I am partaking in a journey where I will appraise every non-franchise restaurant in town and review their food as well as their service. It is an attempt to expand my mind and appetite. Simultaneously, I will also be taking what I learn from these establishments and attempting to remake them with my extremely limited skill.
To give you an idea how long it’s been since I last visited Barkerville, back then, it was free to enter.
Yeah. I’m old.
What’s changed since? Not much. A few more buildings, a few additional novelties, but it’s pretty much the same, part and parcel of being a historical town. It’s not like they can add a Ferris wheel or a castle…though a castle probably wouldn’t be the most anachronistic thing here.
But I jumped the introduction. For most people, visiting Barkerville involves an extended drive marked by a bathroom break in Quesnel, because really, why does Quesnel exist other than to be a glorified rest stop? You either pee at the 7/11 on the way to Vancouver or you pee at the A&W on the way to Wells. There should be a sign, “Come for the piss, stay for the food.” Most of the restaurants aren’t much more than bathrooms with a fast-food joints attached.
We entered Barkerville on a Saturday morning before 11 AM on a cool September morning. It was unsurprisingly sparse, the town shuts down after this month for the season. We figured the day would be engaging, and we’d leave at the town’s closing around 5:00. After wandering through a few buildings and promising to shop before we left, we found lunch at the Chinese restaurant, Long-Dong-something (I’ll review that separately). Afterward, we looked at our watch, it had just rolled past noon.
After we skipped the theater and walked through every building we could, we wandered up to the Courthouse and back, about a 30 minute walk. Afterwards, I looked at my watch, 2:00. Wow, time moved slowly around here.
We built stone towers by a brook and made for the other outlook for a nice view.
3:00, running out of things to do.
Okay, we decided to go shopping finally and blew 50 bucks on fudge. My girlfriend bought two pieces of art from a local dealer. Finally, at 3:45, knowing we had seen pretty much everything, we decided to go to Wells early. And that really says it about Barkerville. It’s not like Disneyland where you need three full days to see everything. With Barkerville, you can walk slowly and still cover the whole thing in an afternoon. Very little has actually changed since last I was here…which I do imagine is pretty much the point. I mean it is a recommendation, just don’t expect any surprises. I do recommend following one of the tours though. And I do fully admit that during the peak season, this place is a lot livelier.
But we did want to see Wells, which also claimed a historic district. I’m not sure it’s historic as more just Wells refusing to join the 21st century. There is no cell service anywhere. The one and only place I found wireless internet only offered 20 MB free before cutting me off, which basically meant downloading emails and getting one message off to a friend. Pooley St. is a modest little dated section of town that appears more like a 19th century Mexican village than a Canadian historic site. No cars and with the bright yellow hotel to my right, I had this overpowering inclination to walk down the middle of the street and wait for the shutters to slam closed as I passed. I wanted to whistle the theme from a Fistful of Dollars. Like Barkerville, there was little to no people around. I thought Wells had a population of about 50—I counted maybe twenty people wandering around the streets.
I kind of liked Wells, though. It was a classic rural town with cute personalities and distracting primary colors. I asked three people to recommend a place to eat and they all agreed, the Bear Paw Cafe. I had been recommended the Big H’s Fish and Chips back home, but my girlfriend wasn’t feeling into halibut, unfortunate since the parking lot around the “H”s trailer (because that’s what it is, a trailer) was adorable. It was fringed by a classic “U”-shaped motel plucked right from the 60’s, and populated by classic cars. If I was a conspiracy nut, I’d think the wormhole from The Philadelphia Experiment had opened up, and if I fell into temptation to cross the threshold, I’d be enjoying fantastic fish and chips from 1955. Thankfully the Bear Paw was an adorable restaurant (reviewed separately).
In conclusion, Barkerville is a quaint tourist attraction worthy of an afternoon augmented by a nice drive and a secondary attraction with surprising hidden value. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by English castles, just don’t expect anything world shattering.
On occasion, I like expanding my reviews to other cities and other countries. I’ve taken on the best of Vancouver, Calgary, London, and Edinburgh, the latter I visited twice. These entries generate the highest number of views on the various websites I post to. Even though I have more entries in Prince George than all of the UK combined, there are simply more people there than here.
Next up, Italy, like all of Italy. My mother and I alternate destinations—I chose London last time, and now she get’s Italy (I’m picking Germany next, by the way). From October 6th to 18th, I’ll be traversing the sights, sounds, and tastes of one of the birthplaces of modern cuisine. Of yeah, and there are some churches and castles to see as well.
To preview this upcoming journey, here are some of the hotels I’ll be staying at:
Something has changed in Prince George, and we have the youth to thank for it. Am I referring to those bruising themselves at the skate park, those believing tweeting a cause is akin to fighting for it? No. I’m talking about my generation. People may claim I’m old, and they’d be right to an extent—elevator music is sounding pretty good, and I’ve started leaning forward driving uphill—but I’m still part of a sprightly generation belligerently refusing to settle into the lives of our parents. They defined this city by shopping at big block retailers, buying trucks, and eating at family restaurants. It was and old town with old ideas, but my generation is starting to make a claim. We’re the ones with tuner cars and public art projects, the ones that go to the BCNE to watch cooking competitions while avoiding the rodeo. I’m making a generalization, but I believe we’re the ones that packed the stands to watch Blue Man Group. We open restaurants like Copper Pig and Shiraz. And we open stores like 4OAK and Home Sweet Home.
Home Sweet Home is amazing. Yes, I admit, its selection is limited and some of it can be purchased from the health food aisle at Superstore, but where it shines is with its local products. Locally sourced produce and baking needs. Canned sauces and dips. Homemade pies. Every time I visit Home Sweet Home, something has changed. Is it evolving or adjusting? You don’t come to HSH just for a jug of milk and a carton of eggs (though you can). You come in with the same curiosity as a pubescent boy when opening his older brother’s dirty magazine—an overwhelming desire to see what’s inside. And like a Stanley Kubrick film, you can’t help but hang around. The owners are delightful and the atmosphere welcoming.
And do you want to know the real shocker? The food is good and not even that expensive. I really hope they don’t get wind and start overcharging. Their hummus is great and maybe a dollar more than Superstore. Their Dijon is cheaper, better tasting, and packed with enough wine that it could be the first time you got drunk on a condiment. But with prices bordering on reasonable, I keep wanting to return. With other places, they are a momentary curiosity, ultimately too pricey for sustained patronage, but Home Sweet Home has found a nice balance to entice people to become regulars. Hell, I’ve been there four times and they already called me by name.
Finally, I wanted to praise HSH’s dedication to community, following the examples set by other progressive businesses in town like Shiraz, Copper Pig, and Nancy O’s, Home Sweet Home has made their little shop an epicenter for social events including recent pop-up dinners and cooking classes. I recently attended a wine and cheese event. My hope is that they continue their success and maybe even blow down the eastern wall to expand, just as long as they don’t risk what they’ve already accomplished.
I’ve been asked numerous times about my stance on Scottish independence—apparently visiting the country twice makes my opinion significant. Context, I’ve once stated I wanted the country to adopt me and I have friends that live there. I’ve driven its roads, I’ve eaten its foods, and have embraced most every facet (haven’t worn a kilt yet but I love haggis). So my official position is…I’ll side with the Scots. That’s it, whatever the masses vote on, I’ll back with enthusiasm. I know the positions and some of the pros and cons, but simply don’t have a dog in this fight. Unlike others, I refuse to take a stance considering I lack crucial subjectivity and involvement. I cannot possibly relate to a people with so much history to form context. My one hope is that when the votes are tallied, that it is overwhelming. I don’t want it split evenly because doubt will plague them for decades. After the Quebec vote decades ago came down to the wire, nothing was really the same between them and the rest of Canada (and that is the ONLY thing these two situations have in common, another element of these last few weeks I found annoying). So I hope the result is decisive and I hope to visit again sometime in the future, country or not.
I like Boston Pizza, but let’s be honest, I wouldn’t really call it a restaurant, that assumes a modicum of pride. That’s pride I speak of, not standards. Boston Pizza has standards regarding cleanliness, plating, and ingredients (whatever levels those may be). So in that, I would compare BP to a factory, like those making shoes or battery operated spaghetti forks. Those running the line at Foxconn don’t take pride in the builds of their iPhones, but their jobs are dependent on the final product.
I’ve said before that Boston Pizza sets the base standard for all restaurants. If you are not as good as Boston Pizza, you’re basically as doomed as a character in Game of Thrones. And it shouldn’t be that hard, should it? I mean BP doesn’t even have a head chef. It’s true—Moxis has a head chef; Earls has a head chef. BP doesn’t. Like I said…a factory. It doesn’t employ cooks; it employs workers. Half the food is prepped hours before opening, and they don’t really have a choice. Have you seen their menu? It has more options on it than characters in War & Peace.
But there are way worse places to go. I’d still go to BP over any family restaurant in town. Why? Because it’s the default choice. Think about it, the one thing BP has going for it is the fact that it’s the ultimate compromise when any decently large group of people congregate. Get any four people together and have them all vote on where to eat. One person can’t handle spicy, another won’t touch meat. One person hates Chinese food, another Indian. One wants McDonalds, forcing everyone else to paddle beat that one with lead-filled oven mitts. And then there’s always the buzzkill that can’t afford anything more than microwaved cardboard soaked in brine. So they all agree to go Boston Pizza. Not Earls or Moxis, but Boston Pizza. When I was part of a rather large local car group, our meets were always at Boston Pizza. When I was young, my birthday parties were at Boston Pizza. Their Guttenberg bible of a menu has enough options to satisfy literally anyone, and to top it all off, it’s not even that expensive.
But is that worthwhile praise? Should I recommend it? No. Of course not. But I eat there anyway. It’s difficult to convince a group of four or more people to try something new. And some of the dishes aren’t bad…it’s inevitable given the culinary shotgun blast it delivers—something’s going to connect. Just thinking about cactus cut potatoes or baked chipotle bacon penne turns me into Pavlov’s loyal thrall. The point is that people should never compromise for less. That’s what it is—Boston Pizza is a gastronomic traffic light. RED. GO NO FURTHER! You should have been slowing down when you passed yellow but this is it, the lowest common denominator. But here’s hoping there’s a loud enough voice daring your group to try something better. And for that one depressed individual sitting alone at a table fit for four (because that’s as small as they get—they know their clientele), I just have to ask, “What the hell are you doing?” You know there are better places with better food and even better prices. I imagine said customer would look at me and respond, “Could be worse. Could be at Olive Garden.”
About a year ago, I proclaimed that, perhaps depressingly, the best sushi in town could be found at the sushi bar inside the Real Canadian Superstore. And I meant specifically this Prince George Superstore, as the sushi bars are franchises owned separately from the store and are not entirely regulated by Loblaws. At first, their quality was worthy of praise; I befriended the owner who strove for high standards in plastic covered sushi. Alas, not long after I stopped working at Superstore, the owner left as well to start another location in another store, leaving the business to a partner. My visits became sporadic afterwards, but I didn’t initially notice a reduction in quality.
That has unfortunately changed. Recently, a friend suffered from extreme gastrointestinal distress lasting two days from bad sushi. Curious if this was a trend, I purchased two different containers during lunch time on a Saturday, a day so busy, I should be assured of receiving recently prepared food. It was bad; actually, it was some of the worst sushi I’ve ever had. The coconut shrimp roll rice was not only hard as a rock, but the shrimp tempura had the texture of a squash ball (the sport). The salmon volcano roll lacked any flavor. This is discouraging. Sushi has reached an all-time low in Prince George. Outside of Sendo and So-Good, which are mediocre suggestions at best, there are really no go-to places for amazing sushi in town. I am hopeful this will change at some point in the future. Until then, this is my official Prince Gastronome…ummm…”Gastronotice”…
…whatever, avoid the sushi bar at the Real Canadian Superstore. This kind of dip in quality must be addressed.
My girlfriend won’t read this because she loves Bon Voyage and doesn’t want to read my criticism of it.
That’ll mark the high point to start this review.
It all goes downhill from here.
There were four us meeting here for a supper, a broad range of ordered dishes to order, promising comprehensive coverage. Bon Voyage had been renovated since I had last been here, and following the commandments put forth in the family restaurant bible, the new décor had more shades of brown than the Clairol wall at Sears. In defense, it’s a step up from my previous visit. The Bon Voyage—or is it Westgate Grill & Banquet, because I seriously don’t know—is still a family restaurant no matter how much spackle you throw upon the foundations. It’s still open at 6:00 am. The tables are still crowded by salt and pepper shakers and a wad of crinkled ketchup packets. It still has the same confused and vague stain-proof menu (it might have changed since renovation, but good luck trying to find how). Over two pages, I can choose between stir-fry, Greek or pasta. There is a section titled sandwiches, another hamburgers, yet another for steaks and one more…for beef. Despite all the other sections, there was still enough to add more beef.
My entrée came with soup, garlic bread, potatoes, beef, and onions; of course my soup came flanked with plastic-wrapped Premium Plus wafers, that’s just a given, like coming back from Africa with a virus. My entrée looked like someone dropped two fistfuls of ingredients into a hot pan and a mixed it a few minutes. Gigantic chunks of vegetables saddled beside lazily cut onion (a couple pieces were still connected to their roots) and topped with half a cow. My girlfriend’s steak still had a pulse and was flanked with enough mashed potatoes to feed an extended family of Irish immigrants (too soon?). Let’s call it what it is, a mess, something rushed. And let’s be honest, who can blame them? Go back 163 words and read that part on menu selection. How can anyone expect a chef to be prepared to make forty dishes from four different cuisines and have them flawlessly plated in less than thirty minutes? I could turn around and call this praise, a lesser chef would have seasoned the steak with his own frontal lobe. Let me stress again about how big and varied this menu was. I still haven’t mentioned all the sections, there was also seafood, appetizers, house specialties, childrens, and seniors. Hell, it took us ten minutes to even decide what to eat. After all was said and done, I still took half my plate home.
A recent conversation about the history of restaurants in Prince George brought up memories of these unchanging artifacts of the city’s past, the Carmel, Camelot Court, Connaught, a time where choice was limited between either these stalwarts or the many Chinese buffets scattered about town like brothels in Ancient Rome. I fondly reminisced of the days of Binos and McCloud 9. But these are memories best left in the past. No matter how well Bon Voyage dresses itself, the menu proves that underneath its new skin, it’s still a dinosaur.
I have lamented family restaurants often, and why? Why do I have to? Why do they all have to disappoint? I know they all don’t; I’ve read about better ones…but they’re not here. Here, our family restaurants are depressing relics from a time where this town was defined by a singular industry, and if you didn’t cater to people walking around with a bottle of Jake’s hot sauce in their pocket, you were doomed to fail. A friend offered a metaphor that family restaurants are like Ikea furniture, a nice façade covering cheap wood pulp. I think that comparison is an insult. I’d buy Ikea.
PS: By the way, I’m not a cocktail connoisseur, so I got a kick out of a drink called Holy Water—giving me temporary hope that Bon Voyage was a possible nearby refuge when vampires attack.
Here’s how you do it…
Ice Bucket Challenge.
And I challenge artist Nick Greenwood, editor Christopher Stilson, and 13th Age creator Rob Heinsoo.
I’ve decided this will be my last review of White Goose. Am I bored? No. Has their quality fallen? Of course not. But talking and posting about White Goose Bistro by this point is like walking up to random strangers and discussing how awesome Star Wars is. I mean everyone gets it, we’re all on the same page. It’s one of those natural laws we accept as fact. Grass is green; water is wet; sky is blue; women have secrets; White Goose is an amazing restaurant. In my recent article covering the Northern Taste challenge, I compared head chef Ryan Cyre to Thannos from Guardians of the Galaxy.
White Goose had the best table at the recent Summerfest Taste Pavilion and won the recent BCNE Northern Taste Challenge. My recent visit to their actual restaurant was marked by a visit by actor Ron Perlman and celebrity chef/author Bob Blumer. And even with those eminent patrons, Ryan still made a point to approach my table personally to discuss a dish I had ordered. There are great chefs in Prince George—fact—but I have yet to find one with the passion for food like Ryan. He lives and breathes good food. I doubt he sweats sweat; more likely he sweats béchamel sauce…which…admittedly sounds disgusting, but you get my point. And he gathers around him colleagues who match his passion, who strive for that high quality. This includes his sister, running front of house, who could also be a better baker than him.
In a previous review I had mentioned that White Goose was a revolutionary experience for such a small town, nailing a coffin in the accusation that restaurants in Prince George cannot be and should not be critiqued on the same grounds as those in Vancouver and that local restaurants can never hope to achieve the echelon of quality boasted by the likes of celebrity chefs and Michelin star establishments in larger cities. I also mentioned that White Goose should be that special place you take your loved one for birthdays and anniversaries, and not where you take a girl you met the day before on your first date. It’s a foodie’s heaven, and when I die far in the future from, hopefully, a failed heart after a night of constant debauchery on my 99th birthday, and I gain the Matrix-like ability to construct my own heaven like Robin Williams in What Dreams May Come (I’ll miss him), there will be a spot where a White Goose will sprout…because it wouldn’t be a heaven without it.
And that would be the end of it, a proper close to the review, but I love gushing about the food. I started with the grilled polenta served with a mouth-watering porcini mushroom reduction and followed that with seared tuna with grilled risotto. The main was also fringed by a fistful of spring beans, which I usually don’t finish but totally cleaned up. There was a dessert, I remember, but didn’t take a photo of it, chocolate cake with butter pecan sauce I believe. Now don’t get me wrong, I still love North 54 and Twisted Cork, but I plan my year around the days I can save up for White Goose. It’s just worth it. And returning back to the Star Wars metaphor, sure, every year films get made that win best picture Oscars, and that’s all good, but Star Wars is just…well…Star Wars.
…unless JJ Abrams screws it up…which he totally could.
I skipped supper today, and I’m still not hungry. I walked into the Summerfest Taste Pavilion early with $40 in my pocket and an empty stomach from not eating the previous twelve hours. Let’s be honest, this is not the Summerfest with Taste Pavilion; it’s Taste Pavilion with a handful of tables carried over from the Farmer’s Market. Despite wishing to support many of these local businesses, many of them I just saw the day before (or week previous if you attended the BCNE). The Taste Pavilion is where it’s it at; it’s everything, and the crowds proved it. I arrived early, got my tickets, and had downed four dishes before the crowds flooded in like divine retribution (I wanted to build an ark with two of every dish). A deluge it was, and by 11:30 I thought the area had reached a bursting point, but not true. It would get even more condensed; by noon, the entire street was packed like a Rush concert.
First up was Shiraz and the promise of Shawarma—a new cuisine Reza plans on offering at his restaurant. I followed that with a fish taco from White Goose, and samosas from Karahi King. After a breath, I returned to the booths a double fisted Zaffron Cuisine. I might have been critical of the approach of their restaurant, but I sure can’t complain about their food. After the lamb meatballs, I returned for their saffron and pistachio ice cream. Smart people—offering both a savory and a sweet dish, ensuring demand for both. Even at White Goose, I had to decide between the taco or garlic fries with goose mayo. Twisted Cork offered a local organic Kobe beef slider, which was amazing, if not… well… deceptive. I mean those are a lot of words. “Organic” has always been one that annoyed me—I mean are there edible animals made from silicon? “Locally” I can respect, but “Kobe”? Kobe? You know that Kobe refers to a specific strain of a specific cow in Japan, right? It’s a type of wagyu cattle and although there are wagyu cattle farms in Alberta, I don’t think they are allowed to call themselves Kobe. To call local beef Kobe is extremely deceptive, if not an outright lie. Some stores claim to sell Kobe beef even though it’s nearly impossible to get it outside of Japan. I’m just saying it’s a famous moniker often misused.
Now to the negatives, the first with Nancy O’s. I really enjoy Nancy’ Os but their pork taco left me unsatisfied. It was ok but the untoasted wrap just felt a little limp, perhaps unfair given it followed behind White Goose’s amazing variation of the same idea. And finally Booster Juice, which somehow felt it couldn’t be bothered to bring any equipment down for the event, instead transporting box after box from their location by car, only for said shipment to sell out five minutes later, forcing another ten minutes as the vehicle dashed for more. Why they didn’t prepare better or bring equipment on site I can’t understand, but I saw the lineup outside that booth scatter more than once.
I warned people to come early and by 1:30, “sold out” signs started popping up. By 2:00 several booths had shut down entirely. I had twelve bucks in tickets left so I blew it all on desserts and pop. Do I have any suggestions for the future? On my end, I badly needed a wingman—all my friends and even my girlfriend couldn’t make it. If I had someone with me, they could have shared a meatball and samosa, split those garlic fries. As such, after four plates, I had to walk around for 90 minutes before gaining the room to continue. Also, this place badly needed an announcer, someone with a microphone tapped into a loudspeaker everyone could hear to promote lesser patronized tables and alerting to delays and lineups…and yeah, lineups. I wasn’t hungry when I entered the queue for Twisted Cork; I was banking I would be fifteen minutes later when I reached the counter.
And the value was apparent. I stuffed myself for $40. I was plenty full at $25. I actually thought the portions in some cases were almost too large, another reason why I will kidnap someone if I have to next year. But wow was the rest of the Summerfest depressing. Two side streets with basically nothing, they need to team up with a car show or something. HEY, that’s an idea!
Any clear winners? Other than the crowds, I would throw a shout out to Karahi King, Zaffron Cuisine, Shiraz, White Goose Bistro and Twisted Cork. So a great event and one I will attend again next year.