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Oceans & Earth

August 23, 2016

During a recent get together with my high school friends, we decided to try a fairly new restaurant in our hometown.  We had tried coming to this restaurant once before for a lunch gathering only to discover that they stopped serving Saturday lunch and only opened for dinner, so we had to come back during a later get together so we could give this restaurant a try.  We were very curious as to how the restaurant would be as this is a location that has seen a number of restaurants come and go over the past number of years and none has ever really been able to stick around.  In more recent history, this particular restaurant has actually stayed much longer than its previous predecessors.

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Oceans & Earth is the story of the a hometown chef and farmer who is living his dream by opening up a restaurant which features healthy, sustainable farm-to-table ingredients which celebrate the oceans and the earth in a slow food movement.  Local chef Adam Navidi changes his menu seasonally to feature the best of what local farmers and fishermen are growing and catching, including items harvested daily at a local  organic aquaponic farm and future foods farm, in a menu where every ingredient is made from scratch and made to order fresh.  The restaurant’s moot is “Sustaining the Planet One Plate at a Time!” with their mission being to “create unique dishes that you can’t find anywhere else.”

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I started my meal by ordering a Keep it Simple but Amazingly Fresh Salad.  According to the menu, all of the salads are described as follows:  “Why do our greens taste so much better?  “Field to fork” time makes the difference.”  Oceans & Earth grows their “Living Salad” only a few miles from the restaurant and the ingredients are harvested every morning.  Each of the ingredients are only harvested as much as is needed for each day and the greens and vegetables are brought into the kitchen with their root system still intact which results in “higher nutrient values and superior taste and flavor.”  The Keep it Simple but Amazingly Fresh Salad is made with chopped Future Foods farm greens, greenhouse tomatoes, cucumber, shaved onion, feta cheese, mixed micro greens served with farm herb vinaigrette.  And like everything else in the restaurant, all of the salad dressings are homemade and organic.  The salad was fresh and the flavors were vibrant.  The salad was also incredible lite too, but packed a punch in the flavor department.  The farm herb vinaigrette was terrific, a little tangy and herbaceous, it was the right combination of ingredients to added to the earthiness of the salad ingredients.  The crumbled feta added just the right touch of saltiness to balance out the bite of some of the greens.  The crunch of the thin sliced cucumbers and radish added the texture to the salad as well.  This was a great start to the meal.

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For my entree, I ordered Ron Burgundy’s meat & potatoes.  Made with burgundy marinated prime skirt steak, it is served with watercress, twice baked potatoes and a burgundy pepper sauce along with an avocado chimichurri.  Overall, my entree was just ok.  There was nothing on the plate that absolutely wowed me and for how beautiful the salad course was, I felt that the plating of the food on my dish was pretty mediocre.  It almost felt like my skirt steak and twice baked potatoes were intended to be separate courses based on how they were plated on the dish.  There felt like there was no cohesion between the different ingredients, and the avocado chimuchurri almost felt like it was thrown on there at the last second without any idea of how it fit as an ingredient with any of the other items on the dish.  The twice baked potatoes were pretty good, very creamy and smooth and a good amount of melted cheese and bacon crumbles sprinkled on top.  Unfortunately, I think that much of the creaminess of the potatoes came from sour cream that was mixed into the potatoes, so that was a bit of a turn off for me and I wish I would have known that the potatoes had sour cream on them.  The skirt steak itself was a little tough, tougher than I had expected it to be.  The burgundy sauce and marinade on the steak was delicious and the steak itself had a nice grill/char flavor.  But overall, the dish was just lacking a little bit and I was slightly disappointed.

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Finally, I went back and forth as to whether or not to order dessert, but ultimately, I just couldn’t say no to the bananas, so I ordered the chocolate, chocolate chip banana seashells.  This dessert was huge, much more than one person could finish.  Luckily, I had some friends with me that were more than happy to help me finish off my dessert.  Made with chocolate, chocolate chip banana seashells, bananas foster, and house churned vanilla bean ice cream, the dessert wasn’t nearly as decadent as it sounded, which was a good thing.  When it came out and I saw these 3 chocolate cakes, I thought it would be over-the-top sweet, and it wasn’t.  The cakes were really more like light, airy madeleines, which where perfect.  The cakes were semi-sweet and topped with bananas foster which added a nice warm, cinnamon and nutmeg flavor.  The combination of the chocolate cake with the sweet bananas and the cool and creamy homemade vanilla ice cream was a terrific pairing.  The vanilla ice cream did taste homemade as it was creamy and rich and had the right balance of vanilla to balance out the chocolate and the banana.  This delicious dessert was definitely more than enough to make me forget about my mediocre entree dish.

The concept of Oceans & Earth is a terrific one – local, sustainable, homemade, created-from-scratch food.  The fact that this restaurant exists in my hometown was one that had my friends and I excited.  At times, the execution of the food was spot on, and the tastes of the fresh ingredients was incredible, and at other times, execution fell a little flat.  While I understand that all the food is made fresh and as ordered, that also meant that even though we were one of the first guests to arrive at the restaurant, it took an inordinate amount of time for our entrees to be prepared.  It made us wonder how all the tables that arrived after us would be served it if it took close to an hour just to prepare our meals.  So, in that respect, my friends and I were a little disappointed.  All in all, I think we all walked out of the restaurant with mixed emotions.  Our meals all started strong and finished strong, but some of the menu items as well as our entrees all left a little to be desired.  Before we left for dinner that night, one of my friend’s mom’s had remarked that she had eaten at Oceans & Earth and she found it a little bit odd and different, and now having dined there myself, I can see where she was coming from.  Oceans & Earth is different than any other restaurant that can be found in the area, but the concept and execution of their mission can use a little bit of work.  I won’t rule out dining there again, but probably not any time in the near future.

Founding Farmers

August 19, 2016

Last Thanksgiving, my husband and I took a quick trip to Washington, D.C.  I had plans one morning to have breakfast at a certain restaurant that I had heard a lot about and had seen several times on The Food Network.  However, our plans were foiled when we arrived at the restaurant and learned that since it was the day after Thanksgiving they weren’t opening at their normal schedule and instead wouldn’t open for another hour or so.  Since we had a day packed with plans, we couldn’t wait around for them to open and we had to go eat elsewhere.  That was unfortunate.  So when my husband and I made plans for a quick, one night, weekend trip to Washington, D.C., this year, I told my husband I we had to try and find a way to get back to that restaurant we missed out on last Thanksgiving, just so that we could say we dined there.

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Founding Farmers was an idea borne in 2005 on the ideals of showcasing food and product of the farms of the American heartland and the values of being an American Farmer.  Owned by a co-op of more than 40,000 farmers as part of the North Dakota Farmers Union, they wanted a way to showcase the rich history of American farmers and their concern with land and community that makes up America’s rich farm history by showcasing the fruits and vegetables and unique dishes that could be created with products harvested directly from the farmer.  In their minds, what better place to showcase the ideas and values of the American farmer than in the nation’s capitol, Washington, D.C.  Today, the restaurant thrives on the products supplied mainly by a system of hundreds of American farmers who try and bring the freshest homegrown products from farm-to-table as possible.  The name Founding Farmers is a tribute to the Founding Fathers of our nation and the restaurant strives to epitomize the ideals of their farmers, “one that strengthens their livelihood, gives back to the community, and makes quality food accessible to all.”

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The interior of the restaurant was buzzing.  It was a Saturday night and it was busy.  The restaurant is actually quite large inside and features a fully-stocked open bar that sits right in the middle of the space.  The dining room is spread out over two levels.  There are big farm tables that can be used in a communal style, or there are smaller more intimate tables for private dining.  Regardless, each and every table inside the restaurant was filled.

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After a long night on a red eye flight, and a long day of sightseeing around Washington, D.C. during a rainy and wet day, we decided to treat ourselves to some drinks to start our meal.  My husband ordered the Farmer’s Smash made with Founding Farmers rye, bitters, citrus and ginger syrup.  My husband’s first impression was that the drink had way too much citrus in it.  Citrus was the first thing we could smell when the drinks as brought to the table, and it was the most predominant flavor in the drink itself.  And while my husband likes citrus, he thought it was way too much.  However, after letting the drink sit and enjoying it with some of the food that started arriving at our table, he liked the drink better.  Apparently, this Farmers Smash pairs better with food rather than just having the drink.  My husband said that the biggest problem with this drink was that there just wasn’t any sort of a balance between the citrus flavors and the alcohol in the drink, so he was slightly disappointed.

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I decided to order the Manhattan soda, described as a mix of coffee, espresso, agave, jerk soda and all topped with whipped cream.  Essentially, it was a strong coffee soda.  The drink tasted of an iced coffee, but stronger and more powerful with the espresso.  The sweetness from the agave was really nice, but the touch of jerk soda that added some carbonation to the coffee, while different, was really nice.  I described the drink as being different but good.  A drink that really invigorated, but also quenched my thirst.  Definitely a drink I’d order again, if that’s any indication as to how good it was.

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As we had flown all night and really didn’t eat anything all day, I think we decided to go a little overboard with our meal and maybe our eyes were bigger than our stomachs.  We saw something on the menu called Farm Breads.  There were 5 different selection of Farm Breads, each made with different ingredients.  Even after having asked the waiter what the Farm Breads were, we mistakenly assumed it was a small serving size, or at least a smaller portion than what it actually was.  Since there were so many different types of Farm Breads to choose from, my husband and I each decided to pick one to order.  When these massive breads were brought to our table, we realized we could have just done with one serving for the two of us, rather than 2 servings.  Oh well, we were starving and they were good.

Each Farm Bread is served on a wooden palette.  On the serving board is three large pieces of fresh baked farm bread sliced and laid out to be topped by whatever ingredients we ordered.  Mind you, each of the three pieces of bread was then chopped into 3 smaller, easier-to-eat pieces of bread.  So, essentially, you got 9 bigger than bite-sized pieces of bread with each order.  Yeah, one order definitely would have been enough for the two of us.

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The first Farm Bread we received was the prosciutto with fig, mascarpone cheese and balsamic drizzle.  This was my selection out of the 5 offerings.  The pairing prosciutto and balsamic is just not one you can go wrong with, add a little hint of sweetness and creaminess with the mascarpone cheese, which was a great change of pace, plus the sweetness of dried figs, and this Farm Bread was a real winner.  Both my husband and I thought that the mascarpone cheese was the true star of the dish.  It tasted more like a light, airy whipped butter rather than mascarpone.  The bread was perfectly crusty on the outside and tender on the inside and really delicious.  And of course, the saltiness of the prosciutto and the tang of the balsamic was balanced by the sweet of the fig, which also added texture, and the sweetness of the mascarpone.  I easily could have taken this Farm Bread as my entree and been perfectly happy.

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My husband chose the Farm Bread topped with brie, onion jam and crisp apple.  Brie and apple have always been a great combination together as warm brie is slightly melty and stringy and has a flavor that pairs well with a tart crunchy apple.  The onion jam was actually quite sweet and this Farm Bread almost tasted more like a dessert bread rather than a savory bread.  For me, the crunch of the crisp apple was the star of the dish.  The onion jam was a surprise as it was more like a morning jam or jelly you’d put on toast without any of the kick of the onion.  Again, the bread itself was perfectly crusty and delicious and really easy to devour.  I think my husband and I were both satisfied with our choices for Farm Bread.

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For dinner, my husband chose the sausage and mushroom gnocci.  Served in an amazing broth and a side of toasted, homemade bread, this handmade gnocci was such a winner for my husband.  The broth was incredibly rich, and incredibly flavorful, but it was also the best part of the dish. The handmade gnocchi was perfectly cooked and incredibly filling.  The flavors of the sausage and the mushroom blended together seamlessly and the slice of toasted crusty bread was a perfect accompaniment to the dish to help sop up all of the delicious brother.  My husband loved the earthy rich flavor of the mushrooms combined with the herbs used to make the broth.  My husband couldn’t believe how incredibly filling this dish and this was exactly the kind of comforting dish he needed after the kind of day we had.  The flavors of a nice home cooked meal to fill the belly.

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I chose to order the arctic char meuniere style with butter, shallots, and garlic lemon.  The dish came with two sides, for which I chose red potatoes double-whipped and potato salad with pickled veggies.  This is such a small thing, but I loved the grilled lemon that came as a side to the dish.  The flavors that the grilling of the lemon brought out of the lemon when squeezed over the grilled fish was amazing.  The grilled arctic char was perfectly cooked, with the fish being incredibly flavorful and flaky, crispy on the outside and tender on the inside.  The meuniere sauce with the butter, shallots and garlic lemon that was poured over the arctic char filets was fantastic and flavorful as well.  The sweetness and richness of the sauce brought out the wonderful flavor of the char.  The mashed red potatoes were nice and creamy and delicious and filling.  By this point, I was full, so I only had a couple of bites of the potato salad, but loved the picked flavor of the veggies, which was a nice change of flavor and texture from the double whipped potatoes and a good contrast to the fish itself.

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Ok, granted, we hadn’t eaten all day up until this point and we were starving, the food we had was so filling and we were so full, we figured we wouldn’t be able to handle dessert.  Of course, we couldn’t say no to looking at the dessert menu, and somehow even though we were both stuffed, we each chose to order our own dessert?  Yeah, not the world’s smartest decision, but we couldn’t seem to resist.  No one ever called us geniuses.  First off, we ordered Uncle Buck’s beignets served with three dipping sauces of raspberry coulis, caramel sauce and semi-sweet chocolate sauce to share.  The fried beignets were dusted in powdered sugar and then served out of a brown paper bag, which was a nice touch.  The beignets themselves were huge in size, but surprisingly light and airy inside, obviously the dough was perfectly made and fried to just the right touch.  Of the three sauces, my husband and I really liked the raspberry coulis as it had just that touch of acidity that balanced out the sweetness of the beignets.  In fact, surprisingly the semi-sweet chocolate sauce was my least favorite dipping sauce as it was just too sweet considering all of the powdered sugar on the beignets.  But truth be told, the beignets were so delicious on their own that they really didn’t need any dipping sauces.  We just gobbled up the beignets and savored their amazing flavor all on their own.

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We were really stuffed by now, and I mean really stuffed and our second dessert order didn’t seem to be arriving.  At this point, we figured it was fine, no need to mention it to the waiter because we were so full anyway, how would we ever finish another dessert, so no harm, no foul if we didn’t get it.  Just as we were about to ask the waiter for the check, he showed up with our second dessert, and I think at that point, both my husband and I looked at each other trying to figure out how we’d ever finish this dessert.  But, we ordered it and it was here and we had to take one for the team and try to find room to stuff it all away.  My dessert selection was the bananas foster milkshake.  We only ordered this milkshake because I’d never seen a bananas foster milkshake before, and I am the ultimate lover of anything banana-flavored.  This milkshake was made for me and I just couldn’t pass it up.  Even though I was so stuffed at this point, I have to say, one sip of this milkshake and I was absolutely in love.  When this is described as bananas foster, that’s exactly what this is.  I’m not sure I’ve ever tasted a speciality milkshake as good as this one.  It tasted exactly like what it should taste like.  Bananas foster is not an easy flavor to pull off, and this was made with actual bananas as there were bits of caramelized bananas at the bottom of the milkshake cup.  You could taste the subtle hints of nutmeg and cinnamon and it was absolutely amazing.  Not too sweet, which was actually quite nice, and the drink was actually made beautifully with the perfect thickness to it.  This was one sensational milkshake, and I dare say it may be the best milkshake I’ve ever had in my life.

To say that my husband and I were incredibly stuffed by the time we walked out of Founding Farmers was an understatement.  Sure, you could say we were starving after having not much of anything to eat all day after having traveled the previous evening.  And sure, maybe that factored into some of it, but it was really the food at Founding Farmers that stuffed us to the gills.  After having missed out on dining here during our previous trip, we were so happy to have had the opportunity to enjoy a nice evening meal at Founding Farmers during this trip to Washington, D.C.  And Founding Farmers did not disappoint in the least.  I don’t remember the last time I left a restaurant so full and so satisfied with my meal.  Everything we ordered was amazing and delicious, and considering how busy the restaurant was, came out lightning quick.  Founding Farmers is a lively space to go to and  unwind on a Saturday night in an upbeat, fun atmosphere.  The food is the star of the restaurant and the diversity and eclectic dishes on the menu highlight just how fresh the ingredients are and how delicious farm food can really be.

Rita’s Ice Custard Happiness

August 16, 2016

It’s been so hot lately that it seems like every day is an ice cream kind of day.  In reality, the weather is just an excuse to go out and get something cool and refreshing like ice cream.  But let’s be honest, I don’t really need an excuse because in my world, every day is an ice cream kind of day.  I’ve had ice cream in extremely hot conditions and I’ve gone out and gotten ice cream when the temperature has been in the single digits.  I don’t discriminate because ice cream is one of my all time favorite treats.  About a year ago, a new ice cream place opened up in our neighborhood, but no matter how many times I mentioned it to my husband, he never had any interest in checking it out.  Then all of a sudden, one day, when we were driving by, he said, “hey, maybe we should check out this new ice cream place you mentioned.”  Finally!

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Rita’s Ice Custard Happiness isn’t your regular ice cream shop.  In fact, they don’t sell ice cream at all.  Instead, they offer Italian ice and custard.  Italian ice, like sorbet, is made with real fruit or fruit flavorings mixed with ice.  Unlike shaved ice which is ice flavored with fruit flavors, Italian ice is mixed much like ice cream is where the ice and the fruit are frozen together as they are mixed in the same process as ice cream.  Italian ice is similar to sorbet and is believed to be so named after Sicilian granita.  Frozen custard is creamier and richer than ice cream in that it contains eggs as well as cream and sugar.

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Using the Italian ice and frozen custard, Rita’s creates different combinations of delicious, icy treats.  As they advertise, you can blend it, drink it, or layer it.  There are various combinations that include just using the Italian ice or just using the frozen custard, but there are other creations that use a mixture of both Italian ice and frozen custard.  Frozen custard flavors can change daily based upon what’s been churned as Rita’s creates Italian ice and frozen custard flavors on a daily basis to make their offerings as fresh as possible.  On the day we visited, the frozen custard flavors offered were chocolate, vanilla, mint and coffee.  Of course, flavors could be mixed and combined to create amazing sundaes or even just frozen custard on a cone.

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Italian ice flavors were much more creative as there are tons of fruit flavor options.  And if you don’t know what you’re looking for or what anything tastes like, Rita’s is nice enough to offer samples before you choose.  The Italian ice flavors are so colorful as well.  Along the back row (L to R) was Dr. Pepper, Tropical Punch and Florida Orange.  It’s amazing how much Italian ice really is creamy like ice cream, and yet you know its ice and not cream.  The front row (L to R) consisted of Pineapple, Wild Black Cherry and Blue Raspberry.

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There were additional flavors in the next case, including Dragonfruit and Swedish Fish.  Apparently, they also had Mango as well, which I definitely would have ordered, except that it was currently been mixed in the kitchen and wouldn’t be ready for a little bit of time.  That was kind of disappointing as Mango is my favorite.

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For my husband’s treat, he chose a the Gelati which is a cup full of Italian ice topped with a swirl of frozen custard.  After looking through his Italian ice options, he chose Swedish Fish for the Italian ice topped with some vanilla frozen custard.  He also asked for a topping of some gummy bears atop his frozen custard.  A gelati is a great combination of being able to have both Italian ice and frozen custard in one dessert.  The Swedish Fish Italian ice was creamy and smooth and a great combination between shave ice and ice cream; you can taste that this is icy and not creamy, but it’s so full of flavor and so compact that it almost has the mouth feel and consistency of ice cream.  The Frozen custard on the other hand is amazing, it’s so thick and creamy.  One spoonful and it’s obvious this isn’t ice cream.  It’s thick, almost the way you think of Turkish coffee vs regular coffee.  You can taste the flavor, quality and difference with the frozen custard, it’s creamy and delicious.  Taking a spoonful that gets you a little bit of Italian ice and a little bit of frozen custard creates a wonderful combination, not only of flavor, but also texture of the different types of icy desserts.  The gelati is a great way to sample both the Italian ice and the frozen custard and my husband was really surprised and blown away by how good the combination of the two desserts was.  He walked into Rita’s a bit skeptical about what they had to offer, and walked out really enjoying his dessert.

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I decided to also get a dessert that combined Italian ice and frozen custard, but in a different way than my husband’s gelati.  I ordered a blendini where the frozen custard and Italian ice is blended together along with a topping to make a frozen, blended dessert.  You start by choosing one flavor of custard, one flavor of Italian ice and one topping.  My choices were Florida’s orange Italian ice, vanilla frozen custard and nilla wafers.  The blendini starts with a scoop of Florida’s orange Italian ice in the bottom of the cup, topped with a layer of vanilla frozen custard, a couple of spoonfuls of nilla wafers top that, and then the cup is filled to the brim with more Italian ice.  The lid is put on the cup, and then the cup is inserted into a machine, similar to a milkshake machine that blends the various layers of topping, Italian ice and frozen custard together into one cohesive dessert where there are no longer three distinct ingredient layers, but rather one cohesive frozen dessert, a blendini.  My blendini tasted exactly like an orange creamsicle, it was fantastic.  Orange and tangy throughout with the Italian ice, and thick and creamy from the frozen custard mixed into it.  The crunch and texture change from the nilla wafer was terrific and delicious.  This was one refreshing and cool icy dessert that I really enjoyed.  It was a little different and new too from your traditional ice cream dessert, and that was much appreciated.

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My husband who was apprehensive about going to Rita’s Ice Custard Happiness walked out of the store a convert at our first trip. He loved not only the Italian ice, but also the frozen custard, and he especially loved the idea of combining the two different icy desserts into his gelati dessert.  I loved the fact that this was different and quite unexpected, and also really delicious and refreshing as well.  Rita’s Ice Custard Happiness has made us so happy that even though it took us over a year to discover this new joint in our neighborhood, within the past few months, we’ve actually visited a couple of times now and I’m sure as we enter summer, we’ll be visiting a bunch more times.

Shanghai River Restaurant

August 10, 2016

At the end of our Vancouver weekend getaway, we changed hotels from our Vancouver harbor downtown hotel to an airport hotel in Richmond, British Columbia as we had an early Monday morning flight back to Los Angeles.  Richmond, which is where the Vancouver airport is located, but also the 4th largest city in the province of British Columbia is known for its ethnic diversity.  In fact, 60% of Richmond’s population is made up of immigrants, with 50% of its population identifying itself as Chinese.  This makes Richmond North America’s city with the largest population of Asians.  Seeing the city’s demographics, my husband knew right away that he wanted our final meal of our weekend getaway trip to be Chinese food.  Once we got to our hotel in the afternoon, we did some research on nearby Chinese restaurants that we could get ourselves to.  It turns out that there was a very good Chinese restaurant just down the street from our hotel a couple of blocks, so we decided to check that out.

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Shanghai River Restaurant is a popular and large family run Chinese restaurant in Richmond.  As its name would indicate, it specialize in cuisine from Shanghai, as well as xiao long bao, which was the main attraction for myself and my husband.  Luckily, when we arrived at the restaurant on Sunday afternoon, it was early enough in the evening, just after the restaurant opened, that we were able to get a table.  As the evening wore on, the restaurant got busy and every single table in this large restaurant seemed to be occupied, especially by large family parties.

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The restaurant is open and bright and modern, and features a display wall with a glass window that looks into the xiao long bao making operation.  Xiao long bao are steamed soup dumplings that are extremely popular.  While you’re dining, you can watch the cooks roll out the dumplings, stuff them, and prepare them to be steamed in wire baskets before their brought steaming hot to your table.

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As I mentioned, one of the main reasons we wanted to dine at Shanghai River Restaurant was the xiao long bao, or the steamed pork soup dumplings.  Ever since we tried our very first soup dumplings, both my husband and I have been in love with the soup dumpling.  A regular pork dumpling, I completely understand it.  But a soup dumpling where the dumpling is filled with both a ground pork mixture and soup broth blows my mind.  Each dumpling is hand made and placed into this bamboo basket.  Once ordered, its steamed and when ready is brought to the table piping hot.  You’re warned to be careful when you eat a dumpling as the broth inside can burn the inside of your month.  Served with the dumplings we received a soy sauce and fresh ginger dipping sauce.  Most people would be satisfied with one order of pork soup dumplings, not my husband and I though, we ordered 2 orders of 8 pieces each and we gobbled it up like we hadn’t had anything else to eat all day.  The pork soup dumplings were absolutely delicious.  Created to just the right size, each dumpling is bite-sized, so you just pop it in your mouth and let the flavor explode.  The dumpling itself has just the right amount of elasticity, but is thin enough that you’re not just trying to chew through a mouth full of dough.  The ground pork mixture inside the xiao long bao was quite flavorful and juicy as well.  It’s no wonder that they can churn out these little dumplings by the dozens, they have to in order to keep up with the demand for them.  My husband and I loved them so much.

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We didn’t want to order rice or a rice-based dish that would fill us up too quickly, so we opted to order a noodle dish instead.  My husband left it up to me to find a dish and order it, so I saw something in the menu called “pan fried homemade noodle with pork.”  Pan fried noodles sounded exactly like the kind of dish I was looking for, something flavorful and light.  Being that the noodles were homemade noodles sounded even more intriguing as my husband and I have always been a fan of homemade pasta at Italian restaurants, so we hoped that homemade noodles at a Chinese restaurant would be just as spectacular.  We weren’t disappointed in the least.  These pan fried noodles were pretty simple being stir fried with just green onions and pork and some soy sauce.  It’s amazing how simple ingredients can create such a fantastic dish.  The homemade noodles were long and thin and flat and were out of this world.  They were perfectly prepared and absorbed all the amazing flavors of the stir fry.  The pork was a great protein option and the green onions added a bit of crunch plus a subtle onion flavor.  This was a much larger dish than I expected it to be too, but it was so good that my husband and I devoured it.  My husband even admitted that this dish was much better than he had expected it to be when he told me that I could choose a noodle dish and order it.  After having had the soup dumplings and now the homemade noodles, it’s obvious that Shanghai River Restaurant specializes in making homemade dough from scratch to perfection.

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The other thing that my husband really wanted to order was Peking duck.  He’s a huge duck fan, and tries to order duck at every chance he gets.  On the menu, Shanghai River Restaurant offered Peking duck 2 ways, so we decided to give that a try.  The first way you get duck is traditional Peking duck style where the skin is deep fried separate from the meat.  The duck meat is roasted and everything is cut up into small pieces.  The skin ends up incredibly crispy and crunchy and the meat is tender and juicy.  Served along side Chinese pancakes, a soy dipping sauce, cucumbers and green onions you basically are supposed to take the ingredients and create a duck sandwich or roll.  In our case, our Chinese pancake was basically a small crepe-like pancake which is steamed and folded and served to the table warm.  You open up the pancake, load in a piece or two of duck, with the skin, take a spoonful of sauce, a spear of cucumber and a bit of green onion, then you fold over the crepe to make a spring roll-like roll and you enjoy the Peking duck.  First off, the duck itself was tasty and delicious.  I’m not as big of a fan of duck as my husband, but even I could appreciate how delicious this Peking duck was.  The duck skin was perfectly crispy and crunchy and perfectly prepared.  The duck meat itself was very tender, very moist and full of flavor.  Making the whole concoction into a duck roll was terrific, the green onion and cucumber help to cut through the fattiness of the duck meat and the duck skin.  The soy dipping sauce adds a bit of sweetness to the roll and the veggies add a fresh element to balance the flavors that are all contained within this thin Chinese pancake.  While the dish was huge, my husband and I loved the flavors so much we couldn’t stop making rolls and next thing you know, we actually finished the dish.  It’s dishes like this that reinforce to my husband why he loves duck so much.

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As I said, the menu said Peking duck 2 ways.  It turns out that the 2nd duck dish, you can actually choose how you want it prepared.  We were given several different options for the duck preparation, which included a soup option.  But ultimately, my husband and I chose something a little different and unexpected, lettuce wraps.  Not traditionally a Chinese meal item, we were so surprised when presented with this option, and it was so different and creative and unique that we decided to try the lettuce wraps.  Presented along with a whole plate piled high with crispy, fresh, iceberg lettuce leaves for us to wrap up our duck filling in,  a second plate was piled high with stir fried duck meat.  The duck meat filling was made with dark duck meat, onions, green onions, water chestnuts and pine nuts all sautéed with soy sauce and other spices and poured out atop a bed of crispy noodles.  Each ingredient added flavor and texture to the duck meat filling; a little sweetness, a little saltiness and to of crunch.  Add spoonfuls of the filling into a lettuce leaf and roll it all up to make a really filling and awesome lettuce wrap.  The duck meat was, again tender and incredibly flavorful.  As mentioned, I’m not the duck fan that my husband is, but these two duck dishes that we were presented with at Shanghai River Restaurant were enough to change my mind on just how good duck can be when prepared the right way.

Since coming home from our trip to Vancouver, my husband has talked about Shanghai River Restaurant a couple of times, not only because of the Peking duck dishes we ordered but also for the xiao long bao.  By dining at Shanghai River Restuarant, we felt like we were getting an authentic Chinese/Shanghai dining experience.  The food was second to none in preparation and taste.  And the fact that they churned out these wonderful dishes in record time was terrific.  Being able to watch the chefs prepare the xiao long bao that we were dining on just added to the entertainment factor of the restaurant.  This was a terrific dining experience to end our trip to Vancouver with, Chinese food that just can’t be beat.

Bellagio Cafe

August 5, 2016

After a full day of sightseeing in Victoria it was time to take an early evening floatplane trip back to Vancouver.  We took off just as the sun was beginning its descent into the horizon and the views were beautiful.  When we arrived back in Vancouver it was time to head off and find some food.  After having skipped lunch in favor of gelato and having walked all over Butchart Gardens, we were pretty hungry.  Luckily, the floatplane terminal is right in downtown Vancouver and we were so close to the Convention Center and Canada Place.  There were a ton of food options in the area.  Since we hadn’t planned in advance, we weren’t looking for anything too fancy, just something we could both enjoy and that would fill us up.  As we headed towards Canada Place, we saw an Italian restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating on the backside of the Convention Center with views of Canada Place and we agreed this looked to be as good of a choice as any for dinner.

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Bellagio Cafe is an Italian restaurant with two downtown Vancouver locations.  Opening its doors on Canada Day 2011, the Convention Center location features a wood stone pizza oven, an extensive wine selection and indoor and outdoor seating that affords views of the mountains and the harbor as well as the beautiful architecture of Canada Place.  This downtown location near Canada Place was so convenient for us as it was close to the floatplane terminal and all within walking distance of our hotel, and the atmosphere of the restaurant was relaxed and peaceful and outdoor seating with heat lamps available, even though it was the evening, was nice and quiet and a great way to unwind at the end of a very busy day.

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My husband decided to unwind with a pint of Stanley Park Amber Ale.  Brewed locally by Stanley Park Brewing and in honor of the city’s great Stanley Park, this ale is made in the Belgian ale style using a blend of specialty Belgian malts, East Kent Golding hops and a distinctive ale yeast which all creates this golden amber ale with a soft caramel aroma.  My husband thought that the Stanley Park Amber Ale was easy to drink and went down smooth.  He appreciated the flavor of it, even though this is generally a lighter beer than he usually enjoys.  For a light amber ale, this one was a winner for him and unexpectedly he enjoyed it more than he thought he would.

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As we had skipped lunch this day, we decided we’d order two different appetizers to fill up on dinner.  Our first appetizer was the crab cake.  Breaded crab cakes were served with mixed greens with beets, cherry tomatoes and a basil aioli.  Unfortunately, I don’t think my husband nor I were particularly overjoyed at the crab cakes.  First off, the crab cakes appeared to be more like flat patties than crab cakes.  They were also very heavily breaded and contained a lot of fillers and it didn’t really taste like it had very much actual crab meat at all, which was disappointing.  The crab cakes were nice and crunchy, but the flavor just wasn’t there.  The best part of the appetizer, I thought, was the mixed green salad that came with it, so that tells you what you need to do know about the crab cakes.  I could have done without these.

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The second appetizer we chose was the calamari fritti.  Generally speaking, I’m the calamari fan and my husband is not.  He will tolerate it every now and then, but usually he’d prefer that we not order the calamari.  However, this time, he said we should go ahead and order the calamari as well.  Served with a citrus infused chipotle aioli, the calamari fritti was billed as being crispy on the outside and tender on the inside.  When the dish was presented at the table, it looked mouthwatering.  The batter on the calamari was perfect, nice and light and indeed crispy on the outside.  The calamari rings were of a good size and the citrus infused chipotle aioli was actually really good with enough flavor but not too much spice and heat.  My husband even enjoyed the calamari, which was quite unusual for him.  This appetizer was a real winner, delicious and filling and perfectly prepared.

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For my dinner, I ordered the chicken parmigiana, which was described as breaded tender “free-run” chicken breast fillet in herbed tomato sauce with garlic mashed potatoes and seasonal vegetables.  The dish was huge when it came to the table and I was a little overwhelmed.  Unfortunately, I was a bit underwhelmed with the dish itself.  The chicken breast fillet was actually cooked well and the chicken was tender and juicy.  The breading was decent, but really started to fall off towards the end of my meal as the tomato sauce started to soak into the breading.  However, the herbed tomato sauce was quite disappointing, and the mozzarella cheese that topped the chicken breast fillet and melted under the broiler was quite tasteless and stringy in a way that I’m not used to.  The tomato sauce tasted quite acidic and really lacked any of the herb flavor it was advertised as having.  For some reason, I just felt that the flavor was a little “off” and that was disappointing.  In fact, it was the accompaniments on the plate, the garlic mashed potatoes and the roasted broccolini that were the star of the dish.  The mashed potatoes were subtly flavored yet nice and creamy and smooth and delicious.  The roasted broccolini was fantastic, lots of fresh, bright flavor, and still slightly crunchy.  If only a lot more restaurants served broccolini.

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My husband chose a pasta dish for his meal – aglio e olio e Gamberetti.  The name of the dish is a mouthful.  Essentially, the dish is a penne pasta tossed in a garlic olive oil and chili sauce with grilled prawns, fresh grape tomatoes and basil.  In contrast to my dish, my husband found his dish to be much tastier and better than he had expected it to be.  The garlic olive oil and chili sauce was the star of the dish for my husband.  The flavor really permeated throughout the pasta and while it was a little spicy, it wasn’t overpowering.  My husband thought that the spice was a nice warm spice that opened up your taste buds.  The grilled prawns were good, though not very numerous.  However, my husband finished off his entire penne dish and thought that dinner was very filling and quite tasty so he was satisfied.

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By the end of the night, we were a bit full, but we had spotted a dessert on the dessert menu earlier that we had both wanted to try and it sounded different and unique, so we figured we could find a little bit more room and split a dessert.  The chocolate calzone was described as mascarpone and chocolate hazelnut in a warm flatbread.  The pastry is filled, folded over and baked in the pizza oven.  The calzone comes to the table looking exactly like a calzone, but in dessert form topped with a drizzle of chocolate and caramel sauce and topped with a generous helping of powdered sugar.  The flavor of the chocolate calzone was fantastic.  There was enough filling inside that it didn’t feel like we were just eating pizza dough.  The combination mascarpone and chocolate hazelnut was terrific, subtle, but yet still sweet and definitely a dessert.  The calzone itself was flaky and crispy and quite filling.  I really liked that it was creative and different from what you normally get for dessert at an Italian restaurant.

Bellagio Cafe met our needs for what we were looking for for dinner on a Saturday night in downtown Vancouver without any reservations.  After having such a long day out in Victoria, we just wanted a nice, relaxing restaurant to sit down and enjoy the evening.  Situated right at Canada Place and with a view of the harbor front, outdoor dining at Bellagio Cafe was nice and relaxing.  While the food was hit or miss for me, my husband thoroughly enjoyed his meal.  Bellagio Cafe may not be the best Italian restaurant I’ve ever been to before, it worked for what we needed and what we were looking for, and the chocolate calzone was a delicious way to end our meal.

Victoria Ice Cream & Fudge Factory

August 2, 2016

For the first day of our weekend getaway to Vancouver, my husband and I decided to go on a little adventure and take a 30-minute seaplane trip out to Victoria on Vancouver Island.  The flight out to Victoria was fun, and the views were stunning.  When we first arrived in Victoria, we did a whale watching trip on a Zodiak which was adventurous, to say the least.  In the afternoon, we were scheduled to go out and see the beautiful Butchart Gardens.  In between these two activities for our day, we had about an hour to kill in downtown Victoria to walk around, see the sights, and maybe grab a bite to eat.IMG_3280

As we wandered around the streets of downtown Victoria and did a little shopping, we came upon a cute, old time ice cream and candy shop that I just couldn’t pass up.  The Victoria Ice Cream & Fudge Factory had a huge sign outside advertising that they offered 66 different flavors of Italian ice cream, or gelato.  Knowing what an ice cream fan I am, my husband said that there wasn’t anyway we could pass this up.  So we decided to wander in to see what the store had to offer.  While we were there for the ice cream, the Victoria Ice Cream & Fudge Factory offered so much more, as its name would indicate.  There was a display case full of fresh homemade fudge, there was a “Gummy Zone” advertising fresh gummy’s that you could bag yourself, there was taffy, and there was a wide selection of Canadian cookies and treats that tourists could take home as gifts.

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But we were there for the gelato.  On the counter, there was a sign explaining exactly what the difference between gelato and ice cream is.  As it says, “Gelato is an Italian Ice Cream made from milk condensed with flavours, fruits and sweetners.  It’s ingredients are pasturized and then super-cooled while stirring to break up ice crystals.”  The sign goes on to explain that because gelato has far less than than commercial ice cream, it ultimately is creamier and tastes better.  If you’ve ever had fresh, homemade gelato, you can definitely taste the difference between ice cream and gelato, the flavors are fresher and the cream is thicker and creamer with a higher milk fat content and definitely more dense with less air.

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With 66 different flavors of gelato to choose from, this was going to be fun.  All of the different flavors of gelato were so colorful and so artfully designed so as to be appealing to the consumer.  And they all had fun names to go with their unique flavors.  There was lemon death, chocolate raspberry, vanilla mango marble, mango, white chocolate raspberry and mint chocolate chip.  Normally, I’d jump all over the mango, but this time, there were so many other flavors it was hard to choose from.  Even the lemon death sounded amazing, a beautiful swirls of bright pink and yellow.  I imagine it was extra lemon-y!

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Bright blue bubble gum accented by a yellow rubber ducky caught the eye of the little boy in line ahead of me and he couldn’t resist.  I imagine that by the time he was done with his cone, his face was going to be a nice blue mess.  Pecan mudslide, butter pecan and cappuccino cookie were a couple of other flavors offered.  Cappuccino cookie sounds really good to me, I’ve always been a sucker for coffee-flavored ice cream.  BC berries was a nice purple color that I imagine would taste really good to those who love fresh summer berries.  Berry cheesecake and strawberry shortcake were also both delectable offerings.

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Some more traditional flavors included cookies & cream, green tea, tiramisu, vanilla, chai tea and Belgian cookie crunch.  It’s when you taste flavors such as cookies & cream in a gelato form vs it’s ice cream counterpart, which is often found, that you can really taste the difference between the taste and quality of ice cream vs gelato.

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Other flavors offered included stracciatella, which is my personal favorite flavor.  Stracciatella is the equivalent to chocolate chip in ice cream form.  There was also maple walnut, rocky road, pistachio, Belgian chocolate, chocolate peanut butter and seafoam toffee.  All of the chocolate flavors looked so decadent and luxurious.  In addition to gelato, Victoria Ice Cream & Fudge Factory also offered cheesecake triangles, where the cheesecake were cut into triangles and put on sticks before being dipped in chocolate and coated in toppings such as cookie crumbs, rainbow sprinkles, chocolate sprinkles, and nuts.

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Finally, there was a whole section of non-dairy sorbets that included flavors such as chocolate sorbetto, exotica, fruits of forest, raspberry, lemon, blueberry, blackberry and pineapple.

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Of all of the flavor choices available, I couldn’t resist ordering a scoop of banana fudge on a cone.  At first, I saw the strawberry banana and thought I wanted that as it’s a flavor combination you just can’t go wrong with.  I even asked for a sample spoonful of strawberry banana, which was really tasty and not too sweet.  However, as soon as I saw the combination of banana and fudge, so that you get both the chocolate and the banana, then I really couldn’t exist.  I loved my banana fudge.  The subtle sweetness of the banana was always in the background providing sweetness to the gelato, but the swirl of chocolate fudge rounded out the flavor of the gelato making it creamy and rich.  The flavor of this gelato was delicious and it definitely hit the spot on this afternoon.  I was really happy with my choice.

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For my husband, he saw spumoni as a gelato flavor being offered and he knew he had to have a scoop.  So a scoop of spumoni on a cone was his choice.  One lick of the gelato and he absolutely loved it.  Spumoni is an Italian favorite and generally made up of a mix of 3 different flavors, traditionally cherry, pistachio and chocolate.  The mix of colors that make up spumoni really stands out and is quite colorful.  It’s the mix of the flavors and how they come together that really make spumoni what it is.  My husband loved the flavor combinations in this particular gelato flavor.  He finished off his ice cream cone in a matter of minutes.  In fact, my husband loved his spumoni so much that at the end of the day, when we were running out of time during our visit to Victoria, my husband even suggested we make a quick trip back to Victoria Ice Cream & Fudge Factory so that he could get another scoop of spumoni to go!

Victoria Ice Cream & Fudge Factory was a terrific midday snack break in between the activities we had planned for our day in Victoria.  With 66 different flavors of gelato to choose from, its pretty much a guarantee that everyone will find a flavor that appeals to them.  And with both traditional creamy gelato and sorbetto flavors, even those who don’t like dairy can find a flavor they can enjoy.  My husband was so taken by find a spumoni gelato that he really enjoyed that he seriously considered a quick trip back to Victoria Ice Cream & Fudge Factory to get another scoop of gelato before we took our floatplane trip back to Vancouver.  It’s pretty much a given that you can never go wrong with ice cream or gelato, and when you have this many flavors to choose from, it’s a win-win.

Currents at the Westin Bayshore Vancouver

July 27, 2016

My husband and I love to travel and we’re always on the lookout for great travel deals.  Some times, we plan trips in advance and find the best deal based around the trip we’ve planned.  Other times, we find great travel deals and then just throw a trip together around the deal we’ve come across.  The latter is how our trip to Vancouver came about.  Late in 2015 my husband came across a great airfare deal from Los Angeles to Vancouver that we just couldn’t pass up, so we jumped on it.  Besides, Vancouver is one of our favorite cities, so it’s not like its a hardship to put together a nice weekend getaway to one of the prettiest, if not the prettiest, city in the Pacific Northwest.  Once we booked our airfare, I knew exactly where I wanted to stay in the city, one of my favorite hotels of all time, the Westin Bayshore Vancouver.

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Part of our hotel package included breakfast each morning at the Westin Bayshore’s restaurant, Currents.  Aptly named as the Westin Bayshore sits right at the head of English Bay and next to Stanley Park, this is the area of Vancouver where the Pacific Ocean comes right into Vancouver harbor.  Currents sits at the back of the hotel with large floor-to-ceiling windows with beautiful views of the hotel’s garden, pool and a slight glimpse of the harbor.   Set up as a buffet, breakfast each morning offered a wide selection of food, both hot and cold, for everyone to enjoy.

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Starting with the cold breakfast offerings, there was a selection of cereal, bran and granola with different kinds of milk to choose from a toppings of nights and dried fruit.  There was also oatmeal as well that you could top off with nuts, brown sugar and dried fruit as well.

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Next to the cereal was a selection of fresh sliced artisan breads (there was a toaster to use to toast your bread), New York style bagels, croissants, scones and other fresh baked pastries.  There was also a small selection of individually packaged jars of honey.

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Further down the line there was a chilled selection of peach, raspberry and no fat probiotic yogurt for those looking for a healthier alternative for breakfast.  There was also fresh sliced seasonal fruit that included pineapple, honeydew, cantaloupe and watermelon.

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Cold cuts are such a popular breakfast item.  There was a selection of cured meats, and a selection of smoked salmon with all of the fixings of pickles and lemon wedges to top a bagel with or use some of the soft crusty rolls to make a sandwich.  There were balls of butter and a selection of cheeses as well if a breakfast sandwich was your desire.

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Finally we move to the hot food section of the buffet.  You’ve got your servings of bacon and sausage.  Hard to have any sort of breakfast buffet without bacon.  I think the hotel guests would revolt if they didn’t get their bacon.

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There was also a selection of hot vegetables.  The first day we got sautéed broccoli with onions.  The next day this was actually sautéed mushrooms instead of broccoli.  There was hot potatoes with scallions and cherry tomatoes which were absolutely delicious I had to help myself to a couple of servings of potatoes.  But then again, I am a meat and potatoes kind of girl.  And of course, you’ve got to have scrambled eggs.  Scrambled eggs are like bacon, you better be serving them or the hotel guests won’t be happy.

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Of course, if you wanted your eggs a different way, say hard or soft boiled or even fried eggs, you could get that at the egg station where the chef was also doing make-your-own-omelets.  The make-your-own-omelet option came with a choice of eggs or egg whites with filling options of cheese, tomatoes, ham, mushrooms, spinach, green onions, onions and baby shrimp.  Luckily, the buffet wasn’t too busy so the wait for an omelet was only a couple of minutes.

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I’m an omelet fan, so I had to get myself an omelet.  Cheese, ham, green onions in mine would be perfect thank you.  Grab some pieces of bacon, a helping of hot potatoes and a couple of slices of toast to go with some butter.  There’s already jam in jars on the table for me, and a nice tall glass of orange juice.  Perfect.  A filling, breakfast of champions to give me enough energy to last through the day.  What a nice way to start out the morning.

A nice hotel buffet breakfast of some of my favorite breakfast items really can get you through the day.  We fueled up each morning at Currents for breakfast before we headed off on our adventures in and around Vancouver.  While the buffet wasn’t the largest I’ve ever seen, it didn’t matter because it was filled with all sorts of yummy, delicious offerings that I enjoyed.  Certainly, no one would leave breakfast hungry.  And really, all you need in the morning is just something to get you going whether that be eggs, or bacon, or yogurt or smoked salmon.  A little food in your belly goes a long way.  And the beautiful views at Currents is a nice way to start out the day.