As Dim Sum was (literally) not everyone’s cup-of-tea during our trip to Richmond and Vancouver and the phrase “Chinese dumplings and noodles are not breakfast” was heard more than once a number of additional stops would be made to a variety of pastry shops and patisseries as well as one ‘Normal’ breakfast…and of course never being one to turn down a great croissant, cannel, or pancake I certainly cannot say that I was opposed to any of these suggestions, even if they were immediately following a dim sum breakfast or lunch and even if I still wasn’t feeling 100% for our first two days in Canada.
Beginning on day one in Vancouver after a long walk around Granville Island the first stop on our brief tour of local European pastries would be at Thomas Haas on West Broadway – a small shop with a long line and an open baking and chocolate making kitchen that would give us plenty of time to evaluate our decisions while equally being entertained – a decision that would prove exceedingly difficult with each confection dreamed up by the German born Haas whose extensive training has led him across Europe and North America including a stint as the opening pastry chef at Daniel in New York City.
Finally reaching the front of the line after approximately twenty minutes and placing our orders we were told it would be “just a couple of minutes” to prepare our beverages and with no seating to be found in the small café we simply stood at a central bar and waited while addressing our pastries, two of which were still warm and all but one – a single macaron out of three – would prove well worth the wait.
Beginning first with the aforementioned macarons, three selections were made and sticking with the classics we tasted Pistachio, Chocolate, and Caramel – the first two with a crisp shell giving way to a melting interior while the third appeared to have been on the shelf just a little too long leading to a slight ‘gumminess’ to the filling within.
Moving next to one of the prepared desserts, my aunt’s Almond Mascarpone Cake would prove to be an intoxicating three-layered napoleon with smooth mascarpone whipped with pastry cream tucked in between still-crisp layers of an almond biscuit and dusted with cocoa. Somewhere between a tiramisu without the espresso and a chocolate-almond torte this was a great bite despite its weighty pricetag and only improved by the high quality Americano with deep cocoa notes that I’d ordered to go with my selection.
Having mentioned the warm selections already my sister opted for a “Pullapart Brioche” largely based on the fact that it had just emerged from the oven but also because it was complimented with caramelized fruits and somewhat akin to Monkey Bread but substantially more nuanced this flaky roll would prove perfect with ample notes of butter and egg but also a subtle sweetness peaked by the fruit and sugar dusting.
Last but not least and certainly the most ‘expected’ order of the group, a warm Double Baked Almond Croissant would be my prize and featuring a crunchy exterior that shattered giving way to a dense and buttery interior I cannot say it was the most delicate croissant I’ve ever tasted, but with a light touch of frangipane holding the sliced pastry together and a topping of almonds and crunchy cooked frangipane I can say it was one of the most flavorful – nearly on par with those at Nouveau in Seattle despite being $1 more expensive and slightly less nuanced but worth trying just the same.
Moving on to our second day in Vancouver, New Year’s Day 2012 to be precise, and feeling immensely better than the day before I woke early for the gym and once I finally motivated the others to get up and moving we made our way to Granville Street for brunch at Twisted Fork Bistro – a restaurant that many consider to be the best brunch in the city and a restaurant often sporting long lines even before they unlock the doors, particularly at brunch.
Apparently the offspring of the once highly praised Wood Restaurant in Fernie (about half-way to Calgary from Vancouver) and featuring a large menu of locally sourced goods at both dinner and weekend brunch there is really no explanation needed for Twisted Fork Bistro’s popularity and despite our best efforts we arrived thirty minutes after the doors had opened to find a line – a reported 45 minute wait before we would be seated – and a small space to wait inside as others lined up and waited in the cold behind us. Chatting with the man behind the bar as well as the hostess/barista as we waited we were asked if we would like coffee and with three of us assenting to the offer we were provided a large French press with a thick earthy brew and great mouthfeel that would be refilled thrice during the course of the morning without extra charge.
Browsing the room as we waited – woody, warm, and still decorated with hundreds of individual ornaments suspended from the ceiling for Christmas – the crowd at Twisted Fork was certainly an eclectic one with groups ranging from two to eight and teens to septuagenarians of all races and although the noise level was energetic it was never truly loud even as the coffee machines whirred and the open kitchen produced its expected sounds. Comfortable and cozy with the depth of the room far exceeding its width and pillows, jars of jam, and black + white photographs decorating the walls I have to say I really liked the feel of the restaurant and although I was hungry and don’t much fancy waiting in lines I understood while people chose to linger…the free coffee refills alone would have justified it for me…and with surprising accuracy we were seated after forty minutes while the line behind us had grown to around twenty with waits for pairs reaching forty minutes while groups of four creeped into the hours.
Seated finally in the back of the room and having already drank a number of mugs of coffee while studying the menu it would not be long before we were greeted by our server, a perky young lady named Hilary and with glasses of water poured and a tall orange juice ordered by my aunt I asked if we could order right away to which she was quite agreeable although somewhat aggravating in overzealously complimenting each and every choice.
With orders placed to include a couple of appetizers it was surprising that the small kitchen could produce such a variety of food so quickly but literally within ten minutes of seating our first two items would arrive hot and fresh including a pair of Asiago Scones with Butter and Roasted Pepper Jam and two thick slices of Banana Bread with Butter and Quince Jam. Beginning first with the scones, each was nice and toothsome with pockets of both butter and cheese juxtaposed against a semi-sweet background nicely accented by the jam – a bit hot, but more so sweet. Moving next to the Banana Bread, a textbook example with molasses, walnuts, and cinnamon aplomb but just a bit dry for my liking – a problem solved by the butter and jam, a particularly sweet puree that was so good I’d have certainly bought a jar to take home had we not been flying in the post-9/11 era of liquid restrictions.
With the appetizers long gone and the coffee refilled once again it would be just under thirty minutes after seating that our main plates would arrive and having seen each ordered by tables around us we knew we had our work cut out for us as portions were sizable to say the least. Beginning first with my aunt’s selection, always one to opt for sweet over savory, the “Banana Stuffed Brioche French Toast sprinkled with cinnamon icing sugar and a side of whipped cream and maple syrup” would arrive as three enormous slices of rich bread laced with cream cheese, overly ripe bananas, and cinnamon with fruit and the whipped cream on the side. Not one to fancy maple syrup my aunt delved into this plate with the whipped cream and fruit only to declare it as “okay, but not very sweet” despite complimenting the bread and knowing that she would never finish such a portion on her own a small side plate was requested and taking one of the three slices for myself along with some whipped cream I will note that although the flavor of the toast itself was a little tame, the addition of maple syrup helped substantially.
Moving on to the savories as there were no other sweets on the menu my mother’s selection would prove the least successful of the group as “Well done Gruyere Baked Eggs with Sourdough Toast, Bacon, Rosti, and Baked Beans” would arrive in a small crock topped with bubbling cheese and lovely sourdough but eggs that had not been broken or blended thus leading to some areas of pure white and others of just yolk creating a heterogeneous admixture that simply did not work (though I will note the rosti, beans, bacon, and tomatoes were all quite nicely prepared.)
For my sister, the “Bacon, Caramelized Onion, and Brie Frittata filled with plum tomatoes, fresh oregano, fresh greens, and sweet corn relish” would prove a successful if not exciting option as the large omelet was golden on the exterior and creamy within as specks of crunchy bacon dotted the landscape for both taste and texture. Tasty and naturally sweet with the greens kissed by a light vinaigrette I will note that the corn relish was not appreciated by any of us as it was much too sour for breakfast (or dinner, really.)
For my selection, a choice I’d have made even if there were pancakes or something else sweet on the menu, the “Croque Monsieur with Brioche, Gruyere, and Ham with Fresh Greens and House Tomato Sauce” would prove to be the best item of the morning and easily weighing in at a half pound I was stunned by the bread to meat/cheese ratio and even more impressed by the fact that the buttery brioche was not only stuffed with melting Gruyere but also topped with caramelized crunchy cheese as well. With the ham plenty briny and not the least bit stringy or ‘wet’ as the crisp salad lent a bit of acid to the plate another star of this dish was actually the tomato sauce – somewhere between rich creamy tomato soup and a true pasta sauce it was nice on the sandwich but far better by the spoonful.
Again sitting and drinking coffee while planning the rest of our day Hilary would once again return all rainbows and butterflies and asking if we would like anything else (including yet another refill of coffee which I grudgingly declined) the check was delivered with a “whenever you’re ready” while plates were cleared. Knowing of the line and deciding not to linger as we had more than enough sites to see and things to do it would not be long before the bill was paid and making our way back through the now even more crowded waiting area we thanked the hostess and made our way to the street where the line now topped twenty. A nice place with good food I cannot say whether or not they are the “best” brunch in Vancouver as it was the ONLY brunch we had in Vancouver, but all things being equal I also cannot say that I’d ever wait more than twenty minutes for Twisted Fork Bistro again because really, a good breakfast just isn’t that tough to find.
With a late noodle lunch at Michigan Noodle and other bites in between we eschewed our dinner plans on New Year’s Day and again ended up with French Pastries in an overly crowded locale, this time at Thierry in the trendy Downtown shopping area featuring the likes of Gucci, Ferragamo, and Louis Vuitton amongst others. With options limited due to the holiday but seating and parking limited even at 8:30pm when we arrived I can only say that what followed, in all ways, was nothing more than average and overpriced.
Billing itself as a “modern café elegantly designed to evoke the Parisian sentiments of Chef Thierry’s native France” I have to say the décor at Thierry was quite nice from the exterior and on entering we were greeted by large globe lights suspended from the ceiling like tear-drops, wood tables, plethoric displays of chocolates and candies, and large display cases filled with nicely arranged items all around – all of it very much like Fauchon Paris but minus the charm and the quiet as espresso machines hummed and the jam packed café presented a veritable shouting match of couples trying to be heard.
Undeterred by the cacophony and with a single two-top that seemed to be clearing my aunt and I approached the counter while my mother and sister procured a table and with a request to “just order whatever you like and we’ll share” we took to the task of making our selections – four pastries, four macarons, and three drinks that would be prepared, plated, and poured quite quickly and left to our own balancing act and navigational skills to return to our table through the 2-3 inch spaces between tables.
Beginning first with a trio of beverages my first taste of Thierry would be an awful one in the form of the single worst Americano I have ever tasted – a double shot that one could have added a half cup of sugar to and still found profoundly bitter, acidic, and unpalatable – a drink so bad that I actually returned it for a refund and opted for water instead. Fairing slightly better, my sister’s $9 Bailey’s and Coffee at least acted to temper the acidity with the smoothness of the Bailey’s while my Aunt’s $7 Liquid Drinking Chocolate would prove by far the best beverage of the three with subtle fruity notes coming through on the palate and light caramel tones detectable on the tongue of a glass so large it was easily shared by the four of us and would have likely been far too much for one.
Moving on to the pastries we started with a quartet of macarons in the interesting flavors of Pumpkin, Chestnut, Gingerbread, and Key Lime Macaron but unfortunately whether it was due to the late hour or to their method of preparation each was far too pasty and gummy to be truly memorable save for the Chestnut which tasted every bit its namesake with light notes of smoky sweetness and a creamy filling that tasted like chestnut pudding condensed.
Moving on to the larger composed desserts and knowing my mother’s love of lemon I ordered her a slice of the Lemon Tarte and although generally not my favorite dessert this version would actually prove to be the best thing we had all night at Thierry with the light lemon curd providing plenty of sweet to balance the sour and a light milky mouthfeel that complimented the buttery shortbread crust.
Moving next to my selection, the Baba Savarin I was part surprised and part disappointed in this presentation for largely unrelated reasons. Beginning first with the pastry, a well crafted baba with a spongy interior soaked to the core with simple syrup juxtaposing light and mild cream, the dish got off to a great start but where it lacked was largely in my expectation – the expectation that a proper baba should include at least some note of liquor while this particular version seemingly had none, instead adding just a touch of nuance with hints of citrus and a touch of candied tangerine. Good, sure. $6 good, not even close.
For the final tastes of the evening – both chocolate and ordered by my sister and aunt respectively – the “Chocolate Trio – white, dark and milk chocolate mousse” and “Chocolate Succe – hazelnut meringue, chocolate mousse and 70% chocolate ganache” would both prove to be alright but somewhat expected – the first a sort of mousse layer cake with various cocoa tones throughout and a crisp chocolate tuille atop and the second something like an unfrozen Klondike bar replacing the ice cream with meringue and the same mousse as the trio. Respectable, but nothing to write home about when the bill came out at more than $60 to sit four people at a two top while listening to the girls next to us gossip about facebook.
With a forgettable visit to the Blenz Coffee on Robson Street providing a quick caffeine fix on day three of Vancouver but the rest of the day focused on Chinese, Cambodian, and Indian cuisine our last pasty experience in Vancouver would be on the day of our departure – breakfast at Faubourg Paris, a small patisserie and cafe in Kerrisdale where unlike Thierry the ambiance truly is Parisian not just in looks but in service and style. Bright, modern, pleasant, and served up with lingering notes of butter in the air and servers (including the owner himself) sporting hefty French accents I knew on entry that Faubourg was going to be the sort of place that spoke to me – and that was before we even saw the pastry case.
Greeted by both the owner and a young woman at the counter as we browsed the selections – many having just come off the bakers rack – my family deferred to my selections and with most of the options familiar I selected the things I knew we all loved along with a couple of novel selections and two Americanos plus a tea that were all plated individually, placed on trays, and carried to our table by the owner (he would also not allow me to bus my own table later on insisting “non, non, non, go and enjoy the day.)
Beginning first with the coffee, again watered down espresso but vastly more subtle than that at Thierry or Thomas Haas, the blend at Faubourg certainly isn’t going to win any awards but at the same time it was a nice morning cup that served its purpose and went well with the pastries – the first of which was a nicely crafted Pain aux Raisin with a soft and buttery crumb beneath a slightly crisp exterior flecked with large rocks of sugar and plump raisins – a nice changeup from the usual and particularly enjoyed by my aunt. Moving next to its tray-mate, my requisite order of an Almond Croissant would prove to be the first non-double-baked one of the trip but unfortunately it would also prove to be a bit uninspired with the exterior not quite crisp enough and the interior not quite wispy or open enough – almost as though it was undercooked, though I will say the taste was quite pleasant with butter and almond essence in good balance.
Moving next to the tray largely reserved for my mother and sister, the pairing of a Butter Croissant and a Pain au Chocolate would prove to be as classic as it gets and while the almond croissant did not meet my admittedly high standards both of these showed Faubourg’s skill with aplomb as a crisp golden shell crackled with each bite while the interiors of each remained light, cavernous, and loaded with buttery notes. Generally underwhelmed by Pain Au Chocolate as many seem to lack enough ganache I will additionally note that the version at Faubourg stood out both for the quality and quantity of the chocolate – two separate cores providing plenty of flavor without overwhelming the subtleties of the pastry.
For the final plate of the morning and our last bites of Vancouver a tray featuring a “Chocolate Twist” and a Cannele would provide a fitting end to a great trip as the twist would feature a similar golden exterior and soft buttery crumb to the Pain aux Raisin but up the ante by adding a creamy custard woven in and dark chocolate chips opposing the crunchy flecks of sugar. Not quite a croissant, not quite a Danish, almost like a pretzel, and an absolute must order. Moving next to the Cannele, in a word, perfect – a crunchy golden shell, a moist custard interior, plenty of eggy flavor tinged with butter, and just a bit of sweetness…a contender for the top 5 all time and a reason to head to Kerrisdale bright and early as there were only a dozen available when we arrived.