Appointment in Blood Alley
Fam tours--you've heard of them, right? Short for "familiarization tour," they're expenses-paid trips for journalists to see what a place is "really like." I'm not much of a world traveler but I've been to British Columbia twice now on fam tours (and a few times on my own), and I'm going to tell you about my just-concluded four-day fam tour weekend in Vancouver, B.C.
Day one. I love flying in the low-flying turboprop Dash 8s that really let me see the terrain instead of the clouds. I thought I knew my Cascade peaks but there seems to be at least one more than I know—I see Hood, St. Helens, Adams, Rainier and yet another one. Hmm.
Long wait at customs getting in—flight arrives around 2:30pm and between customs lines and the half-hour wait for an Airporter bus (around $13 one way) I don’t get to Fairmont Hotel Vancouver until after 4pm. The wonderful Tourism BC welcome kit includes a bottle of Jackson Triggs Chardonnay. The room welcome includes a plate of chocolate-covered strawberries, shortbread cookies (I guess they’d call them biscuits, this being Canada), and a little box made of chocolate, with handmade jelly candies inside. Ah, the little touches!
Minutes later, I meet up with Tourism Vancouver's Emily Armstrong and my fellow guests in the lobby and we walk to the historic nearby neighborhood of Gastown. Up a seedy cobble alley--Blood Alley, according to the street sign--is Salt Tasting Room and its new underground Salt Cellar, which I love on first sight. Long wooden table. Display wine case with chalkboard notes on some of the notable wines including, no kidding, a Doobie Brothers label. There's also bags of dried apples and lots of hanging charcuterie, functional yet aesthetically pleasing.
Proprietor Kurtis Kolt offers up some Gruner Veltliner and a BC red. Such a simple concept for the menu--it's basically charcuterie, bread, cheese, and condiments such as quince paste--but the combos all taste delicious. My favorite was rabbit confit with dried cherries. My first restaurant of the weekend, and it feels more like the DIY style of inner east-side Portland than any other place we are going to visit on this trip.
A short walk in Gastown's zigzag cobbled streets leads us to Cobre, which seems like it should mean Cobra but actually means Copper. Their PR rep is Nancy Wong, whom I’ve corresponded with for years but never met. Instead of being Asian Canadian she is European and memorably dressed with accents of houndstooth in her belt and shoes. Reminds me a wee bit of Lucille Ball. She shows us to a chic little downstairs lounge and points out all the subtle little accents of copper throughout the restaurant, even in the textured wallpaper.
At our meal, we tell her how we enjoyed Salt and she says it has spawned home “Salt” parties where the host supplies one or two components—say, the wine and the charcuterie—and the guests bring the third, such as fresh bread or B.C. cheeses. Comparatively inexpensive and small effort for all.
Other seatmates are the above-mentioned Emily Armstrong, Katie Schneider from Calgary, and chocolate writer Emily Stone, who is vaguely from Pittsburgh (currently) by way of New York and, for a while, Guatemala. Later, the BC gals swap places and Josie sits down by me. I had met her in Portland at the University Club for Canada Tourism's annual Canada dinner. She was very quiet that night but tonight I learn more about her—her husband is the financial director for the company that manages Barenaked Ladies, Dido and I think Sarah McLachlan.
Dinner is a series of sampler plates from Chef Stuart Irving, ranging from tuna ceviche on a potato platform, to chupe (a potato-based peasant soup), to a wonderful Ibarra chocolate souffle.
From there we walked to the Vancouver Convention and Exhibition Centre, home of the 30th annual Vancouver Playhouse Wine Festival. Pretty darn big, with a large space set aside for this year’s theme country, Italy. I ran into one of my favorite food writers, Tim Pawsey, almost instantly, along with a very handsome and radiantly smiling friend of his, an actress. He led us to taste this and that but truthfully I had used up my powers of discerning, shall we say, fine liquid distinctions, at least for that day.
Back at the Hotel Vancouver, I had my lights out by 11:30pm, the better to prepare for the next day's amusements. I would have slept like the dead except that the room next door started a party at 4am. I don’t mean a few minutes of noisy sex, I mean a full-on PARTY, with drinking and yakking and cackling laughter. I called the front desk and banged on the wall, but all in all, the festivities went on for an hour. Thought about crashing the party myself, seeing as I was thoroughly awake, but settled for turning on the light and reading Anna Karenina. Forget about that chick who throws herself under a train. If you want to read what Tolstoy thought about how to run a farm, this is the book.
More to come!