Eating in Vancouver, Sept. 2011
Vancouver food lovers anticipated the opening of David Hawksworth's restaurant with glee. After all the fine meals we've had at West, surely his new place would be of that level, if not better? The place received a rave from the national newsmag Macleans. Hawksworth had a morel dish on his lunch menu. Fine dining in this town rarely means fine lunching, but surely it would be here. While showing visiting in laws around downtown, Fumiyo had let me off in front of Hawksworth the previous week around noon in search of lunch, but I was told to come back in a couple of hours, or make a reservation. I came back With a reservation a week later, specifically to sample the morels. After the revelation from Charlie Trotter about morels' possibilities in 2008, I was sure our local uberchef would do something exquisite with these wondrous fungi. I was wrong.
Topping pasta with peas is a bad idea to begin with. Starch on top of starch? Would you care for some more Starch with that? The broccolini wasn't as insulting an ingredient, and mixed with the occasional morel molecule, the whole did a fine imitation of a magic forest of interesting earthiness. However. I came for the morels. I was served an avalanche of starch and precious few appeals to the better angels of my palate. It reminded me of Hubert Keller's In the Shower in its sheer discard for its key ingredient. Thankfully Hubert's food at Fleur was relentlessly excellent after the pasta pummeling. I had no reason to order anything else from Hawksworth. The pom mocktail was vastly superior to the "food," just like Justin Lord's great mocktails towering over the rather dismal food at Per Se a year ago. I felt embarrassed for the city of Vancouver, that one of its best loved chefs could fail this spectacularly. Maybe I'll try one of his other dishes, providing I'm not paying for it.
The Eatery is a Japanese restaurant that advertises constantly in our entertainment weekly The Georgia Straight. Specifically it advertises its Tuna Tempura. That s0unds like a good idea to me. One of the best things I've eaten in Vancouver is a tempura dish, chicken wrapped with savoy cabbage and tasting like squid. Exquisite. I love COOKED tuna so how could go wrong here? We needed to feed visiting Japanese palates as well as meet Bit's friends Steph (who raved about the tuna here) and Dino & Krista and this seemed like a good place. It's been serving Vancouver customers since 1983 so it was probably doing something right. A very festive place. I had lived in the area in 1973 but rarely been there since and it was now surprisingly built up. A good place to go with a group of people.
The famous tuna tempura was OK. It tasted like pastry, not tuna. Maybe somewhere between a crepe and an okonomiyaki. Not worth driving all the way from Lynn Valley for, but not bad. I also had the chicken and cheese gyoza, a bit too spicy for me, and the sodden deep friend zucchini sticks. One thing the restaurant could do better is vegetables. I looked in vain for a mushroom dish. Tons of sushi options, but irrelevant to me. The other eaters seemed content with their orders. I'm glad to see an effort being made to serve something out of the ordinary (tuna tempura). Fusion is an essential path for our dining age, and at least The Eatery is trying.
Lumiere claimed to be the best restaurant in Vancouver for many years and I've had a couple of good meals there before. Even better bistro food at its brother restaurant DB Bistro Moderne after Daniel had taken both restaurants over. Unfortunately Daniel only brought menu selections from his great NYC places to the bistro, not to Lumiere. But the great Lumiere was supposedly well taken care of by local hot shot Dale MacKay.
I heard that Daniel had abandoned Vancouver and both his restaurants would close in March. I was able to get a reservation to Lumiere a couple of days before it closed for good. The above vid is from that meal. This was a few weeks after my life altering meals in the great French restaurants of Las Vegas, and in no way comparable. The servers raved about the fois gras mouse with nuts. I was reading for the 2nd time Paul Krassner's ebullient autobiography
Confessions of a Raving, Unconfined Nut and laughing violently between courses. The waitresses were chagrined at suddenly losing their jobs and wondered if what I was laughing at would distract them from their suddenly looming poverty. As the nuts were scattered rather carelessly through the mousse, I told them the dish would be better if, unlike Krassner, the nuts were confined. I don't think they were cheered.
The food was about what you get for the money in this town. About 1/1000th the experience that the same money would get you at Mix, Twist, Guy Savoy or Robuchon. And this is the best restaurant in town?
Ensemble is chef MacKay's answer to the end of his career at Lumiere. It is as superior to Lumiere as joy is to despair.
Fumiyo and I had seen Dale cook his award winning crab and melon soup on the early TV news a couple of weeks before. It was momentarily warm in Vancouver, and the dish looked refreshing. By the time I got to the restaurant on Sept. 14th, it was decidedly cooler in Vancouver and refreshing wasn't the adjective I most hoped to use. But the soup was indeed refreshing. Lots of crab but it never tasted like crab. Melon, etc. Whatever. It was an entirely new taste. A celebration.
Next up, another award winner, the black cod in BBQ pork broth. Heavy on the Asian influences- bak choy being the main solid in the soup, and yet, it spoke more to my palate of what Joel Robuchon has been able to achieve with Asian synthesized French food, thus earning him the title Chef of the Century. Vancouver food as good as Vegas? I didn't think it was possible, but once again, I was wrong. As I told my server, this wasn't a broth you sipped, it was something you dived into. This is what I was expecting from Guy Savoy famous truffled artichoke soup. This was something worth getting on a plane and traveling from the other side of the world to taste.
And the delights didn't end. The scallops in corn were another revelation. The dish reminded me of Daniel's corn foam at his flagship restaurant last fall. Only that was the idea, this was the realization of what that idea could be. It was as if Daniel weren't the #8 chef in the world and MacKay merely one of his employees, I'd swear the positions were reversed. Not since the Maya has corn been so profoundly understood and ecstatically celebrated
The eggplant dish was so good I kept trying to cut it into tinier and tinier bites to make it last longer. Only the drinks were sadly made. Lumiere couldn't make a drinkable specialty coffee if their life depended on it, and I'm sad to see that tradition of stunning incompetence carry over to MacKay's new place. Service, even in an empty restaurant, was relentlessly incompetent. Although I informed my server upon entering the restaurant that I was fiercely thirsty, after strolling around the area shooting vid for the past half hour, my frequently empty glass was of little interest to the "service." and though this is more a menu defect, the lack of bread to soak up the exquisite sauces I was feasting on diminished the meal. Nonetheless. The best food I've had in Vancouver, and the only food I've eaten here that one could confidently serve a visiting deity.