Monday, June 9, 2014

FoodTrek: Vancouver Noir

It was a dark and stormy night on the rain-slicked mean streets of Vancouver... um...welllll... to be honest, it was daytime, and not a drop of rain in sight. People were easy with friendly smiles and pleasant "hello's," but don't think it's all sugar-spun sweetness in this picturesque Canadian harbor town -- there's an element of mystery and a tantalizing hint of danger that lingers in the historic City of Vancouver. Gold rush treasure-hunters, cops n' robbers, Prohibition-era private clubs. The ghosts of this Pacific Rim metropolis leave a haunting trail of legends and rumor, as well as inspiring a renewed interest in the charm of all things vintage and past. This was my own magical mystery tour of Vancity, unlike any typical tourist visit.

Vancouver at night, what a beautiful sight! - Photo by Wasabi Prime

It's hard to ignore the beautifully modern side of Vancouver, with its aqua-glass skyline of condo towers, and the sculptural and structural keepsakes from their 2010 hosting of the Olympic Winter Games. But look past the New, and there's still plenty of the Old; heritage buildings standing as quiet sentinels, sharing history for those who seek it. I had the great fun of experiencing a unique walking tour of the city, by Forbidden Vancouver Tours. I typically shy away from guided tours, especially in cities I've visited before, but this was part history lesson, part role-playing game, part happy hour. You're not visiting tourist-swarmed sights, their tour and special event themes have titles like the Lost Souls of Gastown, Secrets of the Penthouse, and Who Killed Kraft Bier. You don't have a guide, you have a Storyteller, who also doubles as historian, and in my case, Vancouver's leading investigative reporter, Will Woods, who kept the energy high and our legs moving, hitting the pavement as a band of scrappy newshounds eager to get to the heart of the city's many mysteries.

Forbidden Vancouver's stalwart storyteller, Will Woods, and the excitement of Prohibition City - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I participated in Prohibition City, which walks you all over Vancouver, to some of its oldest neighborhoods. The historic buildings tell tales starting from the 1890s Gold Rush that brought in money to build hotels (and saloons), the emergence of the Canadian temperance movement, the Great War that inspired austerity, and the eventual enactment of BC's prohibition, from 1917 to 1921. While Canada's prohibition era was prior to America's Volstead Act, signed in 1919 (not repealed until 1933 - whew, I'm getting thirsty...), its lead-up is similar to our own string of events and aftermath of when the whiskey ran dry. The Vancouver hotels that kept their saloons running during Prohibition used a loophole in the law to become private drinking clubs -- some of the historic hotels like the Lotus remain standing today. And even once the booze was at last made legal again, there were curious laws and requirements of businesses to give the impression of civility while drinking.

History and mystery in Vancouver's oldest buildings and monuments - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I'd love to give more curious and bizarre factoids shared on this adventure, but Forbidden Vancouver's tour was built like a game, where you're taking notes on all the different places and events, and there's several mysteries you need to solve, to compete for a prize. So, NO SPOILERS. I confess, I didn't win the prize, but I had some good, silly answers ("ghosts" are my answer to everything), and everyone was rewarded with a prize of a frosty, non-Prohibition beer at the Irish Heather, a gastropub in the Gastown neighborhood. We tallied up correct trivia answers over sudsy brews, and had a chance to admire this very charming pub that I would like to revisit.A neighborhood hangout with a menu full of comforts like roast beef with Yorkshire pudding and Irish colcannon, the Irish Heather also has a group dining room with a long table that seats 17, for weekly Long Table Series communal dinners on Sundays and Mondays. 

From private drinking clubs of the past, to current-day gastropubs - Photos by Wasabi Prime
So much talk of Prohibition -- even with a beer, you thirst for more of Vancouver's "spirited" history, which is a perfectly pun-filled segway to a visit with the fine folks at the Liberty Distillery. Located on Granville Island, Liberty's decorative Victorian bar and tasting room is right next to their distillery populated with mash tuns, stainless steel fermentation tanks, and the custom-designed steampunk-esque copper pot stills. The time-honored tradition of distilling fine spirits and the vintage look of Liberty speaks to a different era, but they are a recent establishment, started in 2010. BC's laws have changed for craft distilleries, very similar to Washington State's, opening up opportunities for smaller artisan businesses to start up and successfully produce batches of some pretty amazing stuff.

Savoring sips at Liberty Distillery on Granville Island - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Liberty Distillery touts itself as "true craft," which is to say all the grains, fruit and produce are from British Columbia, everything from fermentation to distillation is done on-site, there's nothing added like additives/preservatives, artificial flavors or neutral grain spirit to "top off" a batch. What gets produced is some very smooth, clean liquor that can be sampled as their Liberty Flight, or mixed in a drink from their signature cocktail menu.

Communing with the spirits on Granville Island - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Liberty's sippables include their Truth Vodka made with 100% organic BC wheat, an unaged white whiskey called Railspur No. 1 White made with all organic BC barley, and the Endeavour Gin, done in a London Dry Style, using the same distilled wheat base as their vodka, and then flavored with a special 12 botanical blend. Their Truth Vodka is vanilla nougat creamy-sweet, true to their tasting notes, and the Endeavour Gin has an incredibly bright, complex range of fragrant citrus and pepper. Their Railspur has more of a bite, but the barley's savory biscuit flavor mellows the sharpness. They anticipate releasing their Trust Whiskey in 2016, an Irish-style barrel-aged whiskey, so mark your calendars! But in the meantime, their tasting room remains a popular stop on Granville Island, and with any luck, we'll be seeing bottles of these delicious potables in the good ol' U.S. of A very soon. Their Director of Operations, Lisa Simpson, said they're working on all the paperwork to get Liberty Distillery spirits onto our shelves hopefully by the end of the year.

The quirky and wonderful street art of Vancouver - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Finding the hidden gems of Vancouver and walking its less-traveled streets yields not only history but little visual treasures along the way. I tried to capture these moments of art where I could, especially the beautiful stone mosaic right on the sidewalk in front of the Vancouver Police Museum, right next to an old firehouse that's been transformed into a performing arts venue. I'd spent all day exploring the opposite side of the law with bootleg tales and getting tippled on parlor sips -- what about the enforcers of the law that had to keep the city of Vancouver in check?

Vancouver Police Museum - a fascinating and macabre collection - Photos by Wasabi Prime
You can't not do a double-take on the entrance of the Vancouver Police Museum -- you're reading it right, it's in the historic Coroner's Court building, which housed the morgue, autopsy facilities and crime lab. From 1932 to 1980, the Coroner's Court served the city, right next to colorful and notorious neighborhoods like the lumber-logging Skid Row and the gambling houses and opium dens of Chinatown. Their autopsy room has the distinction of being one of the last places Hollywood icon Errol Flynn visited (his body, at least); he was in Vancouver on a business deal and died of a heart attack in 1959. Flynn's autopsy was conducted in that very room, which you can still walk through. Samples of preserved forensic evidence gathered from autopsies are on display, and there's even a bullet hole still visible in a window, where a pathologist was nearly killed in the 1980s. The museum isn't all macabre history and artifacts, it also chronicles Vancouver's police force, from early days of badges hammered out of silver dollars, having the first women on the force, to the modern duties of their officers and their Emergency Response Team. It's as fascinating as it is profoundly quieting, exploring the old morgue with its wall of steel drawers, reading sample case files of infamous Vancouver crimes, and seeing the original autopsy tables with little scratches and dings from years of use. Haunting, indeed.

Eating well, feeling like a Goodfella at Fairmont Pacific Rim's Giovane Cafe - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Chasing down mysteries of the city, criminals and coppers -- despite the day of shady pasts and infamy, I was seriously hungry, especially for Italian food. One of my favorite unlikely food movies is Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas. Yes, it's about mobsters, violence and the bad things bad people do, but there's quite a bit of delicious food scenes that are unexpectedly delightful, like the part with Paul Sorvino's Pauly Cicero slicing garlic cloves paper-thin with a razor blade in prison, making an incredible feast in the joint with all his fellow "made" men. It's a terrible stigma that Hollywood has cast on Italian Americans, forever associating their lineage with criminals from the Old Country, but I admit I get an insatiable craving for cannoli after watching The Godfather. But perhaps it's just that Italian passion that we can't resist. Living life to the fullest with great food and plenty of wine -- minus the criminal activity. I had a chance to celebrate la dolce vita at the Fairmont Pacific Rim's unique Giovane Cafe and Winebar, where we certainly feasted like a scene from a movie.

One-stop shopping for gourmet ingredients, cappucino and biscotti by day, wine and pasta by night - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Giovane is an unusual little mercantile gem that you wouldn't think to find in a sleek, luxe hotel. There are culinary treasures stocked in their gourmet market, like a wide selection of olive oils and cured olives imported from Italy, a refrigerated section with sauces and meals made fresh from their kitchen, and a wide selection of deli items like cheese, fresh-made breads, and their own house-cured salumi. In between sampling their fresh-made pasta and getting my fill of cheese, cured meats and flatbreads, I managed to chat with Executive Chef Darren Brown. A BC local who's toured the world as a chef for many years, he's since come home to share his culinary knowledge and experience. He presented a tasting of olive oils, ranging from the southern to northern part of Italy, to show how the climate can affect the flavor of the oil quite dramatically. Chef Brown identified the flavor profile of olive oils from Southern Italy as more fruity and robust in flavor, having a distinctive fresh-cut grass nose, with a pronounced peppery kick at the back of the throat as you're tasting. As you move towards the Northern Italian region, the olive oil is less fruity, more nuanced; the nose of the oil nearly disappears, but the flavor is surprisingly rich, with concentrated notes of earthy olive flavor.

Another thing I asked Chef Brown about was their house-cured meats. There's a display case in the shop, showing the samples of meats being hung and dried, but there's a much larger curing system behind the storefront, to supply the high demand for this delicious commodity. Living in Italy, Chef Brown learned the process, and he made an interesting adaptation to his curing setup -- I noticed a wall of pink Himalayan salt blocks lining one side of the case. Much like the intangible terroir of wine, the salt literally seasons the air, eventually absorbing into the meat. It's that level of detail for food and flavor that inevitably draws us into the passion of the Italian way of life, where no flourish is too much. And slicing garlic with a razor blade is a perfectly reasonable way to make a sauce.

Vancouver nightcap at Gastown's Pourhouse - Photos by Wasabi Prime
You'd think after all this, I'd be done for the day, but the whole point of Vancouver Noir is to see the city at night, even if it's just for a nightcap at Pourhouse. I knew this would be a nonstop trip, but I took some time to walk around the Gastown neighborhood and nab a Last Night in Vancouver cocktail. Nestled along Water Street, Pourhouse is a vintage/speakeasy-inspired bar that's made for late night visits. An hour from closing, just enough time to try a couple of their drinks, I had the bartender mix up one of their Uncle Val's Old Fashioned, a flavorful and refreshing take on the classic cocktail. They use Uncle Val's Gin (from California-based 35 Maple Street Spirits), Fernet Branca for bitters, and cane sugar over ice. It's like a summery Old Fashioned, if that doesn't raise the hackles of cocktail purists. (or not, read below!) Well, hackle-up, I very much enjoyed it, and followed it up with their Red Harvest, made with Sombra Mezcal and Cabrito Tequila Blanco, Abricot du Roussillon (apricot liqueur), Creole Bitters, fresh lemon, and an egg white foam. This was probably the most balanced mezcal drink I've had... well, ever. I'm so used to the intense, smoky kick, which drink recipes feel the need to make super-intense, but this was just a wafting hint of smokiness that melted away in the creamy sweetness of the drink. My only regret was not having more time to spend here -- the midnight hour was approaching, and I was ready to turn into a pumpkin. A sleepy one.

UPDATE/CORRECTION: Their gin-based Old Fashioned is a totally true-to-style  original "cock-tail" dating back to the "Golden Age of Cocktails" (1860s-1910s) where they were made with brandy, gin or rum; the use of American rye was something that came about later. Thanks, and cheers, Rhett!!

The midnight hour of Vancouver on a quiet city stroll - Photos by Wasabi Prime
The clock struck twelve, I'd had a perfect nightcap to an adventurous day on the streets of Vancouver. It was a quiet midweek visit, so no weekend revelers, just me making my way back to the hotel, with the sound of my own steps on the pavement trailing me. I experienced so much of the city in such a short time, and yet Vancouver still has many more stories to tell. I look forward to many more visits, to have those mysteries revealed.

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