May 19, 2011

Cucina di Casa – Sean’s review (aka “He Said)

by HeSaid

Until recently, I figured the only place in Nanaimo to get anything close to traditional Italian was Little George’s, so I was excited to discover an Italian eatery so close to home.

Cucina di Casa, previously the Grapevine Trattoria on Wesley street, is a (relatively) new Nanaimo restaurant specializing in Italian cuisine. The name, promisingly, means “home cooking” in Italian and I’m a BIG fan of traditional home cooked Italian cuisine so I was really looking forward to rockin’ a little lunch at il ristorante.

It was lunchtime when we arrived, and the Casa was casa-non-grata save for a single family seated across the room from us. The first thing that stood out for me (aside from the wrinkled tablecloth) were the menus. They offered a nice selection of dishes priced between $10 and $13 with a nice variety of pasta dishes, panini and other Italian classics. I opted for the polpetta (meatball) sandwich with a side of… fries? Not really traditional, but I do like a good fried potato so what the heck.

Food came quickly and didn’t disappoint. The meatballs were well spiced and cooked perfectly. Juicy, fresh tomatoes, onion, garlic and Italian spice adorned my sandwich along with a smattering of savoury red sauce. Not so much as to drown the meatballs, but just enough to add a bit of extra flavour.

Fries were quite tasty, crispy and seasoned to perfection, though I feel they could have used another minute in the fryer.

After thoroughly demolishing my sammich, I found myself desperately wanting for an espresso. Sadly, I managed to pick the day that the machine would explode. It’s like the song says, you can’t always get what you want – but if you try sometimes, you might find, you get what you need.

And that I did. While Cucina di Casa isn’t a traditional Italian diner as much as it’s a restaurant that serves Italian food – the service was adequate, the food was fantastico, and I’ll definitely be going back to try more. You should too, it’s totally buona.

Food or Fail rating: Food

May 19, 2011

Cucina di Casa – Alex’s Review (aka “She said”)

by SheSaid

I used to enjoy the Grapevine Trattoria in the Heritage Mews so walking into its new incarnation, Cucina di Casa, was like a flashback, bathed in a cream-coloured makeover with the same tables, chairs, and  layout exactly the same save for the fresh cream textiles.  The menu layout is strong, clean (is that Helvetica?) with a reasonable (read: not too large) choice
of the usual suspects for an Italian restaurant at lunchtime.  The price point is also good for the Nanaimo market ($10-15 range or $15-$25 for dinner).

The panino of bocconcini, prosciutto, tomato and lettuce with a side of mixed greens catches my eye.  Yes, it’s tasty.  Very tasty.  But I’m perplexed that it’s only grilled on one side.  In fact, the top piece of focaccia is toasted while the bottom is raw.  So I ask our waitress, “Is it supposed to be grilled on both sides?”  She answers, “No, it’s only grilled on one side.”  Which leads me to The Panini Thing:

1) Note: the oft-used term “panini” is actually the plural form of sandwich in Italian.  The appropriate term here, for a/my single sandwich, is “panino”.

2) I asked an actual Italian and apparently panini, when grilled, are customarily grilled on both sides.  A quick online search didn’t yield a single panini press with just one grill-plate.  Don’t have a panini press?  Grill one side then flip it and do the other.  (Suggestion of the same actual Italian).  Think about it: would you have a grilled cheese sandwich that was grilled on just one side?  No, you would flip it.  (That one’s from the wife of the actual Italian).

For a quiet Monday lunchtime (read: one other table) the service is actually pretty lackadaisical.  Hypothesis: the waitress, confronted with such an effortless shift, slipped into a mindset where she actually forgot she was working at all.  That said, she was friendly and we got what we needed without a long wait.

Notwithstanding the Grill Fail, I enjoyed that panino and cleaned my plate.  It won’t be a hard sell to get me back there for dinner but I’ll probably stick to the pasta.

Food or Fail rating: Food

May 10, 2011

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

by HeSaid

We arrive at the Modern Cafe on the busiest night Nanaimo has seen in a year. Cruise ships, concerts and prom night have collided in a perfect storm of hippies, hipsters and boisterous wannabe bar-stars.

After a period of waiting in the entryway (perhaps they want to let us absorb the ambiance) we’re seated at small booth near the entrance.

It’s my wont to refer to front-of-house staff as servers instead of waitresses. Not tonight. Tonight, the term “waitress” takes on a whole new meaning for me while “server” loses any it had.

I leaf through a menu of standard west coast surf & turf. Pasta, prawns, steak, haddock…

Wait a sec… haddock? Isn’t haddock the crap they use in Captain Highliner’s fish sticks? (it is). I figure that the world must be out of halibut and cod and move on.

When our waitress (who I will call “Shannon”) shows up, it’s to tell me that they don’t have the pale ale I’ve selected. Good news though, they just got back from a sweet kegger and have some leftovers that I might enjoy.

I pick the lesser of two evils. From then on, it’s a long night of watching and waiting while Shannon performs a ballet of avoidance, going out of her way to ignore us at every opportunity. I remark that I may not be cool enough and suggest throat-punching a hipster and stealing their scarf to see if it helps.

Shannon finds time to bring us a single pint and glass of water to share. We remind her that we’re both thirsty and send her back for the remainder of our order. She returns (eventually) and with a twinge I order the $15 hamburger.

You should assume at this point that there was a lot of waiting in between when we ordered and when the food arrives. When it does arrive it’s impressively huge. A voice across the table remarks, “How am I gonna fit my mouth around that?” Insert obvious punchline.

The burger is good. Really good. $15 good. The beef is well flavoured, evenly cooked, and appropriately saucy with healthy portions of fresh veg and stringy mozza. The fries are just how I like ’em.

I eagerly devour my meal with the grace of a komodo dragon, put my napkin down on my plate and push it off to the side. Shannon walks by the table, deftly ignoring my empty plate and pint glass. She does this 15 more times, and would have again if another staffer hadn’t taken it away.

The Modern continues to morph into a 20 something martini bar while the upscale eatery I wanted disappears disappointingly into the rising volume of a bad iPod playlist. Does that make me old? Maybe. What it doesn’t make me is a returning customer.

Food or Fail rating: Fail

May 10, 2011

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

by SheSaid

Wow. That’s pretty much the start and the end of it for me: wow. And not in a good way either.

I’ve never been blown away by the Modern Cafe but it was a new day, I liked what the new owner was doing with social media, and my heart was open. “We want you to have an unforgettable experience,” owner Scott Cooper says on the web site. Mission accomplished.

When we arrived on Saturday night the restaurant was still recovering from an earlier event; the staff, bar, and kitchen seemed visibly shattered before dinner service even began. The place was humming with no shortage of bodies on the floor, yet none seemed interested in what was happening at the door. Where we stood. And stood (a trend I noticed that evening.) When we were finally seated the hostess (?) dropped (yes dropped) our menus on the table and showed us her back.

It would be another ten minutes before we saw our waitress. We tried to order beers from the menu but they weren’t available so we waited some more and then received only one pint of what they did have. I did manage to get a glass of water though.

The menu–which we had no shortage of time to study–was standard West Coast fare. Already my confidence was shaken, and I didn’t want to chance a $20+ plate, so I opted for the burger. It came with french fries and fried potato products seldom disappoint.

We waited some more.

Now let’s get this out of the way: it was a very good burger with visible garlic, stringy mozzarella and bacon (not too crisp) with fresh vegetables and a nice thick patty, cooked evenly all the way through. “How am I going to get my mouth around this?”, I wondered aloud (yes, the joke writes itself). Our meal was tasty, the fries hand-cut and crispy. I managed to finish the whole thing but just barely.

Oh, the things we witnessed: hostess with back to customers at the door, waitress chatting at the bar (instead of taking our order), other customers’ expectant gazes, craving service. Our waitress would reveal herself to be a master of intentional-gaze-avoidance, striding past empty plates and glasses with nary a look. It was truly something to behold, this exercise in negligence.

After almost two hours we couldn’t wait to get out: the music was loud, the chatter overpowering, and our irritation palpable. As good as that burger was I won’t be forgetting not to go back. There are other good burgers in this town. And if I want crappy service I can get on the phone with Telus.

Food or Fail rating: Fail

April 21, 2011

Nori Japanese Restaurant – Sean’s Review (aka “He said”)

by HeSaid

We walk through the doors of Nori to a chorus of cheers from the sushi bar. I get the feeling that they’re excited to cook for us, one I’m about to realize was probably delirium caused by mild hypoglycemia.

The first thing I notice at our table is the metal chopsticks. The second thing I notice is a bit of mung on one of them. I’m not sure if it’s food or a booger. I ponder it before wiping it off.

The green tea they bring is tasty. It’s also, sadly, lukewarm. I find their inability to heat water disconcerting but decide to chalk it up to apathy rather than incompetence.

Nori has a great selection of bento boxes priced between $9 and $12. I put in an order of gyoza and a beef teriyaki box.

The miso arrives. It’s tasty enough, but it lacks the complexity of flavour I’ve found in other miso. The giant metal spoon is a definite turn-off; something I’d expect from a greasy diner, not a traditional Japanese eatery.

The gyoza come with an unfamiliar dipping sauce. They’re small, and stale, and I’m starting to wonder if maybe I’m getting somebody’s leftovers. Just as I’ve choked back a couple of dumplings, the boxes arrive tableside.

The bento boxes at Nori are huge, awkwardly so. I hate feeling crowded when I eat so I quickly force down the rest of the gyoza to make room on the table. I scoop up the meager portion of wasabe and dump it into my soya dish. It’s at this point that I really regret the metal chopsticks. As I mix the wasabe paste, it sounds like Freddy Krueger is dragging his claws down a chalkboard.

The teriyaki beef tastes of shame and dishonour. I drown it in soya sauce and cram it in my maw with a lack of enthusiasm I usually reserve for breakfast cereal and cheezy puffs. The California roll is less like sushi and more like Elmer’s glue rolled in papiermâché. The tempura is greasy and hard to eat. Each bite of my bento box is another step down the road of disappointment.

Nori does very well on Urban Spoon, but I think those people probably haven’t eaten at other Japanese restaurants. Unless they threaten sepuku, I won’t be going back anytime soon.

Food or Fail rating: Fail

April 21, 2011

Nori Japanese Restaurant – Alex’s review (aka “She said”)

by SheSaid

Walking through the doors at Nori we’re greeted with the classic shouts of “Irasshaimase!” from the chefs behind the counter (actual Japanese.  Good sign.)  It’s a nice enough looking space, traditionally sparse with an interesting detail: the chopsticks on the table are some sort of metal (kinda slippery).  Auditory ambiance takes the form of adult/contemporary with a bit of light jazz.  All in all, it’s an exercise in contradictions, like most of the ethnic food in town.

The tagline at the bottom of the lunch menu promises “the most entertaining and attentive service possible.”  This promise, sadly, will be broken.

We arrive well after the lunch rush so, in the absence of rush, the energy in the place is downright slack.  Granted, our tea was served immediately and the miso soup followed quickly after we ordered but that’s where it ended.  From the rest of the service to the food to the clearing up and presenting the bill, I didn’t feel particularly attended to nor entertained.

The Gomae appetizer was adequate, a little green mound reminiscent of something from Ghostbusters (okay, that’s Sean’s joke).  It was a little colder than I like but otherwise the highlight of my meal.  The spinach is just a vehicle for the sesame paste sauce anyway so it’s a hard dish to screw up.

Normally I love a bento box: food tucked away in little compartments appeals to my Virgo sensibilities.  There were the usual suspects: green salad with sweet sesame dressing, vegetable tempura, a deep fried gyoza, four-piece California Roll, and four pieces of nigiri (salmon, tuna, ebi, snapper) for the main.  The tempura, a little greasy, was mostly sweet potato, and we had to ask for the dipping sauce which wasn’t much to speak of anyway.  The sushi roll was somehow grainy (?!)  On the up-side, the salad was great – I always love the green salad.

I have yet to eat a really good Japanese meal in Nanaimo.  Being from Vancouver, I guess I was spoiled by plentiful quantities of some of the best sushi in the world.  I’d heard that Nori was great, “the best in town”.  I don’t doubt that it is.  I think I’ll save my Japanese cravings for the mainland in the future.

Food or Fail Rating: Fail

April 14, 2011

Food or Fail

by HeSaid

Do you ever wonder who has the best pizza in Nanaimo?

I do.  I also wonder who has the best burger.  I wonder where I can get a good plate of Chinese food.  I wonder who’s sushi is ichi.

Some might say it’s a matter of taste,  I don’t think it is.  And I’m gonna prove it.

One restaurant at a time, I’m going to try them all.  Upscale eateries and down-and-dirty diners.  With the lovely Alex at my side, we’re going on a foody’s dream tour of the Island’s eateries to discover, once and for all, who’s cuisine reigns supreme.

As we eat, we’re gonna pass some righteous judgement.  Each stop will be evaluated and ranked based on arbitrary criteria that might include the colour of the carpets, the server’s haircuts, a lack of meat on the menu or whether they have any foursquare deals.

In the end, each will receive either a food or a fail.  There’ll be some best ofs, some worst ofs and a whole lot of in-betweens.

During our dining adventure, we’d like it if you joined us for the ride.  Follow us on twitter for real-time updates during our outings at twitter.com/foodorfail and make sure to check back here regularly for our reviews of food gone by and those yet to come.

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