West Van offers great specialty retail spots to stop and nosh

I  live in the City of North Vancouver but I have grown fond of ducking into West Vancouver for short, functional walks, especially along the easternmost stretch of Marine Drive by Ambleside.

You see, I have a soft spot for walkable neighbourhoods. While weekly meal planning is a necessary evil with three kids and countless after school and weekend activities, when left to my own devices I still like to hit up five or six shops to get what I need (and more) for a meal or two.

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In the early 1980s there was a period of three years or so when my father lived in a stunning apartment in the now heritage-protected Hampton Court building in Vancouver’s West End, just south of Davie on Thurlow Street. When I would visit him on the occasional weekend we followed a well-established routine that included Saturday morning jaunts down to the last block or two of Robson Street that still bore the name Robsonstrasse, a quickly fading relic of the era when German and other Continental European businesses infused Vancouver’s retail thoroughfare with personality and charm.

Armed with an assortment of empty nut and coffee tins, we would visit a handful of delis and spice shops to replenish the tins with assorted nuts, small-production coffee (I had no idea how ahead of his time my father was in this regard), and various other treats like chocolate-covered espresso beans.

What strikes me most looking back at that time was the eminent walkability of the city; you had your favourite haunts, they all specialized in one thing or another, and you frequented them all in order to restock the pantry. Those were not the days of the weekly slog out to Costco.

While Lonsdale Avenue is the North Shore’s best known spot for boutique retail, I recently descended on Marine Drive in West Vancouver (between 13th and 15th Streets), a strip of a few blocks that have become some of my favourites for specialty foods. Once the nightmare of parking near Ambleside has been left behind, the market shopping becomes good fun.

  • • •

Farm to Table was my first stop. The long, narrow shop stocks an eclectic mix of goods and straddles the line between grocer and specialty foods purveyor. Many local names line the shelves and coolers of Farm to Table and it was these that were the focus of my purchases.

Mushroom and Jarlsberg, and Asparagus and Asiago quiches from Burnaby’s Tartine Tarts were outstanding, the former revealing earthy, heady flavours in a light and airy egg suspension with a flaky, buttery crust with just the right weight to avoid sogginess but not overwhelm.

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Farm to Table, a retail store in West Vancouver which hosts an eclectic mix of quality products, offers its own signature olive oil - photo Paul McGrath

A dense and pungent salami from Port Moody’s Moccia Urbani was packed with coriander and spicy chillies and stood out from a platter I later prepared with heirloom tomatoes, Farm to Table’s house-made Moroccan Hummus (with cumin and chillies), and grilled Beyond Meat sausages, available frozen in packages of four.

Farm to Table stocks both sausages and burgers from Beyond Meat, a company that I understand is about to go public on the heels of their explosive growth in the vegan protein category.

Farm to Table,1476 Marine Dr., West Vancouver. Farmtotablefinefoods.com. 604-559-6406

  • • •

Steps away from Farm to Table is one of the most interesting seafood shops in Greater Vancouver, The Village Fish Market. It is interesting to me because on weekdays between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., the shop offers an assortment of well-executed seafood lunch dishes (with an emphasis on rice or quinoa bowls) through a section of the shop they call Nell’s Kitchen.

Items from the menu include Ahi Tuna Poke Bowls, Halibut Glory Bowls, Fish of the Day Taco Bowls, Shrimp Croissant sandwiches, salmon burgers, chowder, and seafood salads.

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Chowder soup available at Nell’s Kitchen in The Village Fish Market. - photo Cindy Goodman, North Shore News

As I visited on the weekend, Nell’s Kitchen wasn’t operating, so instead I scored six kusshi oysters, a crab cake, and a halibut cake from the fishmonger side of the operation for consumption at home later. The oysters were immaculately fresh. I shucked them, made a simple mignonette, and enjoyed them with a glass of Fort Berens Dry Riesling, a crisp, tart, mineral-forward white from Lillooet.

Its sister wine, a slightly off-dry Riesling, recently won recognition as Best White Wine at the prestigious Pacific Rim Wine Awards in San Bernardino, California.

Of the two seafood cakes I preferred the crab, for which the shop has amassed something of a cult following. The dense, weighty disk of goodness is jammed with Dungeness crab meat and is quick to prepare. In addition to fresh fish, The Village Fish Market sells everything you need for your seafood meal prep, including seafood stock, parchment paper, tamari, panko, and even pickled red onion for garnish on fish tacos.

The Village Fish Market, 1482 Marine Dr. 604-922-4332

  • • •

The newest addition to this walkable stretch of Marine Drive is Meinhardt Fine Foods, the third location of the South Granville institution that was instrumental in ushering in a new era of high-end, boutique retail in that neighbourhood back in the late 1990s.

Meinhardt was acquired by the Jim Pattison Group back in 2012 and some evidence of mainstreaming has followed since then, especially on the packaged goods side, but the core philosophy of unique imports and fresh, creative, ready-made foods still prevails.

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A wide selection of vinegars and olive oils is available at Meinhardt Fine Foods in Ambleside. - photo Paul McGrath

I rewarded my sweet tooth here with a selection of colourful cakes, tarts, and a crème brulee, all made in house. A fresh berry tart covered in plump raspberries was the best of the lot with a fresh, crumbly crust not unlike a sugar cookie, and a filling of silken, light crème patissiere under the berries. An almond and fresh fruit tart was considerably less sweet and offered the characteristic fragrance and flavour of almond paste offset with blueberries, wedges of peach, and toasted almonds.

The brulee was straightforward, its vanilla bean custard well encrusted by a layer of deep golden burnt sugar.

Meinhardt Fine Foods, 1350 Marine Dr. 604-922-5362

  • • •

My last stop was at a hidden gem of a store called Mitra’s Market, which is tucked discreetly along Clyde Avenue (just North of Marine Drive) on the north side of the street between 14th and 15th streets.

Although the store specializes in high quality Persian fare, it is a market of diverse goods from fresh produce to meats, olives, nuts, breads, spreads, and cheeses.

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Sam Garman, owner of Mitra’s Market in Ambleside, holds a dish of crème caramel. - photo Paul McGrath

I picked up a hefty wedge of creamy Persian feta (I will not buy the packaged grocery store stuff anymore given that many of the North Shore’s Persian markets sell far superior feta at a fraction of the cost), the best taftoon bread money can buy (hailing from the excellent Amir Bakery on Lonsdale), a bottle of polyphenol-rich Lebanese extra virgin olive oil ($10 for 750-millilitre bottle!), and some sun-dried black olives.

With the savoury treats sorted, I grabbed a specialty item that, as far as I can tell, is only sold at this market: crème caramel from North Shore producer Taste of Inspiration. The crème caramel is classically executed with a rich, thick-set egg custard bathing in a shallow pool of indulgent, amber-hued caramel jus. This is a sizeable flan, enough for 10 servings, and represents good value relative to its quality at $22.

Mitra’s Market,1451 Clyde Ave. 604-913-0660

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