I had the pleasure to return to Vancouver in early November to get an update on the always-exciting restaurant scene up there. I can report in glowing terms to NiteDine readers about the ever-evolving scene. I checked out five new places along with a small group of travel writers from England and California, and it was thumbs up all round, with a few exceptions which I have duly noted.
The 2004 restaurant awards for Vancouver rated Rob Feenie's outstanding Lumiere restaurant still top in the city (check out our previous review), but there are some excellent places snapping at his heels, so 2005 should offer an exciting contest.
Elixir Restaurant at Opus Hotel We started with a dinner at the new and trendy Opus Hotel's Elixir restaurant, right in the heart of Yaletown, an ex warehouse district that is now rivaling Robson Street as the place to hang out in the city. This particular Friday night the hotel was buzzing. Ben Affleck had just checked into the penthouse suite when we arrived. There were also sightings of his co-star Gina Gershon and new girlfriend Jennifer Garner in the lobby. In addition, there was a book signing in the bar area with a local celebrity chef, and the place was packed with the hip and trendy of Vancouver.
Eventually we sat down to sample the food of well-traveled executive chef Don Letendre and his Chef de Cuisine, Lee Humphries. Don has even work-studied in England under Raymond Banc and Bruno Loubet. The space holds 154 but seems smaller, with a couple of separate dining areas, the Garden Room and the Velvet room for a more intimate setting in a very comfortable environment.
Two years of planning went into the operation before the hotel even opened and the chef has been on the payroll since September 2000. How many owners would pay a chef for that long, prior to opening? The design of the restaurant is inspired by Van Gogh paintings and Brasail's classic French interior photographs, Paris by Night.
The food itself is more or less what you would expect from a quality brasserie like the Opus, with a resounding all round thumbs up for the creativity put into the menu by the 10-man brigade. The wine cellar at Elixir boasts 5,000 bottles, and the wine pairings on this particular night were mostly perfect. Pine mushrooms are big in Vancouver, so naturally we started with those along with a Fricassee of Chanterelles, Yellow Foot with toasted Brioche, Tomato jam and a Fried Quail's Egg. As expected the Foie Gras with grilled tuna on a bed of spinach was an all round delight, as was the Duck Supreme, a pan roasted duck breast from the Fraser Valley served with braised red cabbage and organic carrots. Only local suppliers are used at Elixir, where the signature dishes include Gateau au Foie de Volaille and Steak Frites with Béarnaise, Skate Wing Coq au Vin Style, and Confit de Canard.
Feenies Next up was a lunch visit to the new Rob Feenie venture, Feenies, which is the casual version of his Lumiere restaurant, and located on the same site. This place was a perfect foil to the gourmet food served the night before at Elixir, and although the menu is small, it was an easy choice for the majority in the party to select the Feenie Hamburger.
To quote another Air Canada in-flight magazine writer, summing up his experience, "everything you try at Feenie's is prepared with the same consummate skill you would expect at Lumiere." The 100% certified Angus beef burger came with the crispiest fries I had ever tasted in a silver goblet, and the burger itself was cooked to perfection on a seed roll. At $12 this is an absolute steal. Somebody in the party went for the halibut, seared on one side and with a thick crust. It came heavily caramelized on the seared side and served with a variety of sautéed vegetables. The service as you would expect is superb, and of course every table was taken on this rather wet Saturday. No surprise at all then that the restaurant won a gold medal in 2004 in the "Best new informal dining" category. The restaurant is also open for dinner for those unable to get reservations at Lumiere, and the menu looks inviting enough to make a return visit inevitable.
C restaurant is a favorite of the critics, and is another outstanding seafood restaurant. It has been open 7 ½ years and is the brainchild of Harry Kambolis, and executive chef Rob Clark, who has been around since opening day. It is often the case that the more cramped the kitchen is, the higher the quality of the food can be. This is the case with C, with the brigade having to operate in a very tight L-shaped kitchen, which has a rather unique granite heated serving section that keeps the plates hot. A squadron of impeccably dressed waiters serves the exquisite dishes in the 80 seat restaurant that gets its fair share of celebrity diners such as Harrison Ford, Alanis Morrisette, Will Smith and Judi Dench - a regular when she is filming in town.
The foie gras comes from Hudson Bay, scallops are sent by Federal Express 12 hours after harvest, and the salmon from Prince Rupert arrive within 24 hours of being caught. We all had to try the signature dish of Octopus bacon wrapped around scallops, and then double smoked and grilled. In fact the smoker is an integral part of the kitchen at C, and they have now started selling their own brands of smoked salt at Granville Island Market. We started the main meal with Cortes Oyster farmed in Cortes Island in a mignonette fizz. The Side Striped Shrimp from Vancouver Island was extremely fresh, and came with caramelized garlic, grapefruit mousse and licorice. Foie Gras is always a challenge for chefs, and the version served at C certainly fell into that category. This seared version came on a crisp hazelnut cracker with pickled santa rosa plums, honey and thyme. The plums were a perfect combination with the Quebec Foie Gras, and seemed to work. The next dish did not come out quite as good. Seared Skeena River Wild Sockeye Salmon was way too dry, and that was accentuated by the preserved lemon fried bread. Highlight of the meal was the Nordic Spirit Sablefish (also known as Alaskan Black Cod), served with rosemary and garlic crumble, sweet potato escarole, and double smoked bacon consommé.
The Sandbar fish restaurant on Granville Island is only a short aquabus ride from Yaletown, but a good place for lunch, and you can take the kids. The waiters have a hard job as the restaurant is on two floors, but they sprint up and down the the stairs quickly enough to serve standout specialty items such as wok squid and prawn & crab cakes. The oysters were also of the highest quality, but not so, the lettuce wrap one of my associates selected. He found it to be an abysmal failure, with a slightly wilted iceberg lettuce and a tasteless grey slab of chicken filling. You have been warned. Sandbar is still a fun place to go with mainly very decent food, and dancing Thursday through Saturday from 10 pm.
Blue Water Café is another classy seafood restaurant again in Yaletown. Since opening over four years ago, it has been consistently rated among the Vancouver's top 5 restaurants. Currently it is ranked the second best seafood restaurant in Vancouver, just behind the aforementioned C. Everything is smooth at this place to the superb blue cutlery and glassware, effortless service and the view of the expansive open kitchen that just seems to blend into the background. Sous chef Francois Gagnon cooked for us that night in the absence of executive chef Frank Pabst. Pabst has a glittering resume having learned his craft in Michelin restaurants in Cote d'Azur before moving to Vancouver in 1993. He was an integral part of Rob Feenie's team at Lumiere joining Blue Water in November 2003.
He has turned the menu into a seafood lover's paradise ordering fresh crab, lobster, oysters and more sometimes twice a day. The oyster list alone gives you a choice of 18 to choose from British Columbia, Washington, Eastern Canada and France. There is a sit down Sushi bar, and the wine list boasting almost 1000 selections has earned the prestigious Best of Award of Excellence from the Wine Spectator 2003. Some of the super dishes at Blue Water Café include crab & corn fritters in a savory red paste, and an artic char served with a creamy celeriac. A sturgeon fillet on braised lentils was very well accompanied by a Robert Mondavi Sauvignon Blanc.
Mike Hepworth, December 2004