One of my favorite board games is Sequence, a game that uses a playing board with rows of playing card images. You can work in teams or play individually, and the goal of the game is to try to get rows of 5. This game involves a lot of strategy, but is simple enough for kids to play.

However, while the game is excellent, I'm not in love with the look of it. It lacks 'the pretty'. So I developed a new version of the game, using cards from the Loteria, a Mexican bingo game. I first came across these cards at the now defunct craft store Ruby Dog on Main St., and loved the images and the wonderful colours. So I made the first incarnation of Sequencia a few years ago, using just plain cardboard (you can learn Spanish words like 'Borracho'!). However, the original Sequencia board got pretty beaten up after a while (incidentally, because I was teaching ESL at the time, I also made an 'ESL' version of the game, which taught irregular verbs -- this was a great sucess!).

Recently I wanted to make a sturdier version of Sequencia. So I bought some Loteria packs from Xochico, got some foam board, and the decoupage glue Mod Podge. I mapped out the sequence of the original board game, and corresponded the Loteria cards to that, so the placement of the cards would be as accurate as possible. Then, I made work with glueing the cards with Mod Podge, and coated the whole board with 3 coats of Mod Podge. The result is a glossy and sturdy board. Nice.

The only thing I would change is that I would NOT use foam board again. It's best to go to the hardware store to get some wood boards for this. The foam board does wicked warping when it dries. I had to weigh my board out with heavy books, and it turned out okay.

Sequencia, any one?

Brasserie "L'ecole" - Victoria

We were in Victoria around the time of our anniversary, so we decided to splurge one night on a fine dining restaurant called "Brasserie L'Ecole". I was pretty excited, because I had heard that this French bistro was one of the best restaurants in Victoria. One thing to keep in mind about this restaurant is that they don't take reservations, and they don't have a set menu. Instead, there is a 'fresh sheet' everyday.

The restaurant itself is located in Chinatown. There is a very cool mural on the side of the building.

The restaurant itself was pretty small, and has your typical bistro feel - Toulouse Lautrec posters, red walls with dark wood trim.

Here was the day's fresh sheet (I know, I've been really slow to write about this).

I normally don't take pictures of bread, but I couldn't resist the cute little butter pot. The bread was good, though nothing spectacular.

For appetizer, we shared some Frites with Parmesan, garlic, parsley and truffle oil ($8). This was so good - the potatoes really tasted like potatoes (potatoey?), and the fries were exceptionally well seasoned. The garlic and the Parmesan really gave these potatoes a yummy savoury quality. The aioli that accompanied the frites was probably the best I've had, because it had a pronounced vinegar flavour which went especially well with the greasy fries. As you can see, the portion was huge. We were impressed.

Shane ordered the Boeuf Bourguignon with parsley potatoes ($22). The bowl came piled high with the stew. It looked really good. It tasted even better. The beef was cut in large chunks which were meltingly tender, and the dish had an incredible richness of taste. Everything about it--the texture, the seasoning, the flavours--were perfect. Shane was in heaven, and I was quite jealous.

Similarly inspired by reading 'My Life in France' by Julia Child (an excellent read, by the way), I got the Rock Fish Meuniere with vegetables ($23). For those of you that haven't read the book, 'Sole Meuniere' was the first dish Julia had in France, and it introduced her to the exciting, sensuous world of French cuisine. The rock fish, when it arrived, looked spectacular. The presentation was lovely. The fish was cooked nicely, with a nice sear on the edges. However, the fish was a little underseasoned, even with the addition of capers. It was also a little too greasy for me, though of course how could it not be, being fried in butter and all. But I guess in comparison with the robustly flavoured Boeuf Bourguignon, the fish really suffered.

However, the vegetables, which were served on the side, were really delicious and incredibly well cooked. It was the first time I had tried fiddleheads, and I really liked it (fresh, green tasting, with a subtle slippery texture). The veggies were the best part of the dish.

Check out this coffee presentation. It's cute, no?

Yes, we had dessert, even though we were really full. The creme brulee was very good, with a really thick crust yielding to the eggy goodness underneath. It didn't blow my mind, but it was a pretty nice ending.

Dining at the Brasserie was a very special experience. There was so much care put into the food, and you can't help but admire and appreciate that. I would definitely come back. For the Boeuf Bourguignon.


The Noodle Box - Victoria, Douglas St.

One evening, we were on our way to an event and decided to stop by The Noodle Box. We were curious about this place because it always seemed busy and popular. There is a Noodle Box restaurants in Vancouver, but there seems to be a great many more in Victoria.

The interiors are nice--modern, though a little generic.

Shane ordered the Spicy Peanut Box with pork ($11). One thing I can say about this place is that the portions are HUGE. Two people could easy share a dish and be stuffed. The noodles were actually pretty tasty, with a not too overpowering peanut flavour. The coconut milk added a nice richness to the dish. However, the problem with this dish is texture. It's a gloopy mess. Fried noodles are supposed to be a little crispy and chewy, not overcooked and dripping in gluey sauce, as this was. You would not find this on any street corner in Asia.

I'm not sure why I did it, but I went for the "Tom Yum" with Prawns ($11). Again, this was really big. But see the red oil slick at the top of the container? Let me assure you that it shouldn't be there. It was a little unappetizing. I taste the broth. It is fine. Not great, but fine. The weird addition is the noodles. Why would you do this? This is unheard of in Thailand. The noodles again were overcooked and emitted that white starchy flavour that just ruined the broth. However, I can say that they were tremendously generous with the shrimp. These were huge, plump and pretty delicious.

I wouldn't say that the food here is bad--actually in many aspects they provide tasty meals. However, don't come here looking for any authentic Southeast Asian dishes.

The Noodle Box on Urbanspoon

Pizzeria Prima Strada - Victoria

After reading Andrew Morrison on Vancouver's lack of authentic pizza, we put pizza on the list of things to eat in Victoria (also check out Foodosophy's informative review). Who can pass up Prima Strada's Neopolitan pizza and their authentic ingredients (including flour from Naples, local artisanal cheese, and house made charcuterie)?

We arrived during the lunch hour and the place was packed; however, we were lucky enough to get the last booth that was available. The decor of the place is clean, stylish and comfortable. Of course, the star of the space the large brick wood-fired oven in the middle of the restaurant. Apparently the temperature in the oven is about 700 degrees.

To start, we ordered the 'Antipasti Misti' ($13), which consisted of prosciutto, salumi, various cheeses, olives, chickpeas, nuts, and bread. Although we were a little disappointed by its size, the ingredients were stellar. The olives were especially good. Our only complaint was that it only came with three slices of bread. Really? That is not nearly enough bread to eat with the salty ingredients.

Our first pizza of choice was the Margherita ($14.50) which consisted of tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese from Fairburn Farms, basil and sea salt. The pizza was impressive. The dough was crispy yet soft at the same time, and the pizza had great flavour. The tomato sauce tasted very fresh, and the basil was especially good on the pizza.

The second pizza was the Rucola e Crudo ($16), which is tomato, parmigiano and mozzarella pizza topped with fresh prosciutto and arugula. This was great. The saltiness of the prosciutto and parmigiano gave the pizza great flavour, and the freshness and bite of the arugula contrasted nicely with the hot crust.

We thoroughly enjoyed this dining experience, and will definitely be back. You can definitely taste the care in preparation and the quality of the ingredients. Bravo!

Pizzeria Prima Strada on Urbanspoon

Pig BBQ Joint - Victoria

Pig BBQ Joint is literally a hole in the wall off View St. in Victoria, a small space with only a handful of seats. The decor is basic but pretty stylish, with a blackboard menu and a pretty cool sign. The restaurant claims to serve authentic Southern BBQ and smoked meat, so we were pretty curious to try it out on our last trip to Victoria.

First of all, we almost didn't go in because it was so dang small. To sit inside the restaurant you'd have to be up close and personal with the restaurant staff, and I didn't feel like doing much of that then. However, the smells of smoked pig drew us in.

First, we ordered the pulled pork sandwich, which, at a measly $5, was an amazing deal. Fitting with the theme of the restaurant, there were no plates, or baskets, or even paper--the food was served directly on their black plastic trays (however, the eco-friendly disposable wooden utensils were a nice touch). That weirdness aside, the sandwich was incredibly beautiful: a large soft bun stuffed to the hilt with meat topped by a red BBQ sauce. We weren't prepared for how good this tasted. The meat was the star--tender, incredibly well seasoned, and topped with a tangy and not too sweet sauce. The bun was soft and a great partner is absorbing all the meat juices. So, so good. The perfect sandwich. Ever.

We also ordered the special of the day, which was a rack of ribs with cornbread with thyme butter and beans ($13). This also came right on the tray, which was a little disconcerting. However the ribs were tender, flavorful, with a real deep to the bone smokiness. The sauce is amazing. The cornbread was a good, though a little dry (the sweet thyme butter is a nice touch). The beans were also tasty, with a medley of beans and vegetables to almost resemble a vegetarian chili.

However, the ribs paled in comparison to the pulled pork sandwich, even though it was great. It's like comparing a Vermeer painting to a work from a guy off the street or something. Or comparing heaven to purgatory. Or something like that. Utter perfection always makes everything else seem imperfect, no?

If you are ever in Victoria, this is a must visit. It is glorious meat. Don't bring your vegetarian friends here, of course. But this place would confirm your allegiance to the carnivorous side.

Pig BBQ Joint on Urbanspoon

Victoria Weekend

A week and a half ago, we went to Victoria for a literary event. We had a great time even though the weather was the proverbial 'Monkey's Birthday'.

We visited Miniature World, which is a place I dearly loved as a child. Even though I hadn't been back for over 20 years, the place was almost exactly the same. But I found myself attracted to the more historical/landscape scenes, rather than the doll houses.

Some of the models were pretty impressive.

Scenes from the Canadian countryside....

World War II airplanes....

We also took short walk in Beacon Hill Park. Although the park is right in the middle of the city, there was a feeling of wildness to it. So many beautiful wildflowers.

We stayed at the magnificent Magnolia Hotel. They upgraded us to a corner room on the top floor and the view was great. They had new robes which were incredibly plush and soft. I love hotel rooms.

Day / Night View from out the hotel window....
Reading corner

King-sized bed

We had a great weekend. Worth even the hours and hours of travel time.

Havana Cafe

The Havana has been around for years, and it's a mainstay of Vancouver. What's neat about the restaurant is that it houses both a gallery and theatre, which often feature local artists. The decor is pretty cool too, with that vintage, rusty and hip feel, with its picture frames hung askew and walls artfully covered in scratch graffiti ('scraffiti'?). One thing you will notice if you've ever visited or walked past the place is that the restaurant is always busy, and there almost always is a lineup. There is another thing the restaurant is known for, but I'll get to that later.

We came here for dinner before a show at the Cultch (formerly the Van East Cultural Centre), so we had some hours to kill. Surprisingly we were seated right away, even though the restaurant seemed pretty full.

For appetizer, we shared the Beef Taquitos ($10), which is braised beef, pickled cabbage, salsa, greens and sour cream atop small soft tortillas. We didn't expect much, but we were blown away. The meat was tender and flavourful and savoury, and was the best thing about the dish. The pickled cabbage was tasty and gave a nice contrast in both flavour and texture, but we found that there was too much of it. The salsa and sour cream seemed like an afterthought, and didn't add much to the whole experience on the plate.

For the main, Shane ordered the Media Noche ($14), which consisted of pulled pork, black forest ham, and swiss cheese. He chose the yam fries to accompany the sandwich. I took one bite of this, and all I could taste was the ham. Shane felt the same--he could barely taste the pulled pork. The yam fries, on the other hand, were stellar. At most places, when you order yam fries, it doesn't actually taste like yam, you know? But these babies tasted like yams--they were 'yammy'. Ahem.

I took a bit of a plunge by ordering the 'Spanish Paella' ($19), because Havana's food is not really Spanish or even totally Latin (look, if you have hamburgers, Jerk chicken and pasta on your menu, you're not exactly authentic, ok?). But paella is one of my favorite dishes, and it's a dish I never make at home because it requires a lot of time, ingredients, and special equipment. So I was tempted.

So how was it? I had a few issues.

1. It's not served in a paella pan. One of the best things about paella is the crispy rice crust at the bottom and edges of the pan.

2. The rice was soggy. Sadness. It was very wet, and there was a lot of liquid.

3. No saffron. As well as flavour, saffron imparts an angelic golden colour to paella.

4. It had coconut milk. I can understand being experimental with this, but this added nothing except for a distasteful flavour which was similar to the coating left on your tongue after you've drunk a glass of milk.

I was disappointed. Why put something like paella on the menu if you can't do it well?

Now, back to a really good thing about the restaurant, something that it's known for: the drinks. This is the darling mojito. I don't like alcohol, but I was surprised that I liked this drink. A lot. It was minty and lemony and fizzy. So good.

In fact, most of the tables around us had jugs of the stuff. That and jugfuls of sangria.

So our experience at Havana was mixed--really good appetizer and drinks, but a couple of entrees that were on the not-very-good side. Will we return? Yup. For the drinks and appies.

Havana Cafe on Urbanspoon

Safari Snack House

While we were in the Deer Lake Park area, we came across a small complex of restaurants and little grocery stores right on Canada Way near the entrance to Deer Lake. One of the restaurants was a place called Safari Snack House which advertised the "Best Samosas in Town". This piqued our curiosity, so we went in.

The place itself is not just a restaurant, but a mixture of retail, take out and catering space, with a few small tables for eating in. The atmosphere is lively and friendly, with locals stopping in, and large, colourful murals of zebras, giraffes and lions.

The menu items were pretty interesting, with many East African dishes with a touch on Indian influence. Almost all of the menu items were under $10.

We ordered the Kabab ($5.25 for 4), which were different from anything we've ever had. These were really tender balls of gound meat which were deep fried to a deep brown crispness. The meat was delicious and nicely spiced, and the chutney that came with it was a tangy and wonderful complement.

Next we had the vegetable samosas ($5.25 for 3). These didn't look too impressive when it arrived, but these were great. The pastry was particularly good and crispy, and the filling was corn, potato, and peas.
We also ordered Mogo ($5.95), which was a huge plate of spiced, thick cut cassava fries. We'd never had cassava fries before, and it was different from regular fries. The texture and taste vaguely resemble potatoes, but the cassava is much denser and has a sweeter undertone (though it's not sweet). We enjoyed this a lot, but it was a bit too much for just the two of us.

For dessert we had a deep fried rice and coconut cake. The fried dough on the outside was crispy and chewy, and the inside was soft and pillowy, but the whole this was really oily. It was astounding the amount of oil that came out of the cake.

We really enjoyed Safari Snack House. It is different from anything we've tried, and we will definitely come back. However, our meal was a bit much because everything was deep fried. We felt a little unhealthy after this visit.

Safari Snack House on Urbanspoon