Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Aji Taro

Aji Taro used to be one of my favourite restaurants.  My friends, family and I have experienced countless birthdays there, a lot of laughs, even more drunken debauchery than any of us can remember, and we closed the place down 90% of the time.  I started going there about 12 years ago when I used to work for Canadian Airlines Cargo.  It was the graveyard shift that brought me there, one of the few places that still took orders at about 1 in the morning.  Open till two, we would somehow find the time to drive into town for a couple of california rolls (or in my case, a variety of my favourite nigiri sushi).  The head sushi chef there was a really nice Japanese oji-san.  Whenever I sat at the bar, I didn't have to order.  He knew my order, or he would make me something he knew I'd like.  I'd sit down and start to look at the menu and with a wave of his hand in front of his face, he would mumble a few words in Japanese and start making stuff for me.  This was something I never experienced before and only heard about such practices years later, long after he left Aji Taro.

It was under different management then, before the onset of all-you-can-eat-fever that took over many Japanese restaurants.  The owner of Aji Taro was the same as Thai House and Samba's.  Back then, there were still standards.  It's really quite sad to see what Aji Taro has devolved to, just another slop-house with an all-you-can-eat-menu and extremely low standards.  I saw this coming, when Aji Taro was sold and the new owners decided on adding the all-you-can-eat menu.  It was overwhelming at first because during this transition, the chefs tried to maintain the same level of quality, and you could say that it swelled in popularity.  It was almost impossible to to get a seat there, especially after 10pm (when the late night menu started).  It was always packed,

Over the years, Aji Taro underwent a few more changes in ownership, the original staff moved on to other restaurants and the Aji Taro was a mere shadow of it's former self.  My long time friend and manager was probably one of the last remaining staff and even she decided to call it quits last year.  She was a bright, happy girl when she started off as a waitress over ten years ago, always smiling and always cheerful, but like in many poorly managed companies, she was slowly demoralized.  The only time she could muster a smile was when she saw a familiar face.  Overworked and underpaid, she left Aji Taro along with my only excuse to go there.

Out of sheer curiosity, and a little boredom, I dropped by Aji Taro earlier this year and was truly, truly disappointed.  It was around 10pm (the start of late-night), there was no line-up, and the restaurant was maybe at 50% capacity.  I didn't recognize a single face amongst the staff.  Anyway, the pictures here will speak for themselves, but I guess it couldn't hurt to add a few comments.
The ebi sunomono used to be pretty decent - the noodles held together, weren't too chewy, weren't too brittle, the (soup?) was tasty - not overwhelmingly sour or sweet like some other places.  The taste this time still was overall the same, except where the hell was the ebi?  Seriously?  Just one miniscule ebi that was no bigger than a dime?  That was pretty bad, even for all-you-can-eat standards.
The shime saba wasn't that bad, but as you see in the picture, that's how it was served...off to the side, and tossed in front of us.  Not pictured here was the black cod, which used to be another really good dish.  Oh, I wish I had a picture of that because it wasn't excatly grilled.  With the amount of oil that it was swimming in, I would hazard a guess that it was either deep-fried or just cooked in way too much oil, soaking in a pile of other servings.
Okay, here's one of the main reasons I'm even bothering to write anything about Aji Taro.  When you order something at all-you-can-eat places now, one order is ONE PIECE????   When we got our order sheet, we had no idea that one order meant one peice.  So, not wanting to go overboard on the first round, we chose just that, one order of a lot of things.  One piece.....that's what we got per dish - one piece. 

One piece of gyoza.
One piece of shishamo.
One piece of agedashi tofu.
I started seeing the kaki motoyaki start coming in the egg tart trays a few years ago at Tomokazu and thought to myself what an all-new low.  I thought that this is why people have such low expectations of Tomokazu unlike Aji Taro - at least they still serve their oysters baked on the half-shell.  Well, here it is folks, Aji Taro has joined the other lemmings -  the oysters were diced bits of larger whole oysters, (probably of the frozen variety), swimming in some cheap rendition of Japanese mayonaise, and served in the lovely tin tray you see above.  If you're going this far with a dish, you may as well throw all the food into a trough and take away the utensils too.
The salmon and tuna nigiri sushi is the mainstay of most all-you-can-eat Japanese food, if these items aren't on your menu, forget it.  But as these two items are one of the most poular (along with California rolls), they are mass-produced.  Not visible in this picture is a demonstration of the sheer laziness of the chef.  I'm sorry, I shouldn't say that.  It's not necessarily the chef's fault because they do need to cope with the unusally high-demand of these particular items.  A lot of factors are to blame here - the management/owners who have lowered themselves and their standards to produce such food, the populace who are inherently too cheap to eat quality food, and the chefs themselves for delivering such fodder.  Anyway, back to the salmon and tuna nigiri - these items were mass produced and sitting en masse in a tray, and kept moist only by a filthy, minging looking blue cloth that most other restaurants use to scrub their filthiest pots. Needless to say that when I noticed this, it was too late and I already ate several pieces. *blurgh*
The standard issue California rolls and dynamite rolls.  We got a lot of end-pieces, or at least what looked like end-pieces.

I had a lot of fond memories of the old Aji Taro, and it really pains me to write about what it has become.  It is always my dream that the original owner will buy it back and return it to it's original glory, but years of bad management and a few food inspections due to rats have degraded my once-favourite eatery to something that makes me cringe everytime I drive by.  It's hard to describe the feeling, but I guess the closest analogy would be an old flame of yours who you once cherished and is now on East Hastings selling themselves for crack.

Aji Taro on Urbanspoon

Seawall Bar and Grill

A few months ago, I got the chance to sample some of the food at the Westin Bayshore's Seawall Bar and Grill.  I wouldn't really describe it as pub food as it was a bit more upscale, but it would be hard to classify this place as a steak and seafood joint.
My current favourite drink - Chivas Regal 12 years.
We ordered a crab dip that doesn't appear on their current menu....maybe it was a special.  It was really good, but we should have ordered two...there just wasn't enough to go around for 5 people.
I forgot the name of this dish, but it's also defintely not on the current menu either.  I think it was some sort of manila clam carbonara.  I tried some and damn.  It was really good.  The sauce was out of this world, rich and creamy, but not head-spinning oily or anything.  The clams were a really nice touch.
I ordered the Char Grilled Sirloin Steak ($35) which was pretty good.  The presentation was well done and to this day, I look at the pictures and it makes me want to go back.
The scallop potatoes were tender with a crisp coating, the veggies (broccolini?) were cooked to perfection and the sauce was perfect.
There's only one beef I had with my steak......unfortunately it was overcooked.  I asked for blue rare and it came medium-well.  It still tasted good, and it really had the potential to be a perfect steak, but overcooked is overcooked.  I'd still like to try again sometime and have them cook it right, because everything that came with the steak was incredibly good.

Aside from the overcooked steak, my experience with Seawalll Bar and Grill was incredibly good.  The service was really good there.  Actually, it was out of this world.  I told them that I was quite happy with the meal, despite overcooking my steak, but they comped it anyway.  The staff at Seawall were very professional, but personble and friendly at the same time.  They went out of their way to make us comfortable, and for that reason alone, I'd go back. 

Their current menu is listed here.

Seawall Bar & Grill on Urbanspoon

Milestone's (Yaletown)

Since Milestone's in Richmond closed down, I haven't been able to get my fix for their Four Cheese Burger.  I had to make the trek out to Vancouver and decided to have a go with the Yaletown one.
Baked Goat Cheese and Slow-Roasted Garlic Flatbread Plate.  This is an excellent starter and a nice alternative to my other favourite - Spinach and Artichoke Dip (below).  The goat cheese had a lot of it's gaminess (is that even a word???) take out through the baking process, but retained a lot of good flavour and was still rich and creamy.  The half bulb of garlic was also great.  Again, the slow roasting took the bite out of it, but left all the good flavours intact.  The first time I had garlic prepared this way was in an izakaya in Shinjuku.  I've tried to make it myself but always botch it.
The Spinach and Artichoke Dip, one of my favourite starters from Milestone's and when in a group, always ordered.
Thai Chicken Drummettes.  Someone in our group wanted to try this, but the next time I want Thai or any Asian inspired food, I'll stick with Thai House.
Yam Fries....everyone's got them.
I still don't have a decent picture of my favourite burger, but here it is.  The Four Cheese Burger with a side Caesar salad.  The've got that slow-roasted garlic in there for good measure, and let me tell you folks, it makes the burger, it makes the salad.  One of the best Caesar Salads in my opinion. 
The Kobe Beef Meat Loaf, just as good as the Richmond location, but again, in all honesty regular beef could probably be subbed in and no one would be able to tell.  Frankly, I think it's criminal  to take Kobe Beef and make ground beef out of it.
The California Spring Salad.  It's not exactly my cup of tea to order a salad as an entree, but Milestone's has a whole section dedicated to folks that prefer it.  For me, it's a distraction....salad is what food eats.

Milestone's Yaletown has pretty good food as with other Milestone locations, but it is in a fancier part of town where even the air feels upscale and expensive.  The service however, was a bit of a miss.  I don't know if it was because it was date night (which basically meant it was two-for-one for the 4 of us who weren't on a date), or if it was because we were there near closing.  Our server was a bit argumentative with us and other servers were a bit curt, more interested in socializing with their friends who were visiting them or waiting for them to get off work. 

I don't find myself in Yaletown very often, but the next time I'm there, I think I'll give The Keg a try.  For Milestone's, I know the Robson one has really good service so I'll stick to that one.

Milestones Grill and Bar (Yaletown) on Urbanspoon

Matoi Sushi

For food court sushi, Matoi Sushi isn't bad.  It really is just a little bar in the corner of H Mart downtown.  Someone told me that Matoi Sushi maybe been Japanese owned at one time, but when I went, they were definetly not.
I ordered the chirashi don, as I often do when I go to a Japanese restaurant for the first time.
It came with a nice assortment along with the usual salmon, tuna and ebi.  Matoi Sushi's chirashi don comes with a bit of masago, a few pieces of large hotate (scallop) and tako.  The pieces were fairly large, but still slightly frozen. 
My friend ordered some sort of spicy chirashi salad or something.  It came with a giant chili sauce squeeze bottle.  I don't remember if she said it was good or not.

This is another one of those places that I wouldn't go out of my way to return to, but if I was in the immediate area (ie shopping for Korean groceries) area and craving sushi, I may drop by.

Matoi Sushi on Urbanspoon

Monday, June 28, 2010

BBQ Pork Back Ribs

If you look far back enough, I talked about this awesome rib recipe I got off my friend Eric.  In turn, I think he got it from the executive chef at some famous restaurant in California.  Anyway, everytime I make ribs, it turns out slightly different because I don't follow the recipe exactly. 

Here are some of the ingredients I use.  Pork Back Ribs, or baby back ribs if you can find them, or if you have to, settle for whatever pork ribs are available.  This time I got lucky, I managed to get four racks of back ribs, but because they're smaller, four racks don't get you very far for a barbeque.

I got some potatoes, carrots, onions, tomatoes for a really tasty by-product of preparing my barbeque ribs.

First boil consists of water, a bit of oil (to keep the meat from sticking to the pot) and some salt.

After all the muck floats to the top (about 1/2 hour to 45 minutes), skim it off and take the ribs out of the water.

The ribs are pretty much clean of the nasty stuff, and it's time to prepare for the second boil.  At this point, I toss some butter into the pot along with a medium size onion chopped fine.  Cook it til the onion's just about melted.

Add water and pretty much whatever other seasoning you want and throw the ribs back in for about two and a half hours.


At this point, you can probably start mixing up whatever sauce you want to soak your ribs in.  I start off with a couple of spoonfuls of instant coffee and a bit of hot water, and loads of minced garlic.  The garlic could be almost 1/4 of the sauce.  Some Korean BBQ rib sauce recipes call for nearly 1/2.

Here's where I cheat.  My buddy Eric makes the base from scratch by cooking up tomatoes and an bunch of other stuff.  I simply use an BBQ Sauce, usually Kraft because it's a good neutral base, and I add all my other stuff to it.  Sesame oil is always a little nice, and some maple syrup or even Aunt Jamima's. 

Some chili oil to spice things up, but if you have chili sauce, it would be better. 

Some sesame seeds to give the whole thing a bit of a different texture, and sesame has a great taste that always compliments meat.

After the ribs are boiled, soak them in the sauce overnight.  Now you can start working with the the by-product of the ribs....soup.

Chopped potatoes, carrots, celery.

After taking the ribs out of the water, you end up with a very rich broth.  You can do all kinds of stuff with it like boil your rice in it, or save it to make a nice bowl of miso ramen, or you can do what I do - make soup.  This is what I ended up with after skimming the top of the broth.

Toss in all the chopped veggies and cook for a few more hours so and you've got yourself a really nice, flavourful soup.

Bacon-wrapped scallops, another common item on my BBQ menu.  I get the biggest scallops I can find, and wrap them with the fattiest bacon I can find....delicious.

Boxed garlic bread, surprisingly tasty and perfect for a BBQ.

A British Airways 747 flew overhead during our barbeque and I have to say that the Boeing 747 is still a damn fine looking plane.  Way better than the newer but uglier Airbus A380.  It's a shame that Air Canada did away with all of their own 747's and Canadian Airline's collection of '47s. 

Simon and his wife Lily - hosts of our little barbeque.  Thanks again!

Mushroom caps seasoned with a custom seasoning salt from my buddy Jay (actually, the recipe is from his dad and master chef - Alexander Wan).

The moon, shot freehand using the 26x optical zoon from a Nikon Coolpix P100.


Beef shortribs, prepared by Lily.  Absolutely delicious.

My pork ribs are held together only by the sauce that caramelizes on the outside during barbequing. 

The party's entertainment - Rob.  He left his clown costume at home.

The meat literally falls off the bone when you eat it. 

Here's a shot of the short ribs again.  Look at that nice creamy layer of fat near the bone.  When that part starts to sizzle, it's time to party.

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