Saturday, 5 April 2014

Taipei: Barbie Café


If you read my blog often enough, you may notice that I love themed cafés. I mean, themed cafés are great anywhere, but when I'm in Asia, all bets are off. This time, I decided to take a trip with my friend Katy to the Barbie Café in Taipei.

At this ridiculously pink place, you will find a specific demographic. not too unlike the Hello Kitty Dreams Restaurant I frequented back in Beijing. The most common guests? Try this scene below out for size. Young mother (see woman taking photo) with her young child (small child crying in centre) and the young mother's friends. If you look to the right, you will see two staff members who came to sing her a happy birthday and scared the poor child so much that she immediately burst into tears and continued to cry painfully out loud for about five minutes, much to the dismay of her poor mother. In her defence, if a brash woman with bright pink hair and a frilly skirt accompanied by a silly man with a sateen vest came up to ambush me, I'd probably be scared too.

But let's move on to the food. 

At Barbie Café, there are two major streams of ordering for the menu: snacks and set meals.  


For snack options, you might want to opt for something fancy-looking like this toast tower with chocolate ice cream. 


Or perhaps you would like something similar but even more fancy like this "jewellery box", which is a toast cube topped with whipped cream, evaporated milk, fruit, and a random macaron in the corner. 

However, Katy and I were hungry and we wanted to eat a full meal so we opted-out of the snacks and admired our neighbours' snacks instead. I asked the girl who's toast-and-ice-cream I shot if it was indeed delicious. She stared at me, shrugged her shoulders and stated simply, "well, it kind of tastes like...toast. With ice cream on top". 

So, set meals it was. I should preface the next couple of photos by saying that the menu is rather confusing. All you have to know is that you cannot simply order any "non-snack" item à la carte, but rather, must order it in a set. So, the price that you see beside the item is already the prix-fixe price, plus an additional 10% service charge (by the way, there is no tax or tip in most restaurants in Taiwan, for my North American readers). Most set meals range between 280-580 NT. 


We shall start off with salad! Small, and "Thousand-Island-y". Thousand Island dressing is surprisingly a very common dressing in Taiwan. Most people are shocked to learn that it was invented in Canada.


Beverage: Select from coffee, tea, iced tea, juice, you know the drill. 


Extra cost for their special drinks, such as Katy's delicious iced rose latté, but who can put a cost on having a pink sprinkles Barbie on top of your latté foam, am I right?


Then, there is nothing better than regular dinner rolls than dinner rolls with Barbie heads pressed onto them. 


Of course, the dinner rolls are to go with your cream-of-something soup.


But the drink, salad and soup are not all you get to start a meal, oh no. We have an appetizer to choose! Katy ordered the "tuna" appetizer, which was a little mushy and was literally just canned tuna, but somehow they managed to make it look fancy too (are we sensing a pattern here?). 


As for my appetizer? Does a small ball of rice with apple and sausage slices on top of a bed of pumpkin soup count as a thing? If so, then that is what I had. 

The mains though, were actually surprisingly good.


Katy ordered the seafood risotto off the (slightly) healthy menu. 


Mmm...cheesy. 


And I decided to pull out the big guns and ordered a tomato-based cuttlefish risotto. No wait, it was just a tomato-risotto with a giant cuttlefish on top.


Only in Asia would it make sense to have cuttlefish risotto as one of the top choices at a Barbie Café. From an authenticity perspective, these were not actually risottos at all, but from a Taiwan perspective, these were actually pretty good.


Wait, hold on. Let's take a final look at the comically large prawn that Katy got in hers. Ha ha ha. 


And then the prix-fixe concluded abruptly with chocolate ice cream. Yum. 


There were of course, other dessert options for you to choose from if you were in the mood for mousse! (I did not).

But the best part of the café would probably have to be the photo ops.


"Barbie! Is that you!?" 


Annie: "Katy, you must strike a pose or it defeats the purpose of this chair"


Life size!


And...a classic jump shot!


The view from the outside.


The best part of the whole day however, was me finally being able to use my Barbie Visa card in an appropriate setting. And for those of you wondering, yes, I do have a limited edition Barbie Visa card. So true in fact, that I even went to great lengths to block out a few numbers in this photo so that none of y'alls try to hack into my account! I could tell the girl beside me was very jealous of my card.  All I have to say is, "back off, small child! The pink privilege is mine!"

When it comes to themed restaurants, it's not about the food, it's about the experience. So if you find yourself in Taipei with nothing better to do, do come and enjoy a great afternoon with Barbie and friends!

Friday, 28 March 2014

Getting to Know: Fidel Gastro aka Matt Basile


“Oh man, this used to be my absolute favourite spot,” Matt Basile laughed as he settled into the sunny corner table of his Queen Street restaurant Lisa Marie for our interview. Better known as his alter ego “Fidel Gastro”, Matt is also the chef and owner of the food truck by the same name (though the truck itself is named Priscilla!), and now host of the hit show Rebel without a Kitchen.

The “Food Truck Revolution” of North America has been gaining momentum for years now, and Matt confidently asserts that Toronto is “right up there with the best”. Perhaps the recession was partly to blame. Or perhaps, people were simply looking for a new, exciting, and satisfying culinary experience—without the fine dining price tag. With gourmet street food offerings such as mac n’ cheese sandwiches and pad thai fries, Matt accomplished the MBA student dream: he found a way to sell the people something they didn’t even know they wanted.

And the streets of Toronto can't thank him enough. In fact, rather than being simply a chef or restaurateur (Matt has never had any formal culinary training although he has worked for Chef Mark McEwan and at various butcher shops), he describes his collective projects as more of a “food experience company”. This designation gives his team a great deal of flexibility. Sometimes they'll be working on brand collaborations or doing fun events (such as street food weddings!), and at other times, they're enjoying the bricks-and-mortar restaurant, for those times they might, or we might, want to sit down and relish the moment. 


Speaking of relish...can we just stop and admire Lisa Marie's amazing wall of pickled vegetables?

On the New Toronto Food Truck Laws...

Of course, with the big developments in Toronto food truck by-laws on everyone's radar these days, I was curious to know whether Matt had any thoughts on the about-to-implemented legislation. With changes such as an increased time limit for service (from 3 to 5 hours) and less restricted zones for parking your vehicle, he pragmatically answered, “I see these changes more as policy actually reflecting the reality of the situation that we have here in Toronto....it’s a step in the right direction, but we’re not there just yet. The new policy of course is helping, but it is still up to individual business owners to make it happen”.

Rebel Without a Kitchen

Apart from running his company in Toronto, let us not forget that Matt is also running an entire show. The first season of Travel & Escape's, Rebel Without a Kitchen followed Matt around as he dealt with the "blood, sweat and tears" of the food truck industry that we don't often get a chance to see. "Make sure you [if you are going to start a food truck business] that you absolutely love what you do because you're going to do it a lot," Matt advises potential entrepreneurs, "and for the right reasons. You shouldn't just do it because you saw someone do it on TV and it looked cool. Make sure it's a direct reflection of your personality and things that you love".

The second season however, took Matt on epic culinary adventures throughout North America. Humble as he is, Matt explained, “I was in an advantageous position where I get to not only go to a city and meet the local food truck operators, go to some of the local restaurants, but then I got to do an event in every city as well. So it was like I was starting Fidel Gastro's all over again in every single city.” From Portland to Cape Breton to New York to Miami, he met the "rockstars of each city's culinary scene", tasted incredible food, and basically had the time of his life. But he also took it in stride. "Learning came in so many different ways. Food was the primary purpose but it materialized in many different relationships."

Without batting an eyelash, Matt identified Los Angeles as being his favourite city visited during the filming of the show. The Torontonian in him joked, "maybe I’m a bit biased because we were in the thick of our winter but…anyway, it was fantastic.  What I really loved about L.A. was that their restaurants are in the midst of really changing focus right now. There’s something going on there that is really fantastic from a culinary perspective. Everyone is still really business-focused in L.A., but there is a certain calmness and coolness that is just so California. I felt like, of all the cities, it really was the city that had the whole package."


Matt and I standing in front of the Lisa Marie bar

Final Bites

Before leaving, I wanted to make sure I could leave you with an idea of what Matt might want to eat! As for his favourite Toronto food truck (other than his own), it would have to be Gourmet Gringos. "Good food, great guys, good quality" he said simply. He also mentioned that GG had helped him out during a food truck mechanical failure back in the day when they were both fresh on the block so he feels extra pride in their success. And as for a perfect last supper (one of my favourite questions!), Matt gave away his Italian roots by answering, "rigatoni with tomato sauce, and then some cured salsice on the side. Then a salad with white wine vinaigrette, raw garlic, some artichoke maybe, tomato, and braised green beans. Or...if I don't want to feel sad and nostalgic, maybe just a 24 oz. porterhouse steak with a Baked Alaska". 

While his five-year plan is still up in the air, the business-side of Matt knows that it will have to involve streaming the business by making the whole machine more accessible. Doing things "on the fly" on the small scale worked great, but with the new exciting projects his team will be getting involved in, he knows he can't do everything and be everywhere at once. While we are not sure just yet what this new streamlining will look like, it is clear that Matt "Fidel Gastro" Basile will be a force to be reckoned with. 


Catch Matt and the rest of the gang in Rebel Without a Kitchen with Season 2 airing on April 1st!

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Hong Kong: Pierre Hermé Macarons


Happy Macaron Day! To celebrate, I will share my little story of finding and enjoying some of the best macarons in the amazing city of Hong Kong. I also have to do this post in about ten minutes fast because I am boarding yet another plane, but this time, back to Canada! 

First of all, I should mention that I love macarons. I also love macaron haters who question why it seems like everyone and their grandma is jumping on the macaron train. I get it. Macarons have always been quite popular in France, and then North America in the last years. But Asia? Not so much. However, all of a sudden, this little French treat is becoming très très omnipotent.

Similar to the cupcake boom, maybe there is something to be said about having a delightful little cookie that seems to be at once light and airy but also rich and luxurious. While the price-per-bite may be high, the decadence of it all is a feeling that is hard to replicate with any other regular food. The fact that the skill level required to execute one of these things is also quite high may also contribute to its popularity. 


The Pierre Hermé store is located in the swanky ICC building that Kevin is more than familiar with. The store itself is beautiful and sleek, but also has a very strict no-photo policy. Thus, I had to settle with a creeper photo instead of Kevin trying to exit gracefully.


The bags are so beautiful.


And the boxes are adorable.


Kevin and I bought seven (you can only buy set amounts, according to box sizes) and enjoyed the chocolate and foie gras one first, which I can only describe as something that a dragon had breathed into existence. Gold shimmer and everything. It was a little softer than I would have expected (maybe it's a Hong Kong thing), but I think the flavour was quite amazing.


Over the course of three days being tourists around the city, we would sporadically bust out a macaron and share and compare. 


Bam. Dulce de leche.


And finished them off at Disneyland.


Mmm..rose. So beautiful.


There is nothing quite like a little meringue cookie filled with ganache and love to get you through a busy workday or as a little pick me up for no reason whatsover. Happy Macaron Day everyone! Enjoy to the fullest!

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Hong Kong: A City Meant for Snacking


Annie and Kevin in Hong Kong: Eat. Walk it Off. Repeat.

Hong Kong's food culture probably best known for tales of great beasts (shark fin or bear paw anyone?) slaughtered for the sake of a unique dining experience. However, Hong Kong's less um, intense cuisine, is also famous in its own right for being downright simple and totally casual. Little noodle shops and afternoon tea houses line the streets and provided ample opportunity for us to snack all day. As for their famous dim sum (which literally means "snack")? Check out the review of  One Dim Sum below. Great times.


Mmm. I'll be back.

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