too well done for my taste. Chester had the suckling pig, which didn’t have the crispy exterior coating that is normally characteristic of that dish.
On a positive note, the salted caramel and chocolate macarons, that were probably I’ve had since my visit to Laduree in Paris, two years ago. The salted caramel and chocolate confections had the same slightly crunchy-slightly chewy outer shell and the same sweet-but-not too-sweet filling, the two elements that make the perfect macaron, in my opinion.
L’Abattoir (217 Carrall Street) in Gastown wasn’t even on our radar screen until we stopped in a random shop in the neighborhood and got to talking with the owner (One of my favorite things about Canada was that everyone was super friendly. I mean, they actually start conversations with you and genuinely seem to care about your responses. Kind of weird, but refreshing).
Anyway, as it turns out, this guy used to live in Philly and some of his family still resides in the area, so we got to talking with him about sports and he recommended a few places in the neighborhood for dinner, including L’Abattoir. We are definitely glad he did, as it wound up being one of our favorite meals of the trip.
The restaurant occupies the space that housed Vancouver’s first jail. The space is just gorgeous with exposed bricks and beams and a second floor dining room that gets a ton of natural light from its atrium. The menu features French-inspired West Coast fare, with ingredients, flavors and techniques drawn from both regions. All of the dishes we tried were creatively executed and beautifully presented. The attention to detail even extended to the bread basket, which featured a warm bacon brioche, a salty anchovy twist & a crunchy sesame flatbread.
I chose to go with a seafood theme for my meal, starting with the dungeness crab samosa. I love the combination of seafood and Indian spices, but rarely seem to find it outside of Indian restaurants. The dish had such a great combination of flavors–sweet crab, spicy chickpeas and cool yogurt–and the wrapper was not at all greasy or heavy. My main dish featured six fat scallops with perfectly caramelized tops. A bright pea puree and earthy broccoli made the dish taste just like the springtime and the fat from the accompanying slabs of pork belly added a bit of richness.
Chester stuck to the French aspects of the menu, starting with the escargot and fried chicken. Sounds weird, right? Somehow it worked, probably due to the fact that the escargot were removed from their shells and cooked in the rich chicken fat. His main dish, was a non-traditional take on steak Diane. Instead of being served as a single piece of filet-mignon with a sauce made from the pan juice, the dish was composed of a half portion of steak in a peppercorn sauce and a half-portion topped with a marrow butter. The steak was cooked to a perfect medium rare, for the perfect flavor and tenderness.
We ended our meal with sticky toffee pudding, the sweetness of which was tempered by a slightly spicy ginger ice cream melting over the top.
Vij (1480 W. 11th Avenue) was one of the first restaurants we put on our list when we were planning our trip. We are huge fans of Indian food and heard that it offers some of the best in the area. Vij does not take reservations and has become extremely popular among locals and tourists alike during the last 20 years. As a result, the wait time for a table can be two hours or more!
Fortunately, there is a lively lounge area at the back of the restaurant where you can order a couple of drinks and enjoy complimentary appetizers that are regularly passed around by the staff (and, sometimes, even the owner himself). The time seemed to pass quickly during our 90-minute wait, and in some ways, I actually think that this made the overall experience more pleasant. Instead of being in and out in an hour, it was nice to spend time relaxing and looking forward to a good meal after a full day of sightseeing.
Vij’s menu combines the spices and cooking techniques from all regions of India with ingredients local to the Pacific Northwest. The kitchen makes its yogurt, cheese and ghee (clarified butter) and its spice mixtures from scratch on a daily basis and a grill is used to cook the food, instead of a traditional tandoor oven. Overall, the food was had more complex flavors and was spicier than I’m used to, but not so much so that it overpowered the other elements of the dish.
Highlights from our meal included the pork belly with apple chutney appetizer, which was prepared in the same style as a short rib and served on appetizer spoons. The vegetarian koftas definitely had a lighter texture than the traditional meat-based variety, but the almond masala filling made them a rich and substantial main course. The lamb lollipops are not to be missed. They were so tender that I assume that they must spend hours marinating, before being grilled to perfection. All main dishes are served with chewy, buttery naan, which is still warm from the grill and perfect for soaking up every last bit of sauce or curry.
We spent three days in Vancouver, and I think that was just enough time for a great overview of the city. After that, it was a quick ferry ride to the next stop on our itinerary: Victoria.
More to come!