Review: reasons to be pretty (a play by Neil LaBute), Havana Restaurant

reasons to be pretty (a play by Neil LaBute), Havana Restaurant

Beyond YVR neglected to review this play last week, but luckily there are two more performances left.

My experience of Neil LaBute’s work is that although the plays take rather ordinary individuals in mundane situations, the drama and dialogue make them very interesting to watch. “reasons to be pretty” features four working-class characters in stalled and problematic relationships. Three of them work in a factory of some sort, and much of the dialogue occurs at meal breaks.

Greg is an ordinary, “aw shucks” type of guy, who is friends with a would-be Casanova type, Kent, a stereotypical good-looking jock who vacuously moves through life manipulating women. Kent (played by James Paladino) could be seen as a caricature, but most women can likely attest that is not necessarily the case. The two women characters, Steph (Greg’s girlfriend) and Carly (Kent’s wife), are close friends, and it is Carly’s report of what she heard Greg saying to Kent that sparks the initial confrontation. Kent sees Carly as a beautiful possession, and not surprisingly, holds rather conventional and exploitative attitudes towards women.

Is Greg just tolerating Steph, who perhaps is on the plain side compared to the unseen Crystal, a young, hot girl that has just joined the shipping department? But, as is often the case, Steph’s and Greg’s initial argument is not just about Greg saying 10 or 15 words. Steph feels alone, unappreciated, and stuck.

The drama proceeds, and nothing that happens is particularly surprising. The end of the play is not much of a cliffhanger, but that’s intentional.

I’d love to see the sequel, “reasons to be happy”, that revisits these characters four years later. But for now, “reasons to be pretty” is enjoyable and thought-provoking. It is produced by Fighting Chance Productions.

Dine Out Vancouver – Review of SoL Sun Belt Cookery (January 30, 2014)

BeyondYVR does Dine Out once again! In celebration of our webmistress’s birthday, we went out to SoL Sun Belt Cookery to partake in some Moroccan food. What can be as good as hot, spicy, saucy treats on a wet, windy and freezing Thursday evening?

(for a description of Dine Out Vancouver, refer to the first paragraphs in another of our posts, at http://ow.ly/tax65)

We’re both familiar with the seawall but have never stopped into SoL before. The food is the work of Abdel Elatouabi, who has cooked for the Crown Prince of Morocco as well as ran Le Marrakech in Vancouver. Situated on the north side of Denman, one gets a beautiful view of Coal Harbour while basking in the soft lighting and clean, comfortable furnishings of the restaurant.

SoL Sun Belt Cookery

SoL Sun Belt Cookery

As both of us were present for tonight’s meal, we each took three different courses from the Dine Out menu. Thus, enjoy our two-for-one review of this restaurant!

First came the appetizers, of which we had:

Vegetarian antipasto featuring hummus, falafel and grilled eggplant – the standard mezzes one seeks from a Middle Eastern establishment. Having that Moroccan twist, all three were mildly spiced, with a good texture. The complimentary flavors worked well together, and this dish definitely met our expectations.

Antipasto - (L-R) hummus, falafel, flatbread, grilled eggplant

Antipasto – (L-R) hummus, falafel, flatbread, grilled eggplant

Grilled house merguez sausage – with a crispy exterior and tender meat, the sausage was well-prepared and matched with the lightly marinated vegetables that topped them. That being said, the meat was a little too indiscernible amongst the textures, the harissa being a little overpowering on the dish. In this case, the harissa was finely ground but as a result a touch dusty, and in this case a little less may have perhaps been more. Presentation-wise, the arrangement on the plate left space which felt empty and gave an incomplete impression.

Grilled house merguez sausage with flatbread

Grilled house merguez sausage with flatbread

The mains we chose were:

Grilled mackerel with Moroccan spice and potato latkes – seasoned with chermoula, a citrus and cumin based marinade, the fillet served was surprisingly large. Perfectl done, the texture was flaky but not dry; oily with that savoury mackerel aroma, with the citrus from the chermoula and tomato-based sauce on the side helping to balance out the potential heaviness of the meat. However, the latkes were not particularly memorable accompaniments – instead of the tender, slightly crunchy texture where one can feel the separate slivers of potatoes in the mouth, these nuggets were compacted and deep-fried, making them individual pockets of flavor that did not interact with the rest of the dish.

In a sense, it seemed like having an amazing piece of fish with a McDonald’s hashbrown on the side. A well-prepared, not too heavy hashbrown, but a hashbrown nonetheless.

Grilled mackerel with potato latke

Grilled mackerel with potato latke

Duck leg confit – served with wild mushroom risotto cake, fennel orange salad, and cranberry citrus sauce, the duck was intensely flavorful, causing us to succumb to the temptation (and social faux pas) of picking up the bones to gnaw at them. The orange in the fennel did not stand out, but the fennel had a milder flavor which worked well with the duck. Cranberry citrus sauce is a general favorite of ours, and this variation was one we could have happily eaten a bowlful of. However, there was only a discreet swirl, like a coulis, which, while we cursed the paucity of, have to admit they did the right thing from a presentation point of view.

Duck Confit with fennel, orange and cranberry sauce

Duck confit with fennel, orange and cranberry sauce

So far, so good! And, after a lovely time chatting, dessert came, which were:

Moroccan beignets with dark chocolate and roasted almonds – truthfully, chocolate or almond flavors did not really come to play in this dish. Though the base garnish underneath must have had these ingredients from the coloring, the beignets were rather thick and quite chewy, giving the dish a very dense feel whose flavor seemed to be monopolized by the icing sugar that felt caked on as a result. By contrast, had the beignets been light and fluffy like those in New Orleans, the expansive mouthfeel from the pastry may have helped to space out the sweet sugar flavor, allowing the other components to shine through.

Moroccan beignets, dark chocolate and powdered almonds

Moroccan beignets, dark chocolate and powdered almonds

Apple and chocolate tart, with cinnamon sorbet – again, we were quite disappointed with this dish. The apple was fine, although a bit unsubstantial, and the chocolate was an interesting contrast. The ice cream just did not feel quite right – the tart being room temperature when served, the contrast the chef may have intended did not come out as vividly. Cream would have been preferred in this case. The cinnamon sorbet also failed to contribute anything to the dish – it was a watery, slushy sugar syrup, without much of a cinnamon flavor, and we did not continue past the first spoonful.

Apple and chocolate tart, cinnamon sorbet

Apple and chocolate tart, cinnamon sorbet

Service was very polite, very relaxed and let us sit back and enjoy a leisurely three-hour meal. However, there were interminable gaps between setting out the next dish, and instead of presenting us with the bill we had to inquire after twenty minutes of sitting around, talking. It’s a fine line with these establishments and their discretion was appreciated, but having your guests wait a half hour between each dish is a bit excessive.

One of SoL’s mottos is to feed your soul. With the first two dishes, it seemed like that they would completely satisfy that objective, but dessert seemed like an afterthought when compared to how tasty and varied the substantive parts of our dinners were. Presentation and service seem to be refined, however, and at $28 per meal, we had a very reasonable meal that was, overall, a nice experience.

SoL Sun Belt Cookery can be found at http://www.solsunbelt.com/.

Details on Dine Out Vancouver can be found at http://www.dineoutvancouver.com/.

Dine Out Vancouver at Chicha, (January 28, 2014)

Chicha, a Peruvian restaurant located at 136 East Broadway, has rapidly gained a good reputation in Mount Pleasant. Beyond YVR went there for a solo dinner this week to try the $28 Dine Out Vancouver option (for more information about Dine Out, see my friend’s post here).

I had tried to make a reservation by email, but I had not heard back, so I decided to go and try my luck. After a brief wait, I got a seat at the bar. Although I generally dislike sitting on high stools, it was reasonably comfortable. The staff was friendly, and I took a look at the options provided. You can choose an appetizer, two tapa-type dishes for the entrée, and one of two desserts.

I began with the “Palitas de Yuca” (described as “Cassava root, huancaina sauce”), which use the same cassava plant (also called yuca or manioc) that is used for the flour in Brazilian cheese breads, and which is also processed as tapioca powder. Cassava is fascinating in terms of its significance as a food source in the developing world. In short, it is fairly nutritious, but is very high in carbohydrates with a very low protein content, so a population that relies too exclusively on cassava will be undernourished. Wikipedia will give you a start. But geopolitical considerations of population nutrition were not immediately relevant. These palitas were fried chunks of tasty starch. I completely enjoyed them and would far prefer them to even gourmet potato chips. The serving size was reasonable, even if I would happily have eaten much more.

My two choices for the entrée were Verduras causa (described as “Beetroot whipped potato topped with lima bean puree, pickled beets, chili yams chips”) and Lomo saltado (“Flat iron steak, kennebec fries, red onion, peppers, tomato wok fried with soy sauce, garlic, and aji amarillo chili”). The steak arrived first, and I truly enjoyed the combination of vegetables, spices, and meat. My other dish arrived later, and had a beautiful presentation (sadly, the light was too low and my phone too dead to take pictures). But this whipped combination of beets and potatoes was rather chilly. Fortuitously, I was distracted by some reading material, and left it on the counter for a bit. It warmed up, and I enjoyed it much more after that.

I chose the “Lucuma, white chocolate, and lime frozen torte with passion fruit and raspberry sauce” for dessert. This was tasty, no doubt about it, and I happily consumed it. But I would have preferred more fruit and less sweetness. My limited experience with Dine Out suggests that restaurants should consider an option for a very simple fruit-based dessert, rather than adding another complex option on top of an interesting meal. Lucuma, by the way, is an Andean fruit I had never experienced before.

I enjoyed my meal here, and would happily return, although I might try to time a visit for a less-crowded time, and bring a friend so we can share multiple tapas plates.

Frank Theatre Company Presents Ga Ting (Family)

The Frank Theatre Company (formerly Screaming Weenie) has taken the lead in presenting complex, multicultural productions that explore intersections of gender, sexual orientation, race, and ethnicity. Chris Gatchalian’s Falling In Time, which examined the ongoing trauma wrought by the Korean War in the lives of its participants and victims, was one example that I appreciated seeing.

Now The Frank Theatre Company is bringing “Ga Ting” (Family) to Richmond Gateway Theatre in March.

An immigrant Chinese couple attempts to come to terms with their son’s death, and who he truly was, by inviting his Caucasian boyfriend over for dinner.

Performed in English and Cantonese with English and Chinese surtitles ASL interpretation for 2 performances

A world premiere Produced by the frank theatre company and Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre,  in partnership with The City of Richmond

Minh Ly Written by Minh Ly, Directed by Rick Tae, Featuring Michael Antonakos, BC Lee and Alanna Ong

 

March 22-30, 2014 Richmond Arts Centre 7700 Minoru Gate, Richmond

Beyond YVR has a strong interest in multicultural, multilingual theatre and is looking forward to this production.

Dine Out Vancouver – Review of Wildebeest Restaurant (January 29, 2014)

Currently, Dine Out Vancouver is on.  Running until Feb. 2, it is a great time to experiment at a new restaurant. Participating restaurants have prix fixe menus set an $18, $28 or $38 price point, and most menus are three courses – the appetizer, main and dessert. These prices are often fairly good value to the customer, and restaurants get new people to walk through the doors. Since its inception in 2002, menus have gotten more ambitious and the scope of participants has expanded, making it a nice event to spice up January, a time when people want to be economical.

Tonight BeyondYVR went to Wildebeest restaurant. One of the hotter restaurants on the edge of Gastown, Wildebeest has become known for its adventurous combinations, winning the 2013 Vancouver Magazine award for Best New Restaurant. A restaurant mostly intended for the discerning carnivore, unique cuts of meat are presented in novel ways to entertain the palate. A large range of alcohols is also available including a comprehensive beer menu.

Upon entrance, we were seated at a large picnic-style table, two of which adorn the back of Wildebeest. An open kitchen was situated to our left so we could see the chefs as they cooked. Interesting touches were the dark lighting, décor fashioned from a wide range of woods and the rustic feel, offering simply nails in the wall to let people hang up their coats.

A view of the kitchen

A view of the kitchen

A table

A table

From the setting and the menu, it was pretty clear that Wildebeest was trying its best to tap into the Portland gastropub motif. The question was, would it succeed?

My appetizer was a lamb tartare that I thought was done very well. Lamb’s fattiness balanced well with the added horseradish and mustard seed, with that fat being key to mellowing out the wild taste of the meat. My friend’s cured confit trout salad was also very nice – light and refreshing, the trout having a slight smokiness and the restrained use of salt allowing the fish to shine through.

Appetizers - Cured Trout Salad (L) and Lamb Tartare (R)

Appetizers – Cured Trout Salad (L) and Lamb Tartare (R)

Next came a roasted ‘chicketta’, which was pork wrapped in chicken breast, pan seared, and served with roasted squash. The meat was very tender with the pork salted just perfectly for the whole piece, with the squash adding a beautiful sweetness. Any heaviness was balanced by the black garlic and vinegar sauce. I also added some butter-roasted veal sweetbreads at $9, which added a unique fluffy textural counterpart to the firm chicken and pork. My friend’s hanger steak was a lovely medium-rare, allowing one to enjoy the succulence of the meat and its balance with the sweetness of the pan-seared potatoes on the side.

Roasted 'Chicketta' with black garlic jus and roasted squash

Roasted ‘Chicketta’ with black garlic jus and roasted squash

Hangar steak, potato Lyonnaise, and butter-roasted sweet breads

Hangar steak, potato Lyonnaise, and butter-roasted sweet breads

Dessert was not as well-received as the other dishes. My cheesecake mousse, was a touch too salty with a goat component, and the lightness they intended thus lost because of the heavy taste. Garnished crumble confused my palate because the mousse itself was too light in texture to really stand up to the crunchiness. The added blood orange sorbet was too cold, off-setting the overall temperature of the dish, and did not balance out any of the issues. My friend’s chocolate sorbet with pear mousse and solid pears was nicer, but it was a very standard dessert.

Cheesecake mousse with blood orange sorbet and crumble

Cheesecake mousse with blood orange sorbet and crumble

Chocolate sorbet with pear crisps and poached pear

Chocolate sorbet with pear crisps and poached pear

At $38 for the base menu, I feel that Wildebeest was a nice adventure but I don’t think it was as good as others have made it out to be. The portion sizes are rather small, and the presentation seemed somewhat lacking. Dessert was a miss overall but the rest of dinner was great. Our server was also good – being quite timely with water, presenting us with food quite quickly and being friendly in conversation, but not overly intrusive.

I did like it, so next time I will go for just a light meal, without dessert!

Wildebeest can be found at http://wildebeest.ca/

Details on Dine Out Vancouver can be found at http://www.dineoutvancouver.com/

Review of “One” (PuSH Festival) at The Cultch (January 29, 2014)

I was a bit apprehensive about how I would like this one-man show, as I have experienced some autobiographical one-person shows that seemed tedious and self-absorbed. It’s a hazard of the genre. But I had no need to worry about this play, written and acted by Mani Soleymanlou. His perspective is outward-facing, and his self-examination is informed and questioning, I recommend seeing it if you are interested in cultural mixing, the formation of identity, or just simply in Iran.

Here’s the trailer, although in my opinion the actual performance is better.

Mani Soleymanlou, born in Iran in 1982, has lived in Paris, Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal. He is a francophone who is not of French ethnic descent, but this is more typical than not. He attended a French-language high school in Toronto with 350 students from 82 countries.

Like most immigrant and many non-immigrant Canadians, Mani maintained strong ties to his country of birth. His family went to Iran every summer for over 2 months. He described how his mother, just before she would board the plane to Iran, would go and change, coming out with a grim expression, and her body covered in a shapeless black coat, with a black headdress that covered her hair. He delighted in the love and affection of his extended family in Iran, but he also experienced scary moments like missiles hitting Tehran. But after age 15, Mani did not visit again, as he would not have been allowed to leave the country from age 16, and he would have been conscripted at age 18.

The play really starts to come alive as Mani describes his experience of the Iranian Green Revolution of 2009, which he observed through watching hundreds of videos on the Internet. Given the bloodshed of the Iran/Iraq war during the 1980s, during which many child soldiers were conscripted and quickly died, the government had urged a high birth rate. Thus, Iran has a population of which 70% is under age 34 (given Ayatollah Khomeini came back in 1979 and led the Islamic Revolution that has held Iran in its grip ever since). Mani gave a brief overview of how the Shah was installed in 1953 by the CIA and MI6 because the current ruler had been thinking of nationalizing the oil industry (my note: this is remarkably similar to Guatemala’s story in 1954, except no oil was involved in that country). The Shah’s harsh rule and the growing poverty of the country made him very unpopular, paving the way for the Ayatollah, with false promises of modernity, to install an Islamist regime.

Mani described some iconic cases, such as the woman who was shot in the heart while standing next to her father: Neda Agha-Soltan. Mani said repeatedly that given his separation from the country, he felt he could no longer call himself Iranian. After all, he was not personally experiencing this revolution. I felt that he clearly alluded to the idea that if he’s not Iranian, what exactly is he? Mani seems comfortable as a Canadian as a Quebecois, but the play originated from a Quebec television show, where every Monday a Quebec artiste from a “diverse” cultural background is featured. Mani was featured, and the play arose from that.

In the play, Mani alluded to one of his first, and continuing, friends in Canada, a Jewish girl named Rebecca. He alluded to her again when mentioning Ahmadinejad (whose fraudulent “election” sparked the revolution of 2009), who has famously denied the Holocaust. The point, as Mani stated in the talkback, is that Ahmadinejad’s harmful influence extended beyond Iran, and hurt his friend.

The set consists of freestanding chairs, like you might see in a meeting room. I counted 42. Mani moves from chair to chair, sometimes sitting, sometimes standing. He is funny (parts of this play could be stand-up comedy), but of course also intense and serious.

Talkback

Mani was forthright in the talkback, and gave thoughtful answers to all the questions, even ones that seemed like “gotcha” requests for explication of complex geopolitical and social issues. He described the experience of doing this play in French (not surprisingly, it is called “Un”), and how it differs from doing the play in English. He wants a secular state (his parents fled an Islamic state because they didn’t want their children to grow up in such a society), but he feels the Quebec charter has been wrongly presented. (I’m sure this is an insufficient summary of his nuanced response.)  

What’s happening around town? Some tips to find out

If you live in Vancouver, you can find interesting events and gatherings any day of the week. If you are on a shoestring budget, you can frequently find free and low-cost events. Art openings, wine tastings, theatre productions, concerts in any genre you can think of, readings, multimedia mashups, films, lectures, comedy; very quickly you will realize you need extensive multi-presence abilities to take in a fraction of what Vancouver has on offer.

Yes, keeping up in any meaningful sense can be overwhelming, because there is so much happening. So don’t try. Rest assured you will indeed miss dozens of high-quality, life-changing events because you forgot to look at Twitter one day. Luckily, though, the pipeline of upcoming events is crammed, so you’ll soon have the opportunity for more even if you just missed the best thing ever.

I recommend these methods for keeping up, or at least getting a sense of what’s happening.

Twitter

Vancouver has many social media bloggers who focus on keeping up with events, and they tweet a lot too. Use their work. I follow numerous Vancouver people, places, and companies on my @Beyond_YVR Twitter account. Just click on “Following” (I can’t link directly), and start following the ones that interest you. For starters, take a look at @Miss604, @VancouverScape, and @VIAwesome.

Georgia Straight

This weekly newspaper is a tried-and-true lister of events. Although some events don’t make it here, some huge percentage do. You will never run out of things to do if you limit yourself to @GeorgiaStraight. I prefer reading the paper copy (anachronistic, I know), but you can find music, arts, theatre, literary, and other events online too. Oh, and I usually like the articles too.

Some great web sites

These overlap with the Twitter accounts, but both provide good information. I’m sure to forget some, and there’s no way to make an exhaustive list. But do not neglect these.

It goes without saying that all of these sites, plus many more, have Facebook pages too. So Like those pages.

I attempted to use Facebook to make a list of interesting Vancouver-related Facebook pages. However, I fell behind a couple hundred pages ago. But take a look: Vancouver Culture, Food, Fun.

Don’t get tied up in knots about making the optimal choice on any given night. You can never know for sure. Just do something!