Tired of watching winter sports? I'll bet not. Hockey fever in Vancouver has never been hotter. And now that the five-ring circus has left town, we can get back to the regular National Hockey League schedule and perhaps even score a table at Red Card Sports Bar + Eatery, which was packed to the rafters during the Olympics.
Before the Games began, I would have said this high-end, Euro-style sports bar lived up to its inauspicious name and would had given the restaurant its marching orders for foul food and service. But if there's anything to be learned from the naysayers who prematurely denounced Canada's ambitious goal of "owning the podium", it's that the game isn't over until the last gold medals are tallied - or pizzas are baked.
So for now - partly because I'm still feeling the effects of Olympic fever, but also because I have confidence that a new general manager and kitchen team can turn things around - I'll give it the lesser warning of a yellow penalty card.
Red Card is the latest addition to the renovated Moda Hotel, which already boasts the superb Uva Wine Bar and the award-winning Cibo Trattoria (enRoute magazine's best new Canadian restaurant for 2009).
While it's not appropriate to compare this sports bar to Moda's more sophisticated eateries (which are managed separately, under a different kitchen), Red Card did create a certain level of expectation when it began touting its Italian comfort food, "made with fresh ingredients and the highest of standards." I gave the place a sporting chance by visiting three times since its early-December opening and didn't see much improvement.
It's supposed to be a "new concept sports bar," but bare-brick walls, unvarnished wood beams, copper-eyeball light clusters and tufted black leather booths actually make Red Card feel like a down-market Pinkys. Even the sexy red-clad leather bathroom-stall doors quickly lose their lustre when garbage bins are overflowing and toilet paper is out of stock.
Annette Rawlinson, a crack-shot restaurant consultant who opened Au Petit Chavignol to stellar success and pulled up the socks at Chambar Belgian Restaurant when it needed it, certainly has her work cut out for her as Red Card's new general manager. The female staff members here are very sweet, and come in all shapes and sizes (in what appears to be a direct affront to the unofficial Cactus Club policy of hiring only shapely blondes), but they obviously haven't been chosen on the basis of their experience.
First off, it would be nice to see the gals stop finger-twirling their uniformly long locks (which may look beautiful, but is unhygienic). And it would be good to start them off with some basic product knowledge (on my second and third visit, I ordered a reserve Tuscan Chianti, yet was both times presented with the same wrong bottle of house plonk).
Some elements of service have improved - on my latest visit, the waitress asked if we would like our appetizers served before our main courses (on my second visit, they came all at once). But the food went downhill, even though the surly opening chef (who seemed to enjoy frowning down on customers from his dramatic perch in the raised open kitchen) has been replaced.
Pizza is Red Card's showpiece: The owners have heavily invested in the menu item with a high-tech, wood-burning, rotating Marana Forni oven that has the capacity to cook up to 18 thin-crust pies at a time.
Most of the toppings are authentic. I particularly enjoyed the spicy, green-pepper diavolo ($15) and salty prosciutto with funghi ($14). But even after the third visit, when a pizzaiolo had apparently come from Italy to train the kitchen staff, the thin-crust dough was still slightly soggy in the centre and darkly burnt on the edges and showed no signs of attractive air bubbles.
That said, the pizza is much tastier than most of the other items on the menu - save the thick, porky zuppa di borlotti ($6), which I would have enjoyed much more had the food runner brought a spoon.
Breaded chicken wings ($9) come with no breading or hot sauce. When we send the scrawny drumettes back, they are returned tossed in a generic, vinegary BBQ sauce. Arancini risotto balls ($8) are mouth-puckeringly dry with a ragu centre that is dark and thick.
When the main courses arrive on the third night, we have to ask for more utensil rollups. Our waitress brings five, even though there are only three at our table.
Perhaps she's overcompensating for a terrible lasagna ($16) that is smothered in a non-Bolognese cream sauce. Or an otherwise rich and gorgeously flavourful steak from Pemberton Meadows ($24 for a 12-ounce rib-eye) that was unceremoniously adorned with cold roasted potatoes, burnt on the outside, and a small scattering of plain arugula, served without any dressing.
Gnawing on a chewy serving of ricotta-cream-filled cannoli, I can't help but wonder how the Olympics will affect the restaurant industry in Vancouver. Much like Team Canada, we have great potential, but still need a lot more investment to make the dreams come true.
Red Card: 900 Seymour St.;
Crab is king: Monstrous crustaceans on sale at Chinese restaurants
The Alaskan king crab season has arrived and the feasting is sweet. For the next two weeks, Chinese seafood restaurants will be selling the monstrous crustaceans for only $13.80 a pound - less than half the off-season price and a good deal cheaper than you'll find anywhere else in the world, making it a true Vancouver special.
These live red crabs are massive (usually weighing six to 12 pounds), and the bigger, the better. (The meat in large crabs is sweeter and denser and offers the best value in terms of meat-to-shell ratio.) So go with a group of at least four people and order about two pounds each.
Chinese restaurants usually serve king crab two ways: The giant legs are split and steamed under a blanket of minced garlic or in a light rice wine and ginger broth; the knuckles are flash-fried with garlicky salt and hot peppers.
For an additional $5 to $12 (depending on the size of your group), the kitchen will stir-fry your leftover leg juices with yee mein noodles. And for $13.80 more (the collectively agreed-upon price that most local restaurants charge per pound), you can have the carapace stuffed with baked fried rice (Portuguese-style curry from Macau is my favourite).
Most Cantonese seafood restaurants serve fresh king crab in season, but here are a few places where it's prepared particularly well.
Sun Sui Wah: 3888 Main St., Vancouver, 604-872-8822; 102-4940 No. 3 Rd., Richmond, 604-273-8208
Ken's Chinese Restaurant: 1097 Kingsway, Vancouver, 604-873-6338
Kirin Seafood Restaurant: various locations including 102-1166 Alberni St., Vancouver, 604-682-8833 (charging $14.80 a pound)