For my last column of 2009 (I’ll be back on Jan. 7, 2010), I thought I would compile a little list of my favourite tasting experiences from the past year. Despite the small number of restaurant openings this year, there have been many pleasant new discoveries, and both new and established chefs who have exercised their ingenuity to create some truly remarkable culinary experiences. In no particular order, here are my most memorable tastes of 2009.
Gastown’s newest addition, The Pourhouse, boasts a simple menu of old-fashioned comfort, but it’s their neon squidâ€”served in thick, juicy, scored slabs of steak, and topped with crispy slivers of garlic, fresh green onion and chili threadsâ€”that steals the show.
The Pourhouse is also the only restaurant to make it on this list twice — the second is for one of their desserts, the cold rice pudding with warm, caramelized Mission figs. This is a study in contrastsâ€”the chilled pudding against the warm fruit, the sweet caramel on the milky cream, and the coarser texture of the rice against the smooth plumpness of the figs. The extra hit of Maker’s Mark doesn’t hurt either.
In the West End, Nook Restaurant’s chicken liver crostini might be an odd thing to find on an Italian menu, but your Jewish grandmother’s pâté never tasted so good. Served on massive slices of toast, and topped with capers and deep-fried onion threads, it’s the perfect treat for the soul.
The Italian’s answer to beer nuts, Campagnolo’s crispy ceci are worth a visit to this north Main spot all on their own. Like the rest of the menu, simplicity speaks volumes. The deep-fried chickpeas are tossed with mint, citrus and pepperoncini, and make the perfect snack while watching the football games (European, not American) in the lounge at the back.
DB Bistro Moderne is a lively spot, great for cocktails and holiday meetings, but it’s chef Stephane Istel who brings the recipes of Daniel Boulud to life, with his simple elegant approach to French bistro fare. The chicken oyster fricassee is a dish I have gone back for again and again. Seared chicken oysters, button mushrooms and escargots top a mound of hazelnut spätzle. Need I say more?
Breka Bakery on Fraser St. may not be a strictly Jewish establishment, but their cinnamon rugelach is some of the best in the city, and is made from cream cheese dough that turns to butter in the mouth.
The modern Vietnamese fare served at Chau Kitchen & Bar on Robson is clean, comforting and fresh, as is evident in the lemongrass chicken rice paper rolls. Fresh greens, aromatic chunks of grilled chicken, tender noodles, and crunchy strips of rice paper all combine into a texturally-rich wrap. The apple vinaigrette dip is just icing.
Au Petit Chavignol, the East Hastings brainchild of the folks from Les Amis du Fromage, is big on the charcuterie, so it’s no wonder that one of their star dishes is a rillette of duck served with a sweet onion jam, so rich and dense that you can only spread it thickly on the accompanying baguette. Yeah, it’s a hard life.
Irashai Grill may be about contemporary Japanese fare, but the aji sashimiâ€”a Japanese mackerelâ€”is pure, classic sushi heaven. The best part however, is when the head and tail that decorate your plate are taken away to be split and deep-fried to a salty crisp. Domo arigato.
Maenam’s Muslim oxtail soup is a clear, clean, aromatic broth, loaded with julienned vegetables, Vietnamese mint, orange zest and a large dollop of braised oxtail. Big enough for two, it’s the perfect slurp on a cold day.
Coast Restaurant is known for their fresh and inventive seafood, but it was a sampler from the dessert platter that really blew me away. Cheesecake lollipops are a heady blend of Tahitian vanilla and white chocolate, with a crushed candy crust. For post-sushi dessert, there’s nothing better.
Chef/owner Kris Barnholden is working some major magic in his kitchen at Mis Trucos, and I do mean magic, since he doesn’t actually have a hood fan or grill, so induction cooking is where it’s at. The white ruffle risotto with lobster and crème fraîche is one of the best things I’ve tasted in years and will hopefully have a long shelf life on the seasonal menu.
You wouldn’t think a sandwich could be that memorable, but the Mexican tortas at Las Tortas on Cambie are worth the praise. My favourite version is the slow-roasted pork thigh, which is piled high onto a crusty telera rollâ€”baked specially for the restaurantâ€”along with tomato, cabbage, pickled onions, jalapenos, guacamole, refried beans, butter and mayo.
In a different part of town, the small, tasty and authentic Mexican street-style tacos at La Taqueria use handmade soft corn shells, local meats, and Ocean Wise seafood. The Pemberton Meadows beef tongue is killer, and at only $2.50, just might be the best deal in the city.
Who needs a bread basket? No one, says Society Dining Lounge. Instead of starch, guests are greeted with a gargantuan Kobe beef meatball, wrapped in bacon and slathered in tomato “fondue.” These are so good most people go on to order the pasta-paired version.
La Brasserie’s suckling pig with sauerkraut is a tender, fatty, mouthful of crispy-edged pork, but it’s the schupfnudelâ€”tender, fried fingers of potato pastaâ€”that cause the glands to salivate.
Vista D’oro Farms & Winery has become famous for their artisan preserves. This year’s latest offerings include the Turkish fig with D’oro walnut wineâ€”a spread that works especially well over some seared pork bellyâ€”as well as the lighter pink grapefruit with champagne.
The truffled potato gnocchi at L’Altro Buca might not be the best gnocchi on Earth, but they’re pretty damn close. Fried, herbed and puffy like eyes after a raucous night, not even the accompanying chicken can outshine them.
Peter Fong, owner of Ganache Patisserie in Yaletown, tends to create chocolate on a grand scale, and his bûche au chocolat Yule log is no exception. Chocolate sponge, chocolate pastry mousseline, sour cherries and chocolate buttercream make for a rather nice way to celebrate the season.
There are times for political correctness, and then there are times to eat with gusto. Chef Warren Geraghty of West makes a foie gras terrine layered with goat cheese, apples and quince jelly that is definitely a moment for gusto. You can stop drooling now.
Market by Jean-Georges attracts a certain segment of Vancouver’s well-heeled hipsters, but everyone falls in love with the black truffle pizza. Poached and puréed truffles and Fontina cheese are spread over a light crust and topped with a soy-truffle frisée salad.
Diva at the Met is known for the elegant cuisine created by chef Dino Renaerts, but one of his best dishes is the not-so-humble DC burger. Braised short ribs, seared foie gras, wild mushroom ragout and truffle aioli make for an experience that doesn’t even require fries (although the house made root chips and onion rings are pretty fine).
Wild Rice has long been a haven for contemporary, dairy-free Chinese cuisine. The won ton soup is an absolute wonder, with its clear, aromatic chicken broth and light dumplings filled with Sloping Hill’s free-run pork.
The humble sandwich is in high demand, thanks to the aftershocks of the recession, and Ba Le’s bánh mì (Vietnamese subs) fit the bill perfectly. The Vietnamese bacon is stuffed with fresh vegetables, pâté, mayo, pickled carrots and daikon, and chili peppers and rings in at under $3.50.
Choosing a favourite place for dim sum is a rather subjective experience, and I tend to go where individual dishes stand out. Continental Seafood’s deep fried squid is definitely a keeper and worth the trip to Richmond.