Monday, August 23, 2010

One Thing We’ve Learned . . .

about dining in Canada: restaurants are really good (i.e. Arms Reach Bistro in Deep Cove) or totally mediocre.

We have spared you the ugly details about the latter. For example, you didn’t hear about the awful hamburger that Chuck left half uneaten. If Chuck doesn’t finish it, you know it’s bad. Or my salmon burger that looked like a slice from a can of Alpo – and I am sure that the Alpo would have tasted better. Or the small café that was totally out of soup at 1:00 p.m. Or the day that we were the only customers in a Chinese restaurant and couldn’t get the waiter’s attention to get a water refill. Or the pizza that came billed with fresh mozzarella—that gluey rubbery stuff was not fresh mozzarella. Or the truly awful pierogies in Whistler, BC.

So when a fellow camper (from Chambers-burg, PA) told us about the Lampliter Gallery Café in Fort Langley and mentioned that one of the waitstaff had lived in the Philadelphia area, we decided to wander in, say hello, and have a quick lunch. We found more than lunch. We found a café that restored our faith in Canadian dining.

The Lampliter, owned and operated by Paul Buckley, a Swiss-trained chef, and his wife Nicoletta, is small and homey. The walls are painted a warm mustardy yellow and are hung with photos of Venetian scenes and local art. Green plants adorn the window sills.

The mismatched wood tables and chairs are substantial and comfor-table.

But, best of all, the food is wonderful and was described by one on-line reviewer as “The kind of food a professional chef would cook for his friends.” But I think that Paul and Nicoletta describe it best – “Refined Country Cooking.” With the exception of the menu items containing orange, I could shut my eyes, point at the menu, and enjoy my blind choice.

And the service was amazing. Melissa (photo below), the server from Philadelphia (actually Chestnut Hill), was casually friendly without being intrusive (not an easy balance when working with the public) and we never lacked for water or refills on bread. When we asked if they had unsweetened iced tea, Melissa responded “No. But I’ll make you some.”

On our first visit, the day’s specials included a curry vegetable soup, eggs Benedict, pesto seafood eggs Benedict, and beef medallions. It was this latter item that Chuck chose for his lunch. The medallions were about three inches in diameter, a third of an inch thick, cooked medium rare as ordered, and adorned by a single jumbo prawn (also perfectly cooked). As wonderful as the meat was, the buttery tomato sauce that lightly covered the meat was amazing. It complemented the flavor of the beef rather than obscuring it and before Melissa could remove his plate, Chuck surreptitiously wiped the last remnant of sauce from the plate. With the medallions came a timbale of rice--also wonderful with the sauce--and a large stalk of broccoli. How good is this kitchen? He enjoyed the broccoli so much that he kept saying that he wished there were more.

I love mussels--I think in part because their stronger flavor merges well with stronger flavors. That may be why I so enjoy mussels in a Thai-style green curry. Lampliter offered two versions of mussels. The first was Italian style with tomatoes, garlic, and basil. The second was French style with garlic and parsley in a wine and cream sauce. Normally, I would have chosen the more robust Italian version, but today decided to order the more subtle French mussels.

With this I had my choice of soup (the vegetable curry), baby green salad, or Caesar salad. I selected the Caesar and received a small plate of extra crisp and lightly dressed romaine without too much garlic or too much anchovy.

Then came my bowl of mussels – thirteen plump, fresh, and sweet beauties in a rich buttery wine and cream sauce. This was like eating the most sinful oyster stew ever. No one flavor predomi-nated – they all blended seamlessly. The garlic and wine flavored the mussels and the mussels lightly flavored the broth. Perfection. And I sopped up the wine and cream sauce with the last of my bread.

So pleased were we that we returned a few days later. That day the specials were a snapper and shrimp salad on baby greens, pork tenderloin with rosemary mushroom sauce, and chicken and mushroom soup. When I asked Melissa about the soup, she offered to give me a sample to taste.

She returned in just a few seconds with a demitasse cup of the most wonderful earthy soup imaginable. I have frequently mentioned Chuck’s aversion to mushrooms but convinced him to try a small spoonful. Did he like it? He liked it so much that he ordered a cup to have before his meal. What was the secret? I think he liked it because the mushrooms were in very tiny bits (as were the pieces of chicken, zucchini, and red pepper). It is the somewhat spongy texture of mushrooms that he finds objectionable and not the flavor.

Continuing with his new interest in pasta, he ordered the Cavatappi pasta with sausage, peppers and onions in a “slow cooked” tomato sauce. This was another wonderful plate of pasta full of round slices of a lightly fennel tasting sausage. When I see the words slow cooked and tomato sauce used in tandem, I always think of the ultra thick and ultra sweet red gravy served in Italian homes all over South Philadelphia. But this sauce was just the opposite. It was light and had the bright clean taste of fresh tomatoes.

I was tempted by the pork tenderloin special, but instead ordered the sockeye salmon in a lemon butter sauce with dried cranberries and toasted almonds. This dish was the perfect example of how the kitchen balances tastes and textures. Since sockeye is a stronger tasting variety of salmon, it needs to be prepared simply. What could be simpler than a sauce of very slightly browned butter with just a hint of lemon? And the toasted almonds meshed with the nutty flavor of the butter and the tart yet sweet cranberries matched the assertive flavor of the fish.

With my salmon came a side of sautéed potatoes (my other choice was jasmine rice) and for once I chose the potatoes over the rice. They were lightly browned and were just the right thing for swirling in the browned butter sauce. And I got a stalk of the same wonderful broccoli and had the same reaction that Chuck did a few days earlier. I wanted more.

Our practice while in Fort Langley was to walk down the street to Marina’s Gelato for dessert. (More on Marina’s tomorrow.) Today we decided to sample the Lampliter’s dessert menu. And wanting to sample, we ordered the dessert sampler – maple walnut bread pudding with maple ice cream, chocolate mousse tart, and passion fruit mousse on a bed of grape halves and plum cubes. The tart was rich and intensely chocolaty and the bread pudding was sweet without being cloying. The tart passion fruit mousse with the semi-tart fruits balanced the sweetness of the other two.

We would be leaving British Columbia in a matter of days and, as we were finishing our meal, decided to stop trying other restaurants only to be disappointed. It would be back to Lampliter for our final dining stop.

Tomorrow we continue with meal number three.

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