Travel


It had been a lazy day in Marseille. We had missed the bus to Cassis and instead took another couple of buses to Marseille’s beaches south of the main city. A very lazy day by the beach. And what was for dinner that night? Pizza. Pizza in Marseille? Yes, and I was really looking forward to it, especially after my great pizza experiences in Nice a couple years ago and also another cheap pizza we scoffed earlier on this trip. My French colleague had sent me off with only one recommendation for Marseille – Chez Etienne – which specialises in, you guessed it, pizza.

The restaurant is easy enough to find in Le Panier, Marseille’s oldest neighbourhood just north of the port. We got there quite early (19:30) and got a table, no problem. However, it started filling up swiftly and when we left, it was completely packed. Get there early.

Pizzaria Etienne

Service was generally grumpy here. There was one or two friendlier waiters but in general, don’t expect anything too pleasant. It’s a good thing the food was good!

There are only two pizzas available at Etienne: anchovy or cheese. We followed the suggestion of my colleague and ordered a pizza moitié-moitié, half and half (€14). The pizza arrived on a tray and the surly waitress dumped half of it on each of our plates and whisked the tray away. The anchovy pizza was just anchovy and black olives and tomato sauce and was very good but what was even better was that ooey gooey cheese pizza (also with olives). The crust was thin and almost cracker-like; it felt like a particular unique sort of Marseillaise pizza. If I get the opportunity to return, I shall be only ordering that amazing cheese pizza.

Pizza

We followed our pizza starter with an order of their famous supions (€16), the little squids popular in the Marseille area. Here they had been sliced up and fried with a healthy amount of garlic and parsley and a little something to give them a bit of a coating – flour? Anyway, they were delicious, all garlicky and tender and made just perfect with a squeeze of lemon. The man next to us was also a visitor to Marseille and when he asked a (friendlier) waitress for a suggestion, she suggested the supions; I’ve also since heard that they’re considered some of the best in the city.

Supions

Bread (perfect for mopping up the garlicky juices) and a dressed salad were served alongside. However, we found the salad dressing to be just a bit too spicy, having been made with an uncomfortable amount of hot mustard.

Salad

The rest of their menu looked good, especially their pastas and meats we spied on neighbouring tables. The pizza is a must, though, and is what they’re famous for. Apparently in earlier days, everyone eating at the restaurant was forced to eat pizza as a starter!

Chez Etienne
43, Rue de Lorette
13002 Marseille
France

It was absolutely boiling in Aix-en-Provence. We were here in this former capital of Provence on a day trip from Marseille, having travelled very easily and smoothly along the highway by bus, a bus not dissimilar to the Oxford tube from London to Oxford. When we arrived, it was just about lunchtime and after seeing a couple of the very pretty buildings in the city, we then headed to Chez Charlotte on Rue des Bernardines for our midday meal. The restaurant was one recommended online but I had no idea what to expect, especially since the entrance didn’t seem particularly promising, all small and narrow. We walked through the empty restaurant to find that the action was really all the beautiful shaded back patio. Stunning really. And a cool relief that day too – we wouldn’t have to dip our toes into the fountains though that looked quite fun actually.

The back patio

Service matched the lazy, dreamy look of the back garden but as we weren’t in a rush to see anything in particular, we were fine with this. Refreshing chilled bottles of cold water were brought to the tables as we perused the very short menu.

Blai chose the day’s special starter of a salad with duck hearts. The hearts were grilled until tender and weren’t as offally tasting as I expected. He enjoyed it!

Salade avec Coeurs de Canard

My starter of oeuf en cocotte was incredibly simple but no less flavourful for it. An egg, sitting in a bed of creme fraiche, topped with cheese and baked until cooked. Ooey gooey goodness and so perfect for mopping up with baguette slices.

Oeuf en Cocotte

We both went for the dish of the day as our main course – roast leg of lamb (gigot d’agneau) with fried potatoes and runner beans. It was gorgeous. Tender slices of lamb studded with garlic cloves sat in its own jus – no mint sauce required here! The boiled runner beans with chopped onions were simple but good and the potatoes…I have no idea what variety of potato was used here but there was a hint of sweetness in its flesh.

Gigot d'Agneau

It felt wrong to leave without dessert. After watching a couple of ladies next to us tuck in enthusiastically into their desserts, I called the waitress over and ordered their charlotte. It didn’t look like much but that web of ladys fingers held together vast amounts of whipped cream and tangy forest fruits.

Charlotte

Two courses are €16 and three are €20. Either go early or try to make a booking. Most of the other customers were locals that lunchtime and there were only a few tourists…very few considering how many there were in the rest of the city.

Oh, and by the way, their steak tartare looked amazing.

Chez Charlotte
32 Rue des Bernardines
13100 Aix-en-Provence
France

All my photos from Aix-en-Provence can be seen here. It’s a beautiful city with plenty of history and lots to see. We went on a market day (Tuesday, also Thursdays and Saturdays) and I would highly recommend that if you like food and flower markets! Apart from just strolling the picturesque streets, the Musée Granet is also worth a visit.

We started our holiday with a bang. We were going to be spending two weeks by the Mediterranean, the first in Marseille and the second in Barcelona. The timing also coincided with our wedding anniversary and we were going to celebrate it by eating Marseille’s most famous dish – bouillabaisse. After scouring the internet and getting a few recommendations from friends, we settled for Chez Fonfon for lunch on our first full day in the city.

The walk to the Vallon des Auffes, where the restaurant is located, was longer than we expected from the port but we got there in the end (uh…give yourself time!). But when we did, we couldn’t see the restaurant anywhere (we were up at the top on le Corniche du Président-John-Fitzgerald-Kennedy). We should have paid more attention to the location – a vallon is a small valley – and sure enough, there were some stairs that took us down to this beautiful tiny harbour and there was the restaurant!

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Le Vallon des Auffes

We got settled inside the very modern-looking restaurant quickly (that third photo above, that was my view!) and were brought delicious homemade taramasalata with croutons while we perused the all-fish, all-seafood menu. There are no other meats nor are there any vegetarians options from what I could tell. If you’re not a fan of anything that swims, stay away.

Taramasalata

We would share one order of bouillabaisse (there’s no need to order this in advance at Chez Fonfon – it’s so popular and they always have it everyday) and one of their fishes of the day, grilled with a side of our choice. The waitress ran to the kitchen to bring over a basket of the fishes they had available – there were red mullets, and a couple of fishes I didn’t recognise. After we asked for a recommendation, she suggested that the sea bream would be best grilled and we went with that, with panisses on the side. While we waited, we were again shown another basket of fish; this time, this was the selection of four fishes that would play a part in the bouillabaise.

After we had made our selections, we were brought an amuse – melon gazpacho, a lovely way to chill out that hot day. We appreciated having the windows open in the dining room as well; it was a hot day.

Melon Gazpacho

The grilled sea bream came first – it was presented to us tableside where a waiter filleted it. On the side were lemon, olive oil and a lovely generous bowlful of homemade tartar sauce (I hate it when you have to make do with a tiny ramekin’s worth). The fish was gorgeously fresh and so delicious just with a squeeze of lemon. The panisses on the side (made of chickpea flour) were lightly crisp on the outside, soft and moist on the inside, and surprisingly filling.

Filletting

Filleted Grilled Sea Bream

Tartar Sauce

Panisses

The sauces for the bouillabaise were already at our table; there was an aioli and the classic rust-coloured rouille. They did forget the croutons though and we had to ask for them – these are essential! A soup bowl was set down before me and a waiter came by with a large tureen and ladled a very dark fish broth into the bowl. By itself, it’s a great, flavorful fish broth, very dark and rich and comforting. But it really comes alive when you smear some of spicy and garlicky rouille on a crouton and float that baby in that bowl. Ah… I drank a lot of that soup. And we could have as much of the broth as we wished – that tureen kept making the rounds of the tables.

Aioli and Rouille

Bouillabaisse Broth

With Crouton and Rouille

The fish from the bouillabaisse was presented alongside not long after, on a bed of potatoes that had also been boiled in the broth. You could tell there were four different types though I can’t remember them all for the life of me. It was fun trying the different textures from the different species. Anyway, you eat the fish and you eat the potatoes and then if you’re like me, you try to fit in as much soup, croutons and rouille as you can.

Bouillabaisse Fish

After all that fish and soup, I could barely even think about dessert. What a shame, as their dessert menu was full of delicious sounding things! Chocolate fondant with a chestnut heart? Dammit – no space!  Blai found space for a selection of their delicious sorbets though. Their fruit flavours were just about perfect – I suspect they’re all homemade.

Sorbets

I just got a coffee which came presented with these excellent little sweets – delicious fruit jellies, orangettes and two types of calisson – regular (white) and rose-scented (pink). A sweet yet light (and caffeinated) end to the meal.

Sweets

Of course, this could hardly be called a budget lunch. The total was about €120, including mineral water and service. But then, this was an occasion that required something rather grand and I think we got it. Happy anniversary, my love!

Chez Fonfon
140 Rue du Vallon des Auffes
13007 Marseille
France

Bookings are essential.

My Instagram feed probably gave it away but I was in Belgium last week for work. Sadly, the excitement of the novelty of Belgian food has now worn off for me – it was probably the endless chips, dairy and mayo that did it. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with chips, dairy and mayo but when encountering some combo of the three at almost every meal….well, yeah, I needed a break.

On our last night in Leuven, we were, to our relief, brought to an Italian restaurant. I think I’d been expecting an average Italian restaurant, perhaps catering for the cheap-and-cheerful student population, but what I was not expecting was a brilliant Slow Food restaurant. And that’s exactly what Ristorante Rossi is.

We had all been booked in for their €35 3-course menu; there’s also a 5-course menu, an a la carte option, and occasional themed menus that reflect one particular region in Italy. The restaurant itself is quite small and quaintly decorated with vintage Italian signs and red and white checked tablecloths. On that Thursday night, the place was packed (Leuven, being a university town, has a busier Thursday night than Friday night. On Fridays, the majority of the students go home.) and buzzing, and the food on the surrounding tables looked excellent.

Anyway, first was an amuse of vitello tonnato on crostini. I love that classic combination of creamy tuna sauce with mild and tender veal.

Vittello Tonnato Crostini

Next was a giant pea and cheese arancino sat on a bed of pea puree, drizzled with pesto. This generously-sized ball of fried risotto (about the size of my fist) went down easily and I may have also helped myself to my friend’s unfinished portion. I clearly had no idea of the size of the next few dishes to come.

Pea Arancino with Pea Puree and Pesto

The pasta course was spinach and ricotta ravioli in a fresh tomato sauce with mint. This was fabulous (such an unexpected combination) and I could have gorged on this for my entire meal. But good thing I didn’t. I was again offered my friend’s extra ravioli but I just couldn’t manage anymore, especially when I saw the fish that was to come!

Spinach and Ricotta Ravioli with Tomato Sauce and Mint

Our main course was that fish I saw – I’m not entirely sure of the species but it was a white fish that flaked easily and had been cooked with a delicious crispy skin. This was served with a celeriac puree, a creamy gravy, green beans and to my utter surprise, seared foie gras! And that little blob of dark green in front? A pesto of parsley and pistachio, from what I could gather – gorgeous stuff.

Fish with Foie Gras and Celeriac Puree

Dessert wasn’t included in the menu and I opted to share a massive serving of tiramisu (€6,50). This was gorgeous, with lots of coffee and quite light, just as I like it. Look at those distinct layers!

Tiramisu

I forgot to get a photo of the little squares of chocolate cake that came with coffees and the bill – the two layers had been sandwiched together with cream and Nutella! Dreamy!

It’s not the cheapest restaurant in Leuven (not sure if the students from the main university go there!) – our meal (with drinks and desserts) worked out to €50 per head. I definitely recommend it and definitely also recommend making a booking before you go.

Ristorante Rossi
Standonckstraat,2
3000 Leuven
Belgium

I ate at Chef Hung’s both on the day I arrived in Vancouver and the day I left. They’re a Taiwanese chain that specialises in beef noodle soup and on the very cold day that I arrived, the idea of a soothing, comforting bowl sounded great.

That evening, I slurped down a bowl of their Champion Beef Shank with Noodle in Spicy Soup (with extra fire chilli soup) and felt all the better for it. I like that you get a choice of noodle – our favourite are their thin noodles though wide noodles, rice vermicelli and others are also available. The spicy fire chilli soup is indeed spicy and numbing too with lots of chilli oil and Sichuan pepper. The beef came in two variants – cubes of stewed shank that were falling apart and slices of another cut (not sure which) that were gorgeously tender. The noodles were just al dente and softened slowly in the broth as I slurped my way through them. This was an excellent bowl of Taiwanese beef noodle soup.

Champion beef with noodle in spicy soup

The next day, this happened:

Along the Seawalk

Unfortunately, that was the only snow I got in Vancouver! Two weeks later, when I was due to fly out, it looked like this:

One week ago, I was here

Sure, all very pretty but dammit, where’s the snow?!

My last meal in Vancouver was also at Chef Hung’s. I love that place. Again we had their spicy beef noodle soup only this time we shared one bowl.

Spicy Beef Noodle Soup

I’ve got to mention the pickles. These are provided with every bowl of beef noodle soup and they are the perfect accompaniment, all tangy against the rich meat and broth.

Pickles

We also split an order of a crispy-on-the-outside-juicy-on-the-inside fried pork chop…

Pork Chop

…and a marinated beef wrap made with a freshly griddled flaky flatbread, slices of stewed beef, hoisin sauce and cucumber and spring onion. Brilliant stuff.

Marinated Beef Roll

The flaky bread was delicious and the whole thing was made less heavy with the inclusion of the vegetables.

Marinated Beef Roll

Portions were so big that I was able to bring most of the beef rolls and pork along with me to the airport to supplement the terrible offerings by Air Canada. Yes, they packed up our leftovers very nicely indeed.

What a great place – it’s yet another chain that I wish would open up in London!

Chef Hung Taiwanese Beef Noodle
1560 Marine Drive
West Vancouver, B.C.
V7V 1H8
Canada

Other branches are listed on their site.

Chef Hung Taiwanese Beef Noodle 洪師父牛肉麵 on Urbanspoon

And that ends my Vancouver posts this time! As usual, all my Vancouver photos from this Christmas trip can be seen in this Flickr photoset.

Heading to one of these Asian malls in Vancouver is the quickest way to immerse oneself into a totally different culture. Aberdeen Centre in Richmond feels very much like Hong Kong. My family have been visiting this place for years – the food court is excellent and there’s a great Asian supermarket and, best of all, there’s the largest Daiso in North America within. (Daiso’s a 100 yen shop chain in Japan; in Canada, everything’s $2. They sell amazing things and are as far removed from pound shops as is possible.)

Anyway, we first needed lunch. The restaurants all looked fantastic there and some even had ginormous queues that lunchtime but we headed to the popular food court on the top floor. Among the teppanyaki, noodles and juice stalls was this gem – Saboten, a cutlet chain from Japan.

Saboten Express

I immediately ordered a Saboten set, which included a bit of pork tenderloin (melted in the mouth), pork loin, and a prawn. Each had been crusted in the flakiest, crispiest panko crumbs and were fried beautifully. The only downside was the pre-ground sesame seeds (to be mixed into the tonkatsu sauce) – these had lost some of their flavour. But considering that it was from a food court, this was all excellent!

Saboten Set

From another stall, I ordered shengjianbao – the juicy pan fried pork buns that are a specialty of Shanghai. Many tables seemed to have an order of either these or the steamed xiaolongbao from the same stall.

Shengjianbao

Over to another Asian mall. If Aberdeen Centre was Hong Kong, The Crystal Mall in Burnaby (next to Metrotown) felt like mainland China. We headed there on New Year’s Day in search of a bit of adventure – neither of us had ever been but we’d heard good things about it.

Market

Again there were some restaurants (all packed and with queues outside) but we again headed straight for the food court. It may look empty below but be rest assured that you’ll be fighting for a seat close to midday.

Food Court

There were so many options that we ended up running around buying bits and pieces from various stalls. From a northern Chinese food stall, we had hand pulled noodles in soup with stewed pork ribs. The lady manning the stall pulled those noodles right there and then! They were wonderfully smooth and chewy – it’s a shame the broth was a little dull though.

Hand Pulled Noodles with Pork Ribs

From a Sichuan stall, dry wontons with chilli oil and fried peanuts. This was insanely good and burning hot and crunchy and tasty and yes, just excellent. They’re addictive – you can’t stop at one!

Dry Wontons with Chilli Oil and Peanuts

From a Xinjiang stall, we got a few skewers coated in chilli and cumin. There’s aubergine and the usual lamb/mutton and, quite interestingly and totally inauthentic, pork skewers too!

Skewers

We saw a woman walk by with bowls of hot tofufa (or dou hua) – extremely silky soft dessert tofu served hot and with syrup. That was it! We packed up the rest of the food that we couldn’t finish and my father ran over to the stall to order some. It was perfect – warm, silky, smooth, soft, and with just the right amount of sweetness.

Tofufa

The malls are certainly good fun and both are close to Skytrain stations, making them easy to access for the tourist who’s looking to see something a bit different in Vancouver and who’s depending on public transport. And you’ll eat very well!

There’s a story with Pidgin, the restaurant in Vancouver that only opened a little under a year ago and that is now known as one of the most innovative restaurants in the country, if not North America. It’s location is infamous in Vancouver – it’s in the centre of the downtown eastside, an area notorious for drug use. It never used to be like this; the decline of this area only started in the 1980s but recently there’s been a lot of development in the area. I don’t know all the details about this development but it’s clear there’s a certain amount of gentrification going on too, which might push out the current residents of the area.

It’s this possible moving and changing that got a few locals upset and they chose Pidgin as the representative business in all this gentrification and they protested against it. A lot of news was generated about the protest (and the counterprotest by other businesses) and as they say, any publicity is good, and soon, everyone in Vancouver knew about Pidgin. I don’t know all the facts so cannot tell you how I feel about this all but I’ll let one thing be known – it can be very scary in that area at night and during the day. I don’t think I’d walk down there alone. And I’m not sure exactly what I was thinking dragging my father there to try this place to celebrate his (very belated) birthday.

It turns out the area’s not so bad on a Sunday night. And the restaurant itself is gorgeous inside, as the photo below shows. Still, you can’t help but feel slightly uneasy eating in a restaurant when Vancouver’s poorest are right outside their glazed windows. The business has every right to be here but then again, so do the people living in the area. There are a lot of arguments flying about so if you’re interested, I encourage you to just google ‘Pidgin protests’ and you can see them all!

Pidgin

But onto the food and drink that night. The drinks list at Pidgin was very impressive and I was pleased to see a small selection of ‘zero proof’ cocktails. My Cordova – cucumber, jasmine, orange ($6) was a lovely and surprisingly dry blend that went down easily. Most nonalcoholic cocktails tend to just be very sweet fruit juices so this made for a great change.

Cordova - cucumber, jasmine, orange

We started the meal with an oyster shot, apple, horseradish ($3) each. That shot glass held the shucked oyster, a mustard horseradish sauce, and apple granita – yes, it was a bit cold but the flavours altogether were great! Very zingy.

Oyster shot, apple, horseradish

The dishes started arriving at a steady pace – all were placed in the centre for sharing. The Raw scallops, pomegranate red curry oil, daikon, green apple ($15) were utterly fantastic. The curry oil was tasty but not too strong and didn’t overwhelm the delicate molluscs. It’s also not perhaps clear in the photo below but there were a generous number of scallops under the crunchy strips of apple and daikon.

Raw scallops, pomegranate red curry oil, daikon, green apple

Our waiter recommend the  Mushrooms, sugar snap peas, egg, soy yuzu brown butter ($12) and he really got this one spot on. A whole variety of mushrooms (I definitely spotted king oyster and shimeji) were stir fried with the snap peas and the butter sauce was outstanding on it all. A ramen egg provided wonderful yolky creaminess and body. There was also a pea puree and pea shoots on top.

Mushrooms, sugar snap peas, egg, soy yuzu brown butter

The meaty dishes then arrived almost simultaneously. Beef brisket, miso gorgonzola crust, beets ($18) was a meltingly soft piece of brisket topped with a soft crust of gorgonzola and miso – though I’m not a fan of blue cheese, I thought this was alright. Actually, it was quite nicely balanced with the sweet beetroot, yet another thing I normally detest! The grated stuff on top that looks like Parmesan was actually lovely horseradish.

Beef brisket, miso gorgonzola crust, beets

I was excited to see their foie gras rice bowl, chestnuts, daikon, unagi glaze ($20) on the menu as I hadn’t seen it online – this is one of their most famous dishes and after my experience with a foie gras rice bowl in Tokyo, I wanted to try another one! When this arrived, I stirred it all up together (including the freshly grated wasabi) and turned every spoonful into a well balanced mouthful. Delicious.

Foie gras rice bowl, chestnuts, daikon, unagi glaze

Dessert time! I chose the Milk chocolate ovaltine mousse, orange blossom yogurt, honey comb ($8) and it was the perfect finish to the meal. The combination of flowery yogurt, crunchy sweet honey comb and creamy, not too sweet, not too rich mousse was fantastic.

Milk chocolate ovaltine mousse, orange blossom yogurt, honey comb

My father, not being a big fan of desserts, chose to finish his meal with another oyster shot!

Pidgin is certainly worthy of the number of recent accolades it’s received. We had a fabulous meal and if I had time, I’d had loved to go back to try more. Reservations recommended.

Pidgin
350 Carrall St
Vancouver, BC
Canada

Pidgin on Urbanspoon

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