We were to ready bolt out of Seattle early and with coffee and smart phones in hand we jumped on the cozy Bolt Bus. With its comfy seats and quiet ride we could get some work done on the way up with the on board Wi-Fi. Three and half hours later we were in Vancouver BC. Not having a car was easy since we took just a short walk across the street to the Sky Train and five minutes later we checked in at Fairmont Waterfront Hotel. We quickly dropped our bags off and went to check out some important things brewing.
Vancouver Brewery Tours was our first order of business and we were looking forward to our three hour tour. James Labbe, our tour guide today, is very knowledgeable since he is also an Assistant Brewer for a local brewery. The first stop was at Brassneck Brewery. James took us to the back room to get a firsthand demonstration of the brewing process. Malt selection and tasting, meshing, hops, and fermentation and before you know it the finished product.
At this point we all were rather thirsty so we retired to the tasting room. I fell immediately in love with the very first beer we tasted, Umlaut. This is a Hefeweizen brewed in the Bavarian style with weizen (wheat) and Hefe (yeast). However my wife tends to like the hoppy beers so her favorite was their flagship beer, Passive Aggressive. (She also rather enjoyed the name.)
Brassneck is relatively new but the owners bring many years’ experience and awards with them. So hats off to co-owner and brewmaster Conrad Gmoser. On our way out, our brewery guide told us that we are in the famous Mount Pleasant area. This region had one of the first breweries in 1888 along what was then called Brewery Creek. The creek is now gone but there are still many fine craft breweries in the area.
Bridge Brewing was the next stop and only a twenty minute ride north and across the bridge to North Vancouver. We enjoyed the Kölsch style beer with its lager malt profile fermented with ale yeast and made with German noble hops. The Kolsch style is originally from Koln, Germany (English pronounced it Cologne) and typically uses a German pilsner malt and/or pale malt. This is one of the few beers that has appellation recognition. . After this light beer we moved on to some of their stout beers. We enjoyed the rich full body taste that was not over bearing. After sampling these stout beers we were most happy to be chauffeured to the next stop.
Our last stop was at the newly built Strange Fellows Brewing Beer is anything but strange as brew master Iain Hill has 20 years’ experience and partner Aaron Jonckheere’s passion comes from being a third generation home-brewer. We sampled the Walter White IPA which nicely combines the IPA and Wit styles. For those that want some hoppy beer the Nocturnum is dark pale ale and has a real nice kick
It was time to end this wonderful journey. On the ride back to the hotel I picked up a copy of the new quarterly publication “The Growler Vancouver Craft Beer Handbook.” This handbook highlights over 30 craft breweries to visit in Vancouver and includes several interesting articles on the history of craft brewing and the growler. In the 1800’s Americans used to carry a ½ gallon pail and get it filled up with their favorite brew then covered it with a metal lid. As the carbonation escaped it made a “growling sound.” Now they come in small sizes and are sealed so no growling sounds involved - unless you take one home and do not leave enough for your friends.
Back to the Fairmont and we still heard a growling sound from our stomach so we proceeded downstairs to the Arc Restaurant. Appetizers with some local wines were the start: Foraged mushroom toast with arugula salad, seasoned with herbs from their rooftop garden , halibut fish cakes, beef sliders with mustard. All paired perfectly with the Okanagan Valley Pinot Noir British Columbia (Naramata Bench) from Meyer Family Vineyard. The halibut went best with the Sauvignon Blanc from Lock & Worth Wines (Naramata Bench).
For the main course the server insisted on the Yakima Valley Rack of Lamb served with chestnuts, porcini and mint vinaigrette served with sweet potato press. Just outstanding and I thanked the server many times!! My wife enjoyed the Glazed Duck Breast (Okanagan Valley) with honey (also from the rooftop garden), brown butter, cumin scented farrow and Okanagan cherries. We really couldn’t decide which entrée was best – but I think the lamb was the winner!
To finish this tasty dinner I had the homemade pistachio and amaretto ice cream with cherries - truly something to go nuts about. Elizabeth had apple and hazelnut bread pudding. Again, mine was the better of the two, unless like my wife – you love an outstanding bread pudding.
We retired to our room and enjoyed the sweeping views of Burrand Inlet and the high orange clouds framing the mountains. Before we knew it, the sun was rising and we were ready for a new day and a new adventure.
Today’s theme was biking and grinding our way through Vancouver. On the way to get our bicycles we passed the third floor and noticed the rooftop herb garden but it was closed. We did read some information about the garden and it was clear that the Fairmont’s commitment to a “sustainable living philosophy” is abundantly evident. Their garden, which was the first of its kind in downtown Vancouver, now covers over 2100 square foot. We certainly enjoyed the bounty for dinner: twenty varieties of herbs, vegetables, and fruits. (However we did not eat the hay as that is reserved to smoke their chicken.)
Usually around bee hives you will find a bee keeper, but the Fairmont has a Bee Butler! During the tour you cannot miss Bee Butler Michael King in his tuxedo, happy to chat about the 550,000 honeybees and the annual yield of 600 pounds of honey.
Our favorite green initiative of the Fairmont is that they provide complimentary bicycles to their guests. After getting the bikes secured we knew one thing was critical: brunch at Catch 122 Bistro.
We enjoyed our first of many coffee products for the day. It was accompanied with a truffle-scented mushroom omelet served with wild mushrooms and finished with Yukon nugget potato hash. My wife was committed to the duck prosciutto eggs benedict, which was a delightful and delicious variation of an old standby. Before we geared up for the bike venture we noticed some of the dinner and music options for later; jazz served with a flat iron steak and Cornish Hen.
Dinner discussions would have to wait as we needed to visit the “Picasso of Coffee”, also known as Brian Turko. Brian is the coffee roaster and co-owner of Milano Coffee which is located in the historic Gastown area (east of downtown). We chatted with Brian’s wife Linda and she filled us in on the details of Milano. The original owner was Francesco Curatolo who took the Italian coffee tradition, sharpened his skill of Italian espresso with guru Umberto Bizzarri and opened Milano in 1984.
While Francesco was doing his magic, Brian was doing a different kind of magic. He played guitar in a band and some have suggested that he liked to party. However, Brian traded that life style for hanging out at Italian coffee shops and absorbing copious amounts of this wonderful drink. He quickly became a coffee aficionado with a goal in mind.
In 1997 Brian and Linda opened Turk’s Coffee Bar and excelled there, while at the same type Brian apprenticed with the Francesco at Milano. By 2003 Francesco was ready to pass the torch and knew that Brian was truly a master of the craft and just the person to carry on the tradition.
Brian’s accomplishments are impressive. Milano has recently won three Best Gold Medals from the prestigious International Institute of Coffee Tasters, in additional to the gold they won in 2012. You can taste a “flight of gold” which is three of their best espressos. I found Lucky 13 to be my favorite which is a blend of thirteen beans. We were told that to perfect these blends it can take up to five years with 1,500 bean combinations and around 20,000 tastings. I enjoyed the balance after just one tasting!
It was time to change gears from coffee back to our bikes and we were ready for this scenic stretch. We headed south on Carrall Street on the dedicated lane enjoyed the downhill glide to the Seawall.
Once on the Seawall we soaked in the tranquility of no cars, lots of sun and the views of False Creek. Some ten minutes along the bike path we were delighted to see huge colorful giant murals painted on silos on Granville Island. We learned that internationally accomplished artists, OSGEMOS (Brazilian twin brothers Gustavo and Otávio) did this work on the silos that are still used by Ocean Concrete. If you want to check this out more closely you can catch the Aquabus. This bus and take you and your bikes on a brief mini cruise around False Creek and drop you off on Granville Island to visit. But for us – this is another item for the “next time” list.
The Seawall stretches 14 miles around the harbor and connects to Stanley Park. We peddled on for a while and then realized it was time to get refueled and carb up.
We found a dedicated bike lane on Chilco Street and pedaled uphill, reminding ourselves that there is food waiting for us at our next destination, Greenhorn Expresso Bar.
We chatted with owner Walter Le Daca while sipping his signature drink, Cortado En Vaso (in Spanish that means express cut with milk). The taste of the espresso is clear and undiluted with just a small amount of steamed mild added to the top. Walt has lots of coffee experience from his roots in Argentina where his dad had a café.
We chatted with Walter about the name of the Greenhorn. It originates in 1862, when three enterprising Englishmen purchased land in this area known as the West End of Vancouver. Back then all the locals thought that these Englishmen were naive (greenhorns) in paying an inflated price for the land, $550.75. Not sure who was naive as this land indeed became valuable quickly.
Walter continued to chat while we enjoyed the Five Spice Chicken Baguette served with cucumber, pickled onion, and a spicy spread of mayo. Walt told us about his former career as a photographer and the sweet story of how he met his Argentinian wife Ganga Jolicoeur. She chatted him up while he was working as a server in a quiet neighborhood cafe. We would say that the value of a cozy comfortable café, where people gather to talk and enjoy life is evident in how Walter has created the Greenhorn.
We needed to continue on to the next conversation and café for our final café stop, Musette Caffé. I thought I had this café all figured out, sure that it would be a place to relax and listen to classical music. I remember playing Bach’s Musette in D Minor, and imagined how well it would go with a great espresso! But when we arrived we found a classic of a different sort: a classic biker bar (if by biker bar you mean an espresso café populated by bicycle racers and decorated with all things bicycle). Turns out that a musette is also a small bag used to pass meals to a cyclist during a bicycle race. Owner Thomas Eleizegui’s passion is certainly bikes; as you walk in there are bicycles and bicycle paraphernalia everywhere, folks watching bike races on TV, lists of weekly bike rides and races in the Vancouver area, cycling apparel, and a small repair shop. My wife pointed out that we were the only ones in the place who were not dressed in spandex! However you do not have to be a bicycle aficionado to enjoy the 49th Parallel Coffee which is one of the most acclaimed coffee roasters in the area. While thinking about a snack, we saw a young child in a stroller enjoying the chocolate chip cookie sandwich. For those wanting something healthier there are many panini sandwiches to choose from. However, I think that kid was pretty happy with his choice!
Our route home took us on one of the busiest streets downtown, Hornby Street. My wife was rather nervous about this. However we rode on the dedicated bike lane that had a concrete barrier separating the bicyclists from the cars – so it was a smooth and event-free ride. When we arrived back at the hotel, we realized that we still had time for one more adventure. Fly Over Canada is a thirty minute big screen flight simulation ride over Canada starting on the East Coast and ending up in British Columbia. We were strapped into our seat for the journey, which was so realistic that our stomachs dropped and our hands gripped the armrests as the “plane” dipped and soared. It was so realistic that you even get misted while “flying” over the waterfalls and the forests actually have that wonderful smell of mountain air. This amazing experience has been described as IMAX on steroids.
Afterwards we ambled back to the hotel for another restful night. In the morning it was time, to get packed and get ready to go back to Seattle. However, we had one last stop to make at the Café Medina. We were told that we just had to experience their award winning brunch. They say breakfast is the most important meal and I agree. I would also give Café Medina gold medals for theirs. I say gold since Chef Jonathan Chovancek, led the culinary teams for the Olympics in Torino and Beijing. And of course he was center of the culinary stage at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver in 2010.
Time to eat my favorite meal but I think I made the mistake of saying I wanted something filling. We started with their flagship dish, Liege style waffles. Named after a city in Belgium, the style is different than its cousin the Belgium Waffle, which was first introduced in North American at the 1962 World’s Fair in nearby Seattle. The Liege is big bites of crisp dough, caramelized pear sugar and considered denser, and most importantly, sweeter than its cousin. Interestingly, the Liege are more common in Belgium.
The waffles were the mainstay of the menu when Medina first opened in 2008 but they have since greatly expanded their menu, with the main focus on Mediterranean style food.
My favorite was Les Boulettes which features spicy Moroccan lamb meatballs along with two eggs dressed with roasted pepper and tomatoes. The breakfast fare continued with Harissa Pain Plat which is two fried eggs with a beef burger on grilled pita. This was topped with spiced hummus. One might think I was done, but it was hard to stop as the owner Robbie Kane insisted on more. The Mediterranean flair continued with Tagine, two eggs with a spicy Merguez sausage with chickpeas and black olives. There is simply not a better brunch to be had and trust me I have researched this for many years. And I probably won’t need any more protein for the next month or so!
Robbie’s wife is named Medina and I mentioned to Robbie that I assumed his restaurant was named after her. But in one of life’s funny little twists it actually happened the other way around. He named his restaurant Medina long before he met his wife. Then one fateful day, Medina the woman was passing by and came in to check out the place with her name. She was enthralled by the restaurant and even more so by the owner. However, she had to come back a few times before Robbie was smart enough to notice and ask her out for a real date.
Time to get back to the Bolt bus for our ride back to Seattle. We were very glad for the chance to take it easy and enjoy the scenery going by. We spent much of our time on the bus talking about all the things in Vancouver that we could add to our “next time” list.
About our guest contributor:
Michael Fagin is a freelance travel writer who has traveled across Canada and visited all the major Canadian wine regions. Mr. Fagin is currently touring the Pacific Northwest enjoying the wine country, dining, and hiking the region. While he is not writing Mr. Fagin is a weather forecaster for West Coast Weather, LLC forecasting weather for the West Coast of the US as well as on an international basis.