Guide to Good Things in Vancouver - Spring 2010 update

Well, the Olympics came and went and life as we know it here on the West Coast of Canada seems to have gone on as usual. My personal experience of the Games seemed to consist of a lot of going out and "looking for the Olympics." I could see the flame even if it was behind an ugly chain-link fence; after each hockey win for Canada, I could certainly hear the crowds. The lines in front of the Russia House, the House of Saxony, the BC Pavilion, the Mint and even for the non-Olympian Leonardo at the Art Gallery, confirmed that something was going on but, as is so often the case in life, I had a sneaky feeling that the real deal was going on somewhere without me. In the meantime, most of the really good things in Vancouver remain and are accessible and reliably delightful as ever. These are in no particular order. There are some new ones too. I'll start with, and say a little more about, the latest additions:

1. Xoxolat at 2391 Burrard. ( I know they've been there for a while but I've just discovered them and what a discovery! I wandered in on a rainy April afternoon and talked to "Chief Chocolate Officer" Hodie Rondeau about chocolate. Sometimes, you just feel like talking about chocolate and on those days, Hodie is your woman. Unlike that other great temple of chocolate around the corner, the iconic Chocolate Arts which specializes in making its own, (see below) Hodie's Xoxolat also imports some of the finest makes of chocolate from chocolatiers around the world. Try the French Pralus brand's chocolate covered cocoa beans or select one of the wildly eccentric bars from Austrian Herr Zotter's range -avocado and mandarin yogurt?

2. Baguette & Co at 3273 West Broadway is a real French bakery. You've seen hundreds just like it all over Paris. The 'boulanger' Adrien Fabre is from Montpelier, the Patissier, Thibault Champel, is from the Ardeche. So, finally, it's possible to buy a croissant in this town that is not the size and consistency of a bath sponge. Phew!

3. Coast restaurant at its new location on Alberni St. The ever-dynamic Glowbal group recently shifted Coast from Yaletown to this downtown location. They still serve some of the best seafood in town and they add nice touches like telling you who caught what and where. (Jay Gold on the "Miss Venus" caught my sablefish). The "fish and chips hand roll" on the sushi menu is not to be missed - like Willy Wonka's magical candies, it delivers all the tastes and textures of fish and chips in an elegant little sushi cone. If you can, sit in the upstairs gallery. It's like being an audience member in a front-row seat at the big, exuberant show that is Coast.

4. Chocolate/raspberry tart at Caper's - Caper's has one of the best pastry cooks in town - add to that seriously dark chocolate and a not too sweet raspberry coulis and you have a tart worthy of Paris (said the bishop to the actress). And I know it's Whole Foods now but not here.

5. 'Fresh is Best' salsa, guacamole, chips etc on 2900 block Broadway in Kitsilano - their tortilla chips are so fresh and crispy- best I've tasted, their guacamole with a hint of cilantro, and salsa are 'squisiti' as the Italians say.

6.Baked chicken samosa at Choices. Beware, the kids in the deli are ALWAYS mixing up the chicken and veg. But since the veg is a lot of spicy potatoes and a few peas etc, the ground chicken is a much better bet and baked so not too greasy.

7.Chocolate Arts - chocolatier 2037 W 4th - elegant, original and utterly delicious. Nut-types rave about the "splinter" roast nuts in chocolate. I love the lemon-basil truffle. Best chocolate in town.

8. Cornbread at Terra Breads on 4th or Granville. I once had some French friends who arrived in town, sniffed, as the French are wont to do and headed out in search of 'real bread'. They came back with baguettes from Terra but the cornbread is fabulous - with onions and cheddar cheese or is it Asiago? Oh damn - will have to go buy some and see.

9.View from The Galley cafe at Jericho Yacht Club. Just a caf with self-service good, basic food and the most jaw-droppingly beautiful view in Vancouver.

10.Caffe Artigiano - opposite the Vancouver Art Gallery on Hornby or on Broadway - best coffee in town. Get your lumpy bums out of Starbucks this instant!

11.The restaurant at Vancouver Art Gallery - most elegant and reasonably priced lunch place in the city. Lunch on the terrace surrounded by flowers and ornamental trees with a background of classical music is a spring and summer treat.

12.Kits' Pool. Summer is approaching and I had to list something other than food. Blimey this thing is big! I felt like I'd swum in from London first time I completed a length but what a setting - it looks out on snow-capped mountains, Stanley Park and, the Pacific Ocean.

13. Various Chinese produce stores on Broadway between MacDonald and Alma. I favour Golden Valley, sometimes Tim's. Young's has the biggest following but the noisy music, surly staff and long lines don't make it worth the few cents I might save. New Apple Farm always seems to be a bit more expensive.

14. Sambal green beans at Banana Leaf - you can feel virtuous by getting your veggies and still eat one of the tastiest dishes on this very popular and good menu.

15. Hollywood Cinema on W. Broadway in Kitsilano - $5 for a Monday night double bill in this family-run Art Deco treasure. The Last Picture show lives on here in Kits.

16. The pizza at the Olympia Greek restaurant on Denman - delicious crust, generous helpings.

17. Still on pizza - Rocky Mountain Pizza Co - out of Canmore, Alberta and frozen in stores here or at their restaurant
at 1st and Cypress.

18.Gruyere and Mushroom tart at Coco & Olive on Broadway at the far end near Collingwood. Another truly French establishment. He is pricey and servings seem to be getting smaller but this tart puts your average bland quiche to shame.

19. Go Fish - fish and chip shack at Fisherman's Wharf near Granville Island - the days are getting warmer and a basket of fish and chips by the water here is a Vancouver summer treat. Bald eagles sometimes hover enviously in the skies above.

The Slow Death of the Best Block in Kitsilano

I've been keeping track of the comings and goings in this city for almost a decade now.
My neighborhood of Kitsilano has seen some of the most dramatic changes. I'll list some of the more interesting newcomers in an accompanying post but first on a sadder note, it's time to say a fond farewell to Duthie's and note the demise of one of the most delightful blocks in the city: 4th Avenue between Yew and Vine.

For years this hundred or so yards contained great music in the form of The Magic Flute - a store that was worth a visit for the magnificent pan-piper door-handles alone, Duthie's books, fine wines at the Kitsilano wine shop, good local food at Capers, and in the Coast Mountain adventure store, a reminder that this young, brazen city of Vancouver is only a very recent and temporary guest in some of the wildest, most majestic mountain and ocean landscape on earth.

Great music, great food, great wine, great books and great landscapes - the block once had everything necessary to feed the soul.

The Magic Flute was first to go - brilliant and dynamic local entrepreneur and owner David Lemon foresaw the collapse of the music business a few years before it happened and sold the shop. It limped on for a while but the CD business was being killed by the internet and soon music was gone.

Next out was great local food in the form of Capers. Yes, the store is still there - it's name is still on the awning but Texas-based Whole Foods bought it out and any recent shopper will see that the old, cosy store with its more cramped aisles and higgledy-piggledy lay-out has given way to a more spacious, generic supermarket-style design. Sometimes, when I am tired or distracted, I can mistake the displays for similar ones in Whole Foods on Kensington High Street back in London. So much for a neighborhood store.

The Coast Mountain store went next. You can stand right next to where it used to stand at the top of Yew and 4th and gaze out at the snow-capped summits and the Pacific Ocean but the store with its tents, sleeping bags, hiking boots, and all the rest of the paraphernalia that allows man to approach those mountains has gone.

And then, one of the saddest farewells of all, took place when Duthie's books closed in February of this year. From being a vibrant local chain to this one surviving store, Duthie's decline had been obvious. But I'd hoped against hope that they would survive. Books, we are being told on an almost daily basis, are going the way of the CD in this internet age. Duthie's held on until their knuckles were white. Then they fell and died.

Now the wine store remains but the rest of the block has gone from a nourishing place for the soul to purveying mass-produced clothes for our bodies and trinkets for our homes. Twas, perhaps, ever thus in Vancouver - the cult of the body takes precedence over the life of the mind. But for a few wonderful years, on a fine autumn day when the leaves on the trees that line 4th Avenue turned scarlet and the air took on that golden September tinge, you could walk just a few dozen yards and find the latest Douglas Coupland or the new Hilary Mantel, a fine bottle of Barolo or a home-baked raspberry and rhubarb tart, a tent to shelter you from the Pacific Northwest rains, boots to climb those snow-capped summits and some Beethoven to give you the courage and energy to set out. Everything in fact that a happy human being might want.