Friday, September 30, 2011

Some science

I have put it off long enough, time for some science. Some pretty fundamental and serious science. Cosmology and quantum physics, enough to make people run for cover or pretend to have to go to the bathroom rather urgently. Connie sometimes asks me to talk about it when she has trouble sleeping because as soon as I mention the word 'quark', she will be gone. me, having an inquisitive and scientific mind that needs hard data and reason over spiritual vagueness, contemporary physics and cosmology are rather fascinating. As far as I understand it, the universe as we know it came from nothing. Yep, nothing. Actually, there is no such thing as nothing, empty space at the quantum scale (think extremely, ridiculously tiny) is frothing with energy, virtual particles popping in and out of existence like bubbles in boiling water. Under the right circumstances, this leads to the birth of a universe, inflation (not the monetary kind, more the things getting very big in a hurry kind), condensation of matter, galaxies, stars, and so on.

Some profound things come out of cosmology. Like all the matter in your immediate surroundings, you, your computer, the air you breathe, and so on has been created by exploding stars. Runaway nuclear reactions in supernovae will generate an abundance of heavy elements that later cluster around new stars and form useful things like planets. A bit of chemical magic later we have life, evolution and eventually self-aware life forms wondering where it all came from.

Now I can babble on about this for ages. There are people far more qualified, intelligent and eloquent that can do a much better job. Like Lawrence Krauss in this fascinating and brilliant talk. Yeah it's an hour long so make a cup of tea and settle in. The guy is a great speaker and there are more profound statements and food for thought in his one hour talk than in many pages of certain books that people are so strangely fond of...

Open your mind wide and enjoy!


I previously extolled Meat and Bread for their perfect execution of a simple concept. I'd like to add to this, this time it is all about coffee. Funny, I never used to be a coffee drinker until I slowly got dragged into the coffee scene, first drinking mochas and frappucinos from Starbucks (those days are long gone!), moving on to the better stuff from places like Mink, 49th Parallel and Thomas Haas. I then realized that there is more to coffee than mochas and have been looking for the prefect cappuccino in the various Vancouver coffee shops.

I think I found it. Revolver is a new coffee house, very conveniently located across the street from Meat and Bread. It was designed by the same person who did Meat and Bread and it shows in the minimalist exposed brick and wood interior and single focus bar. The guys at Revolver have taken coffee to the next level, providing an almost laboratory-like environment to brew the perfect cup. Beans are measured on little electronic scales, drips are made using lab-like beakers and stainless steel filters. The result is impressive and I have been enjoying their coffee for some time now. I am waiting patiently for them to find their chocolate supplier so I can see what their interpretation of a mocha is...

There is a small selection of baked goods available at the front from their West Vancouver bakery/cafe called Crema. I have tried the raspberry coffee cake and chocolate croissant so far and both were very well made.

So yes, another concept nailed. And Vancouver is all the better off for it. I wonder what's next?

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Gadget bliss

I like gadgets. I like them even better when they solve problems. I had a problem that involved the home entertainment system and its plethora of remotes. Every component had one, receiver, Blu-Ray player, cable box, TV, music streamer, etc. Different activities required different combinations of remotes and settings for the components in question.

I remember phone calls from Connie saying she was trying to watch TV but had no sound, or she wanted to play Kai a movie but there was no picture. I would then go through a painstaking process of trying to get her to figure out what was wrong with the system. Conversations would be confusing, "what is the receiver set to, which input?"..."what is the receiver?"..."the big black one with all the knobs on it"..."how do I tell what it is set to? How do I change it?", and so on. You get the idea.

Then came along the Harmony range of universal remote controls. The beauty of this one is that it connects to an online database of remote codes, tracks the state of each component and the interface is activity based. Want to watch TV? Press the 'watch TV' button and it will turn on the TV, the cable box and the receiver. It then sets the receiver to the right input and configures it's buttons to control the TV for channel changing, the receiver for volume, etc. Brilliant stuff. It even has a help function that will attempt to fix things and asks question like the ones I used to ask over the phone to try and sort it out.

I love it. Since I bought it, the number of phone calls have dropped to 0. Kai can use it, babysitters can use it. If you have more than one remote in your home, you owe it to yourself to get one of these. It also has an enormous WAF (Wife Acceptance Factor, a well-known acronym in the gadget world) since it reduces the amount of remotes to exactly one and is easy to use.

Here is a lovingly taken picture of whas has to be my favorite home gadget:

The Harmony One, with touch screen...
If only I could find a decent sub woofer that has a good WAF...

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Memories: the SLK

I  the summer of 2005 I got a fairly major promotion at work with a nice pay rise. At that time I'd owned the Audi TT for about four years so I decided it was time to start looking for a new car. Porsche had just launched the Cayman and after visiting the Cayman launch event in Vancouver I was very tempted to order one. During my research I had come across the Mercedes SLK a few times but largely ignored it due to its decided lack of buzz and interest.
That changed when I discovered the SLK 55 AMG and read some of the reports about it. It was supposed to be quite the ride, one of Mercedes' wildest cars. It surely looked impressive on paper, a 5.5 liter V8 making 360hp and a whopping 370lb-ft of torque, in a car weighing just over 3000lbs. 0-100 km/h in 4.5 seconds. Then there was the hardtop convertible roof and a very generous trim level. I forgot all about the Cayman and ordered a fully loaded black on black SLK 55 from a local Mercedes dealer. It took three months for the car to arrive. Test driving one wasn't possible since they weren't really available, any arriving at dealers had already been sold. I was a bit nervous about it all but excited at the same time.

When it finally did arrive I was giddy with excitement and I was glad to find out I wasn't wrong about the performance. And the sound...that sound coming from the quad exhausts at the back was something else. It would rumble and burble along at low rpms but once you opened it up, it would downshift a couple of gears and all hell would break loose. A barbaric howl would come from the back of the car and with the immense torque available, there would be acceleration, so much acceleration. Passing manoevers became blurs of noise and speed and any playful throttle anywhere near corners would make it throw out its tail almost immediately.

I did some great drives in that car, one of them was a road trip to the Okanagan with my friend Kam who had a Maserati Grandsport at the time.

I developed a great respect for Mercedes AMG cars, they have so much massive power. In a large sedan like the E or S class, this is a bit dubious but in a small two seater roadster like the SLK was complete madness. So yes, I had fun in this car. Lots of it. It wasn't perfect, the 7-speed automatic gearbox was fairly old-school, no fancy dual-clutch setup or anything like that and it was at times hard to live with. It was more designed for city driving than a good rip around a mountain road. The electronic traction control was also overly enthusiastic so it would immediately intervene when things got interesting. Maybe this was a good thing!

When the lease was up, the recession hit and I wasn't comfortable committing to another large cash outlay to buy the car. I returned it to Mercedes and walked away, this was late summer 2008. I was without my own car for just over a year, my next purchase was the Boxster in March of 2010.

Looking back, I have very few pictures of the car and most of them aren't great. I do have very fond memories of it and every time I see or hear an AMG car I get that feeling back. In an ideal world I would have the money and the space for multiple cars, with an AMG being one of them. They are something else.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Meat and bread

Two of my favorite things!

Every once in a while you see a concept distilled down to essence and executed with near-perfection. In car terms I would be talking about say a Lotus Elise or perhaps an Ariel Atom.

Ariel Atom driven by...hang on a minute!

Lunch wise however, it has to be Meat and Bread. These guys have taken the sandwich experience to its basic concept and executed it brilliantly. They make a porchetta that is rolled up with herbs, grilled to moist perfection and warpped in crisp crackling. They then serve this on a freshly baked Panini bun with some salsa verde, on a wooden board with a dollop of home made mustard. They have three other sandwiches on the menu, one meatball, one daily special (today it was turkey leg confit with argula and chipotle mustard, so good) and a grilled cheese for the vegetarians.

Incredible porchetta

The restaurant itself is minimalist, one large communal table that seats about 20 dominates the room and there is a small bar off the main counter, also communal and plus are about 4 tables. This is very smartly done, people are less likely to linger during the very busy lunch hour so they can have the high turnaround that they need. I came there today for lunch to find a lineup out the door. Normally I would swivel and go somewhere else since I am allergic to lineups but here I know it never takes more than 10 minutes regardless of the size of the lineup. They have such an efficient assembly line for their sandwiches that take less than 20 second to put together. The place is packed but spaces open up all the time, I have never been forced to stand and wait for a seat.

The food itself is always satisfying, they offer a bowl of soup and a salad as condiments. Those are also top-notch, I usually go for the soup that ranges from a simple tomato soup to a rich chicken-vegetable soup I had today which was very welcome given the sudden cold and wet turn the weather has taken here in Vancouver.

Concept, essence, execution. Meat and Bread nailed it. I love it!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


A lot of people who cook don't like to bake and vice versa. I think it has to do with the exact science that is baking. Ratios of ingredients, leaveners, rising agents, weight, mass and fat content all influence baking and simply throwing a few things together and having them turn into something successful is way harder to do in baking than in other cooking.

I like both, baking appeals to the engineer in me I suppose. It can be very labor intensive and to me nothing is more intensive than making a large cake. I do one every year for Kai's birthday and making a cake for 15-20 people according to Kai's specifications ("I want chocolate with vanilla and cream and five layers and more chocolate!) can be tricky.

This year I went for a 3 layer Genoise based cake with simple cream in between, covered with a light chocolate frosting. Baking the Genoise takes about 45 minutes per layer which I do the night before. Then on the morning of the party I assemble the thing, layering the cream, making the frosting and finishing it off. The last touches with the piping bag are always the most fun, apart from eating it that is!

Nothing beats watching a small crowd of hungry kids dig into a cake you made with Kai beaming at it all. Makes all the hard work very much worth it!


Monday, September 12, 2011

Only the good stuff!

I find it interesting that there are quality grades in pretty much everything you can buy. With most consumer products there is a non-linear price/quality curve that starts out steep and flattens off into sometimes astronomical prices. For example, a $500 pair of speakers will sound a lot better than a $100 pair. A $1,000 pair will probably sound better than the $500 pair but the jump in quality won't be as much. I have listened to madly expensive speakers, $50,000 and up and yes, they sound good but you have to have an extremely good ear to tell the difference from the $1,000 pair.

The B&W Nautilus speakers, $60,000 / pair
I digress though, the intent was to talk about gas. Fuel that is, for cars. Most gas stations sell different grades of gas and try to differentiate them by adding mysterious compounds (Techron!, V-Power!) that presumably make your car engine a happier, healthier machine. The higher-end the car, the higher-end the fuel it wants. High-performance cars want the good stuff, 93 RON or higher. RON is the fuel grade, it starts at 82 and goes up to 94 here in Canada for regular consumer grade fuel. The problem is, 80% of gas stations top out at 92. For obsessive car owners like myself, that won't do. I can't put anything other than 94 RON fuel in my car. Given that the only gas brand selling 94 RON around here is Chevron, I have now memorized the locations of Chevron stations in Vancouver as well as the BC interior. I plan routes around them. I obsess over mileage when going to the US where 94 RON seems impossible to get. How US sports car owners manage, I have no idea.

So yeah, nothing but the good stuff.

And don't get me started on chocolate. Or any other food for that matter :-)

Sunday, September 11, 2011


I like to cook, that much is clear. Usually I do quick things, salads, wraps, quick stuff on the grill, and so on. Sometimes, when I have more time, usually on winter weekends, I take on larger projects. Last weekend was a long weekend, late in the summer and we had planned a mostly lazy one with Kai's birthday on Labour Day. On that Sunday I decided to do some more elaborate cooking. Something summery. English peas were in season, so was halibut. The book 'Vancouver Cooks 2' has a brilliant recipe by James Walt from Araxi for halibut on pea puree. I have made this a number of times now and it is absolutely delicious. Fresh peas are cooked with some double smoked bacon, potato, onion, mint and thyme, then pureed and finished off with a bit of cream. This creates a wonderfully creamy, smoky pea puree that has a lot of texture and great flavor. Pan fry some halibut in curry salt, serve that on top of the peas and you have a great dish.

I decided to add a starch dish, potato gnocci would do nicely. Making the dough is pretty straighforward, bake two Idaho potatoes, push them through a ricer and add a couple of egg yolks and a bit of Parmesan. That's about it, knead, roll and cut. I made a cream sauce with pancetta and sage, finished it all off in the oven. Kai helped make the dough:

We did all this in the afternoon, at dinner time all I had to do was cook the fish and crack open a bottle of my favorite local sparkling wine, a 2006 Stellar's Jay from Sumac Ridge winery in the Okanagan.

Dinner was great, we all devoured it with much gusto!


I had a bit of a hectic time in the last week or so. Last weekend was Kai's birthday, I then flew to San Jose for a work conference, yesterday was Kai's birthday party, today we are off to Feast of Fields. Lots of activity, no time to post. Photos should be be pulled of cameras tonight and hopefully this week there will be some time to sit quietly and post!

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Kai's birthday

Kai turned 8 yesterday. We had a great day, presents, Thomas Haas cake, climbed Hollyburn and had dinner at Hy's Encore. I don't have much time so I will just post some pictures of Kai's oh-so cool birthday present. I kept an eye on him while he built it, but he did 98% of the work. Now it is time for play...

Friday, September 02, 2011


Food. One of my great passions besides cars. Having grown up in The Netherlands which is a country with a deep-rooted agricultural culinary culture, I have never quite fully become 'North American' in my eating habits. I don't understand the allure of fast food, high-sugar soft drinks or processed foods. I started to become a lot more aware of food and food culture after moving to Vancouver, realising the incredible bounty that the Fraser Valley and the ocean have to offer in terms of fresh produce and seafood that comes in a very distinct seasonal cadence. I always had a casual interest in cooking and with a slowly rising disposable income also came the ability to spend more time eating out at increasingly fancy restaurants, growing along as a consumer with the burgeoning Vancouver restaurant scene. I took some lessons at various chef's and cooking schools and began to do a lot of fairly serious cooking at home.

Anyone who spends time educating themselves about the food chain and the industrial machine behind it quickly realizes that there are some serious issues to deal with. This post could become very long and complex if I went into this in depth so I am going to stick with the local restaurant scene, using one of my long time favorite Vancouver restaurants as an example. Refuel. Formerly known as Fuel. Robert Belcham and Tom Doughty started Fuel back in 2007. Robert being the chef and Tom the manager/sommelier. These guys have a food philosophy that is very much compatible with my own. Let me illustrate it with an example, the pig. On Vancouver Island there is a farm called Sloping Hill. Here they raise free-range animals in a cruelty-free, organic natural farm environment. Robert gets his pigs from here and does his own butchering. He uses almost the entire animal for various purposes including making his own chacuterie like salami, bacon and chorizo. Sometimes he makes pork belly confit, one of the most sumptous dishes I have ever had the pleasure of eating.
This philosophy extends to his seafood, poultry (chickens come from Polderside Farms) and vegetables. The menu changes along with the seasons and availability of ingredients. As a consumer and father, I am very aware of what I eat, where it comes from and how it affects me, my family and ultimately the food chain around me. By supporting restaurants like Refuel, I make a statement about what I find important and I am happy I can involve Kai in this, he is very familiar with Refuel and what it stands for. Add to this that Refuel's staff is always very friendly, warm and welcoming and you have a perfect combination.

Building on Refuel's success, Rob and Tom have opened two more restaurants, Campagnolo and Campagnolo Roma. These are two casual Italian bistros where the food is down to earth family style Italian food, created with the same ingredients and philosophy as Refuel. Connie likes them which means a lot given her very traditional Italian cultural food background. They now have a great system where these restaurants can source from themselves so to speak, with their own meats ending up on their pizzas and in their pastas.

Refuel also does regular events, ranging from spot prawn boils at the start of the spot prawn season to 'whole hog' dinners and the most recent one, the 'fresh picked corn feast'. I always try to attend these and take Kai along when I can. We attended the corn feast a couple of nights ago and it was wonderful. Everyone was seated at a communal table and we were treated to a feast of corn on the cob, corn salad, creamed corn, spot prawn corn dogs, corn bread, corn fritters, fried chicken and smoked pork belly. R&B Brewery (my favorite Vancouver microbrewery, I'll post about them at some point) provided a one-off Peaches and Cream Heffen Weisen cask that went down nicely with the food. Kai absolutely loved it as well. (the food, not the beer!)
There are many other examples in Vancouver of restaurants that strive for local, seasonal, organic and sustainable food. Kitsilano Daily Kitchen run by the ever so talented chef Brian Fowke is another prime example of this. His menu changes daily based on what he gets from his producers and what he finds at the markets. I can go on, will do so in a future post...

I am bad at taking cameras to meals so I only have blurry iPhone photos that aren't worthy of posting here. The images in this post were taken from Refuel's web site. The next time I go I will endeavour to bring a camera and take some decent shots.