Photo: Jose Mandjana
It's been a year since the 2010 Winter Olympics, and Vancouver's dining scene looks a lot different from the one predicted before the festivities began. Flashy pre-game restaurant openings such as Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Market and Daniel Boulud's DB Bistro Moderne (Gordon Ramsay was also spied scouting locations) were expected to usher in a new era of celebrity-chef, high-end dining.
But, a year later, these high-profile rooms have struggled to capture the city's fancy (recently spotted at DB Bistro: the dreaded jazz trio). Instead, Vancouver's dining scene clung to its easygoing roots: West Coast casual with Canadian manners—even the French waiters are polite to a fault here. This slavish devotion to all things local persists (Vancouver was, after all, the birthplace of The 100-Mile Diet). The corporate-catering-giant-Sysco truck is a four-wheel pariah, and if you ask for bottled water from Italy, expect a raised eyebrow as your server mentally calculates your carbon footprint.
Thanks to the Vancouver Aquarium's pioneering Ocean Wise program, the Ark of the Covenant is easier to find than a menu containing the severly overfished Chilean sea bass. But any suggestion that such strictures lead to no fun is dispelled by places like Cafeteria. It's the newest offering from Andrey Durbach and Chris Stewart, whose other two restaurants—the elevated neighborhood trattoria La Buca and the homage to the simple brasserie Pied à Terre—have honed the pitch-perfect small room with simple food made with fresh local fare from an ever-changing menu.
"Im hesistant to call it a formula," says Durbach. "It's just the confluence of informed service, high-quality ingredients, and good cooking."
Durbach and Stewart set up their new venture in hipster central's South Main Street strip. Here, you're just as likely to dine beside a bike courier as a bond trader. The daily menu—presented with missing letters ("We ran out of vowels," explains the server) on a grade-school letterboard—channels the retro vibe of your high-school cafeteria, if your high school served venison flank steak with wild mushrooms culled from nearby mountain slopes or thinly sliced Vancouver Island scallop sashimi with sesame oil and avocado.
Strict government regulations mean many trends that sweep other cities can't germinate here. Food carts serving anything other than hot dogs? None, until just last August—hyperattentive health inspectors need to guarantee safety, of course. Even beachside stands are largely absent, with one glorious exception: Go Fish (604-730-5040), a great take-out shack near Granville Island that attracts long lines even during the rain-soaked months.
Owner and former punk singer Gord Martin offers unfussy fare like wild salmon tacones—the fish travels no more than a few hundred feet from the nearby fisherman's dock—drizzled with a light chipotle crema. It comes with a crunchy, mayo-free Pacific Rim slaw, with ingredients—mostly ginger, red and green cabbage, and rice wine vinegar—sourced from the Granville Island public market, mere blocks away.
While it's rare to find a Vancouver restaurant that doesn't have local salmon on the menu, when it comes to true seafood restaurants here diners prefer their fish raw: The city has an estimated 300-plus sushi restaurants, and locals allegedly eat more per capita than the Japanese.
Local luminary Hidekazu Tojo reigns supreme with Tojo's, which is routinely mentioned as among the best in the world. Omakase, which translates loosely into "open your wallet and put yourself in the master's hands," is the way to go here. What could prove risky in the hands of lesser chefs turns sublime here, as Tojo dreams up innovative, if elusive creations like Canadian sablefish (aka black cod) with Tojo's "secret" marinade. Secrets are the stock in trade here: Several offerings on the menu, like the BC smoked salmon salad, are listed with "secret" or "special" dressings, leaving you to either do some tasteful sleuthing or futilely beg your server for hints. A simple "you'll love it" is the most common response, and it's almost always true.
The Asian influence continues just a few blocks north, where Chef Angus An remade his high-end spot, Gastropod, into the sleek and modern Maenam, giving the city its first great Thai restaurant. The wonder isn't that An was so successful in reinventing the room, but why, as a chef who apprenticed at David Thompson's legendary Nahm restaurant in London, he didn't start with Thai cuisine in the first place. He takes a cuisine that is often good but rarely great in North American restaurants to a new level via simple preperations and ultrafresh ingredients. A small Cornish game hen is charcoal grilled and served with a densely flavored hot-and-sour tamarind sauce. Steamed Heriot Bay swimmer scallops are served in an airy coconut-influenced salad that would likely float away if it ever stayed on a plate long enough.
Ironically, until recently, one of the few places that didn't have any standout Asian fare was the city's expansive Chinatown. The area serves as a mecca for tourists who make do with marginal cart-service dim sum because the city's huge Chinese population (20% in the last census) has largely settled in the neighboring suburb of Richmond to live and eat. They've transformed a former bastion of proper English living into a collection of foodie-heaven strip malls, heavy with Cantonese script and unrecognizable brands that appear to havje been transported from Guangzhou lock, stock, and barrel. For the adventurous, the food courts here (try Yaohan Centre for superauthentic, Aberdeen Centre for more refinement) offer the closest thing to southern Chinese street food in North America. It's a culinary day ticket to the overwhelming excitement of mainland China for less than $10, all a short SkyTrain ride away.
But Richmond's growth sapped the historic Chinatown of its culinary raison d'etre. That changed last year when Tannis Ling opened Bao Bei, a Chinese brasserie that channels the glamour of 1930s Shanghai into a long, thin room adorned with museum-sized youthful portraits of Ling's parents. The menu is heavy on modern interpretations of classics—the mantou may seem like a regular steamed bun, but the filling of braised beef short-ribs, pickled cucumber, and roasted peanuts is decidedly new. Other dishes strike out in bold new directions, such as Chinese plum panna cotta with a confit of cherry tomatoes and peanut pralines, which is listed under desserts but may need a new category invented to properly place it. Despite Bao Bei's uniqueness, it has adopted that one trait so common amongst Vancouver eateries: no reservations—so arrive early.
BREAKFAST AT MEDINA
It wasn't that long ago that breakfast in Vancouver was a choice between a cheap greasy spoon or an elaborate overpriced hotel buffet. Now we have Medina, a Belgian breakfast spot—a seemingly odd choice give that when Chef Nico Schuermans moved to town, he likely doubled the existing Belgian population. An offshoot of its wildly popular next-door neighbor Chambar, Medina started out its life selling just Belgian waffles with a variety of sauces, but popular demand has led them to expand into the most creative breakfast menu in the city. Early-morning versions of egg-and-baked bean cassoulet and tagine with poached eggs and spicy tomato stew join the ever-present waffles (topped with fig-orange marmalade or maple syrup, if you so desire).
Go there: Medina
Make it at home: Libanais Breakfast
LUNCH AT REFUEL
Even as Chef Robert Belcham was being honored as Vancouver Magazine's Chef of the Year in 2009, he knew the type of food he was cooking at his high-end eatery, Fuel, had little or no future in Vancouver. "True fine dining is dead," was his oft-rereated quote. So he rebranded the restaurant refuel, brought the menu back to locally sourced basics, and hasn't looked back. Ingredients like watercress and English peas share space with seared hanger steak and the city's best buttermilk fried chicken.
Go there: refuel
Make it at home: Crispy Chickpea Salad with Grilled Prawns
DINNER AT VIJ'S
If there's one iconic moment in Vancouver's dining, it's the nightly lineup at the no-reservations temple of modern Indian cuisine that is Vij's. It doesn't matter if you're Robert Pattinson, the Prime Minister of Canada, or the New York Times' Sam Sifton, proprietor Vikram Vij is graciously inflexible about his no-reservations rule. So everyone waits out front when it's sunny, or in the back bar for the other nine months of the year. A band of brothers-like camaraderie develops among the excited diners waiting to hear their names called. The reward for such patience? Vij's pairing of his classical Indian training with nontraditional ingredients like pork tenderloin and beef short ribs to create Indian food like none you've tried before. His lamb "popsicles"—actually wine-marinated frenched lamb chops in a fenugreek curry sauce—may be Vancouver's signature dish.