August 19, 2011

ACMe Food Co. – Sean’s Review (aka “He said”)

by HeSaid

It was back in June, ACMe had a deal on Island Daily Deals. Buy a $40 voucher for $20. Since we’re in the business of eating and talking about food, and we’re not getting paid, it makes sense to find deals where we can.

I really wanted a win on this one. ACMe used to be the go-to place back in the day, back when I used to go out for fancy martinis on a semi-regular basis. Now that I drink fewer martinis and demand better food, I’ve not been near ACMe.

The menu wasn’t particularly inspiring. A lot of sushi, which I haven’t heard much good about, and the standard Nanaimoan frou-frou upscale nonsense. You know what I mean, things frazzled in goat’s cheese, wrapped in filo pastry, accompanied by aioli and a menu chock full of hipster haute cuisine. I opted for the ($17) ahi tuna salad, because I like tuna and I figured if they could get anything right, it’d be a salad.

Here’s where I’m gonna rock you with a little bit of knowledge. Good fish, fresh fish, doesn’t smell fishy. As a fish decomposes, nitrogen-containing chemicals called amines are released. Some of these are quite volatile, and the older a piece of fish gets, the more amines are released and stronger the fishy smell gets.

Supposed Ahi Tuna Salad

I think my salad might have looked like this before they made it and left it under a heat lamp for a week.

When our salad arrives, the first thing I notice is the fishy smell. Fresh tuna is bright, vibrant, like in this picture. What I’ve got is palid, greyed out tuna.  It makes me think of the before and after photos of fast food, like, you see a picture of a Big Mac and you think to yourself “that’s gonna be really good”, and then you go and get one and the reality is actually quite grim.

The dressing for the salad was nondescript at best, I still can’t recall the flavour profile (if there ever was one), and the beet tendrils winding through the entire thing made me feel like I was wrestling a Kraken.

Food or fail rating: Fail

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August 19, 2011

ACMe Food Co. – Alex’s review (aka “She said”)

by SheSaid

ACMe Food Co. enjoyed a wild ride back in the day: always busy and packed on weekends. Sadly, consecutive changes in ownership ran it into the ground but the most recent owners of ACMe Rib & Seafood House (or ACMe Rib & Steakhouse depending on where you look on the web site) seem to really care about the place and are working to turn things around with the bold proclamation, “the fun is back!”  Having spent years watching the roller coaster at the corner of Commercial and Terminal Avenue, I walked in to ACMe wanting to find “food”, desperately wanting “food”.

What I also wanted was a nice, cold dark beer. Our wait for drinks wasn’t long but managed to feel interminable because it was noisy to the point of distraction. Maybe it was the layout but the place was over half empty and the voices from the next table — the elbow-bumpingly close next table — overpowered our own conversation. It was even hard to talk about how distracted we were.

That pint of Hermanns Dark Lager helped things.

The menu wasn’t far off what it has always been: West Coast favourites and sushi. Lots of sushi. In its heyday it was some of the best sushi in town but I’d need a lot of encouraging to take that risk.  What did catch my eye was the word sesame in connection with a steak salad. Sold. China Steps Steak Salad it would be.

Sadly the claims of sesame-ishness didn’t pan out. What, you can’t toast a couple of seeds and toss them in my general direction? The quality of the meat was passable but barely so; the soba noodles, gummy; the grilled vegetables consisted of two slices each of grilled zucchini and red pepper, pathetic, bland, wilty things. Most pathetic were the asparagus spears: grilled into submission, like they had lost their will, been utterly beaten.

But the single most pathetic element of that plate was the overall flavour profile. Sesame soya dressing makes me think of bright flavours, of a flavour experience, but there was nothing bright or flavourful there.  I couldn’t help but imagine what Gordon Ramsey’s response would have been if confronted with that $17 plate. Profanity, I imagined, and throwing it to the ground.

At least we didn’t pay for parking.

Food or fail rating: Fail

July 20, 2011

Alexandra’s – Sean’s review (aka “He said”)

by HeSaid

With all the enthusiasm of a yawning sloth, I open Google and type “Nanaimo restaurants” into the search box. It’s not that I’m bitter, it’s just that I fully expect everything to suck.

I’m eyeing up the map listings in front of me. and it looks like a lot more of the same. Fail. Fail. Fail. F… wait a minute – what’s this? Alexandra’s? I jump to the website, and like most restaurants it’s nothing to look at – but the menu is there. It’s close, the price is right and the food is just what we’re after. (No joke, Alex had been talking about wanting some lasagna with g-toast not five minutes before – and they HAVE IT ON THE MENU!).

If I have a single criticism, it’s that “someone” should order a hit on the flower-peddling clown that stands on the corner. I know I usually keep driving just so I don’t have to look at him, so I can only imagine I’m not alone.

Alexandra’s is as dead center as a restaurant could get. Everything from the menu, to the decor to the mural on the wall screams “We’re average, and that’s ok!”. While it’s quite big, the owners make a smart move of closing off half the restaurant behind a heavy curtain, which creates a much cozier atmosphere for the smaller lunch crowds.

Our waitress serves us with amazing efficiency. Never too close to be a bother but never too far when we need something at the table. It’s apparent that she’s been waiting tables for a long time and knows her stuff, a real lifer.

The baked spaghetti arrives within moments of ordering and tastes like most restaurant baked spaghettis taste. Noodles. Meat sauce and cheese. Nothing to write to mama italiana about, but for $10 I feel like I definitely got my money’s worth. I couldn’t have made better in less time for less money, and that’s what really sticks out with Alexandra’s; price and product in perfect balance.

These folks have lunch nailed. Fast, affordable, tasty, meaty, cheesy lunch for a sawbuck. One dollar more and they might have lost me, but you’d be hard pressed to find a better meal for $10 in this town.

Food or fail rating: Food.

July 20, 2011

Alexandra’s – Alex’s review (aka “She said”)

by SheSaid

I can’t count the number of times I’ve driven by the Bowen & Northfield location of Alexandra’s.  The sign always catches my eye but I’ve never actually gone in, probably because there’s something I find totally repugnant about the particular mini-mall it’s in. Maybe it’s the proximity to one of the gnarliest intersections in town; turning in and out of the parking lot is an exercise in squeeze-your-eyes-shut-and-hope-for-the-best driving.  So that’s why I’ve never visited Alexandra’s but when I was seized by a powerful craving for pasta, well, go we did.

The storefront is large but we arrived to a space that was quite intimate. This wasn’t a cavernous room but a welcoming bistro-style space with a large curtain along one wall.  A peek behind that curtain revealed another, much larger room that I imagine opens for dinner.

Scanning the menu made me feel warm and happy: all the usual suspects were there but not an overwhelming array and prices were perfectly reasonable for lunchtime with entrees in the $10 range. What I wanted, what I absolutely craved, was standard-order lasagna with meat sauce and garlic bread. It’s a comfort-food classic with memories of childhood pizzeria visits with my dad. The garlic bread should be soft and squishy, made with a fresh traditional french loaf, and if they offered it as an entree you’d gladly take it. But of course they don’t because that would be nuts.

What I got, after only a brief wait, was pretty much just what I’d hoped for. The lasagna was warm and gooey and delicious and flavourful.  There was no skimping on the cheese. I will say that the day’s batch was a little on the salty side (fine for my palette but maybe not everyone’s). The portion size seemed a bit small to the eye but I was perfectly, comfortably full by the end of it. Sure, I could have inhaled an entire loaf of the garlic bread but that’s neither here nor there.

I plan to head back to Alexandra’s in the evening some time to suss out the vibe of the full-sized room.  And that keyboard in the corner?  I bet they roll out some great Manilow covers on that baby.

Food or fail rating: Food

July 4, 2011

Lighthouse Bistro – Sean’s review (aka “He said”)

by HeSaid

Friday afternoon, I’m about to take Alex to Troller’s (who I think has the best fish & chips in Nanaimo). If past experience has told me anything though, it’s that you have to get there early if you want their deep fried goodies. By the time we arrive there’s a lineup about ½ hour long.

This leaves me with two choices. Stand in line and potentially starve to death, leaving the seagulls to peck at my eyes or pick somewhere else to go. Alex tells me that she likes my eyes, so I half-heartedly suggest the Lighthouse.

When we open the menu I get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. (one that will stay with me for days). It’s the first time in a long time I’ve paid tourist prices for seafood, and boy do they make you pay.

This is a family show, so I’ll spare any euphemisms about how it felt to pay $20 for a 2 piece halibut and chips, except to say that when my thoughts turned to fish it had less to do with my lunch and more to do with what they call the fresh meat at Sing-Sing.

I wish I could say it was worth it. I wish I could say it was just the halibut and that the battered salmon we split was better. I wish I could say the pesto coleslaw changed my life.

But I can’t say any of those things. The oil they cooked the fish in was old and dirty. The batter, uninteresting. The fish didn’t seem fresh, and neither did my french fries. The pesto slaw was just kind of odd. At the risk of sounding unsophisticated, I just don’t think slaw is a thing to be messed with.

Next time, I think I’ll let my eyes get pecked out. It’s bound to be less painful.

Food or Fail rating: Fail

July 4, 2011

Lighthouse Bistro – Alex’s review (aka “She said”)

by SheSaid

Let’s start off by admitting that we set out with a hankerin’ for some fish & chips.  Destination: Trollers.  Half hour wait there so we walked over to Penny’s Palapa which was also busy.  Having coughed up $1.50 for parking, we were resigned to lunch downtown so the Lighthouse Bistro & Pub it was.

The upstairs section was pretty deserted but the views were glorious, overpowering the vague bar-smell that lingered in the air.  (What is that?  Years-old tobacco smoke ground into the carpet with spilled beer?)

The menu was pretty unremarkable.  Except for the high price on the fish & chips.  That was remarkable.  $20 for two pieces.  Elsewhere the menu offered the usual suspects of West Coast Cuisine with sandwiches, pastas, and seafood mains.  But we were not to be deterred: bound and determined to chow down on some fried fish we decided to do sharesies on one order of salmon and another of halibut fish & chips.

The plates looked fine enough when they arrived.  What was billed as Pesto Coleslaw (a cool idea) was more like Pesto cabbage salad: each bite lifted to my mouth elicited cheek squirts, anticipating the tang of slaw, sadly finding none.  Then the fries were soft.  (In my world there is little that inspires more sadness than soggy fried foodstuffs.)  The batter may have been okay but it was hard to tell because both of the fish portions were greasy and required copious application of malt vinegar.  The tartar sauce was pretty good though; it appeared to be homemade, with texture but not too much chunk, so I’ll give ’em that.

Yes it was an unfortunate choice.  Would the Lighthouse have fared better if we’d gone without an agenda?  I don’t know that it would have.  And besides, if you can’t deep fry fish what are you doing on the waterfront?

Food or Fail rating: Fail

June 8, 2011

Real Food – Sean’s review (aka “He said”)

by HeSaid

We stand outside of the doors to Real Food. It’s a choice location for a lunchtime eatery in the heart of Nanaimo’s Heritage Mews.

The interior is bright and spacious. Bold blues and greens adorn the walls with roomy booths lining the far wall. The art is a series of food paintings done in the style of post-modern tuscan vegetable market, which I quite like. The bright green menus are (criminally) fonted in comic sans, normally a cardinal sin for anything other than a preschool, but I’m hungry so we push on.

Real Food boasts “Real food for the same prices as fast food…”

Soup and a sandwich at Real Food will cost you $10.50. Tax, tip and a $3.00 cup of self-serve coffee and we’re over $30.00 for a deuce. I can go to Wendy’s (the most expensive of the fast food chains) and feed the entire family for about $20.00, so their “fast food prices” are off the mark.

But this is a quality joint and I don’t mind paying a bit more for good food. The pulled pork sandwich seems like it would go real well with the tomato soup. Due to an earlier mishap, there’s only enough left for one of us. I make the chivalrous gesture and opt for a side of slaw.

While we sip on our $3.00 coffee the music cycles through classical, reggae and Frank Sinatra. The owner is pacing nervously around the space and I wonder if she’s onto us. When the food arrives, there are two words that immediately come to mind – portion control. Taste-wise, it’s not bad, not really, but it’s not memorable. The texture reminded me of canned salmon, the taste didn’t remind me of anything.

I spend the rest of our lunch wishing I had another sandwich, but I’m not willing to cough up another $7.50 to get one so I absently pick spelling errors out of the menu.

For a lunchtime eatery, Real Food wasn’t bad, but I just don’t think it warrants the $15+ price tag. Not when there are other delicious choices with bigger portions and/or lower prices.

Food or Fail rating: Fail

June 8, 2011

Real Food – Alex’s review (aka “She said”)

by SheSaid

I was unfamiliar with the popular Parksville lunch spot, Real Food, until they opened a second location in the Heritage Mews in Nanaimo’s Old City Quarter.  On the recommendation of a friend we decided to check it out.

The web site www.realfoodfast.ca (under construction) shares a vision that includes simple food and unprocessed, chemical-free ingredients.  The menu has a narrow focus with soup, sandwiches, light entrees, and salads.  I’m good with that: do one thing and do it well.  There are too many restaurants trying to be all things to all people.

The menu selection of soups was impressive.  The soups actually available that day?  Not so much.  Apparently there was something about an accident and spillage involving soup meeting floor.  Bummer.

Fortunately there was one serving of tomato-based vegetable soup left.  It was filled with a selection of beautifully tender, nicely uniform vegetables.  What I didn’t expect was the level of spice, which leaned more heavily on the heat than I expected.  (To me, a vegetable soup should be mild enough to feed a toddler.  But that’s just me.)

Sticking to the theme I went for the mixed vegetable sandwich and was a little perplexed when I wasn’t quizzed on bread choice.  The bun it arrived on was delicious and fresh but felt a little small for a carb-glutton like me.  It was, however, stuffed to bursting with fresh toppings.  They were tasty. They were particularly tasty when taken together in one bite.  The unfortunate reality was that things slid around and about and most of the toppings wound up on my fingers and plate.  It was a three-napkin sandwich.

I am a fan of quality ingredients and I do love to eat local where I can but it felt like an expensive lunch, and not in a good way.  Local food is, unfortunately, expensive.  Go figure.

This was real food, it was fast food served in what felt like a fast-paced lunch joint, but the price-point on the meal just didn’t scream “value” to me.  In this economic climate it’s pretty dodgy ground to open your doors on.

Food or fail rating: Fail

May 21, 2011

Zougla – Sean’s review (aka “He said”)

by HeSaid

I’m not particularly fond of Greek and Mediterranean food, but I figure any restaurant that’s been there as long as Zougla deserves my attention. When we arrive, we’re seated by a soft-spoken hostess at a nice, private booth.  Moments later, our attentive server drops off a stack of 4 (count ’em, 4) menus. Drinks, features, lunch and a dedicated burger menu.

When the server comes for our drink order I fail to capitalize, as I’m still trying to figure out why I have 4 menus. By the time I can think of anything, she’s vanished and I’m forced to settle with water.

A look at the menu shows a selection of greek, oh, wait, there’s a taco, a selection of greexican, oh, wait, there’s a curry, greexicindian, oh wait, there’s western fare, oh wait there’s Kung Pow [sic] stirfry.

3 things. First, I can’t make a better word than greexicindian, and I won’t try. Second, never order Kung Pao from a place that spells it like the 2002 Steve Oedekerk parody. Third, since Zougla can’t seem to make up their mind about what type of food they have, I don’t feel guilty about ordering a hamburger.  Not yet, anyway.

I decide on the ultimate double burger, because I’m an ultimate kind of guy. Two patties on a rustic bun, cheese, tomatoes, lettuce and Zougla’s “ultimate sauce”.

The meal arrives and I immediately dive into the fries (for which there isn’t enough ketchup), they’re hot, crispy and perfectly cooked. I devour the entire portion without going anywhere near my main.

It’s then that I turn my attention to the ultimate double. It looks so nice I want to frame it and hang it on my wall. Turns out I probably should have. As I bite into it, I can only imagine the look of disappointment that came over my face. I think, maybe it’s just the first bite, but each mouthful is equally as bland as the first. By the end of it, I’ve little left to do but soak up the drippings on my plate with the tattered remnants of my rustic bun in a sad attempt to find the lost flavour profile I had been so desperately seeking.

As a burger joint, Zougla falls fatally flat. As for their Greek menu, well, there’s other Mediterranean restaurants in town and I don’t like souvlaki enough to risk another disappointment.

Food or Fail rating: Fail.

May 21, 2011

Zougla – Alex’s review (aka “She said”)

by SheSaid

I felt a little underdressed at Zougla as we were led to our seats, passing business people and ladies lunching, to a great little booth at the back, spacious for two and inordinately comfortable. To our side the wall of windows offered panoramic views of Departure Bay and the Coast Mountains beyond, sparkling in the brilliant sunshine we were all so desperately craving.

Pulling my gaze from the view and back to the menu I fail to see any of the Ultimate *Lunch* Specials advertised on the placard outside. There are however an entire sheet of burgers and another of specials (regular specials, less ultimate perhaps). Wading through it all I couldn’t help but feel like I was in the It’s A Small World of menus: mediterranean, western, mexican, chinese, and french cuisine together in perfect harmony. Maybe not so perfect though; my gut feeling is that it’s safest to stick with the greek classics.

I was disappointed to find that the souvlaki plates–my greek staple–were in the $16.95-19.95 range which is just way too high for lunch. I settled on the Greek Platter, overpriced at $13.95 and served without pita bread (for shame).  The waitress is, for what it’s worth, very friendly when she advises me of this.  Throughout our visit the staff are genuinely likeable, which is a pleasant change from some other recent experiences.

Back to the food… granted, what arrived was a decent sized plate of food. The average greek salad was made better by really nice quality feta cheese. The calamari was nice and crisp, well cooked, but the batter lacked flavour and demanded liberal dunking in tzatziki (well flavoured, thinner yogurt style). The spanakopita had a nice flavour but was unfortunately compressed and lacking flake where flake should be. (Full disclosure: I had been served a heavenly spanakopita–made by that restaurant owner’s father, an actual greek–just a couple of days before. This one was at a distinct disadvantage). Oh yeah, then there was rice. Whatever. Greek rice is just filler.

So yes, I happily cleaned the plate and didn’t come away feeling overly bathed in garlic. The flavours were good but I could have done with a little less rice, a little more salad, and maybe some complimentary pita bread. I mean, come on. It’s bread! Bread! Isn’t it the least you can do in this world to offer a girl some free bread?

Food or Fail rating: Food