“We don’t really toot our own horn.”
One hears variations of this almost everywhere in British Columbia: From business people, from tour guides, even from chefs. The constant but earnest humility is puzzling, especially in Vancouver, which is blessed with dramatic views in every direction as well as extraordinary food, drink, and hospitality.
I learned all of this last week during my first visit to Vancouver as part of a TED2015-inspired press trip. With so many great thinkers in its midst, the city was in an electric state — but I have a feeling that the beautifully composed dishes that one encounters almost everywhere, from breakfast through to late night snacks, is a constant throughout the seasons.
When I downloaded photos from the trip — from plates of roasted sablefish to wasabi-smothered hot dogs, Taiwanese stir-fry to venison tartare — I realized I had way too much on my hands to share them all. But here are some trip highlights.
Brunch at Café Medina
Lamb meatballs for breakfast? Yep. At Café Medina, an airy space on Richards Street in Vancouver, chef Jonathan Chovancek (also a cofounder of Bittered Sling Extracts) gives brunch a fusion-y shot in the arm with flavors grabbed from all corners of the globe, especially Spain, north Africa, and the Middle East. Braised short ribs, Moroccan-spice-cured salmon, hazelnut-almond romesco, and salted-caramel-topped Belgian waffles might all share the breakfast table at this spot, where a line forms on weekends. Those fork-tender meatballs (shown on the right, above) were slathered in an olive-flecked tomato sauce, but our group especially loved the Harissa Pain Plat, a pita stuffed with ground beef and topped with harissa sauce, Manchego, humus, and greens. I washed it down with excellent coffee and a rosehip, eucalyptus, and Jaffa-orange-flavored soda.
Venison tartare at L’Abattoir
The name of this bustling restaurant is a nod to the neighborhood in which it resides, a corner of Gastown that was once Vancouver’s meatpacking district and is now a stylish ‘hood of restaurants, galleries, studios, and shops. Housed in a former 19th century jail, the eatery combines vintage and modern elements in an elegant, multilevel space, and the menu draws heavily on seafood and meat prepared with French touches. The venison tartare is a standout: Chef Lee Cooper lends crunch to paper-thin slivers of venison with crackly, seared brussels sprouts leaves, then layers on more velvetiness with smoked egg yolk.
‘Tropical’ salmon at Chambar.
Chambar is a perennial Vancouver hotspot, pulling in the crowds with its extensive Belgian beer list and cuisine to match. Last year, they moved to airy new digs in Vancouver’s Gastown. On the bottom floor is a rustic, earthy private event space, and it was here that we were treated to a six-course tasting menu that showed off the mad skills of Belgian-trained chef Nico Schuemans. The dishes ranged from game to seafood, and included the luscious, exquisitely composed “Thon tropicale,” cubes of salmon marinated in pomegranate juice and then arranged with kumquats and puffed black rice atop a coconut-jalapeño remoulade.
On her cocktail list, bar manager Wendy McGuiness marries unbridled creativity with doses of restraint and a strong connection to all that grows — such as in Two In the Bush, shown above: Bombay gin infused with red tea leaves (Rooibos), blended with blue-lotus flower vermouth and damiana tincture (!), then shaken with egg whites, citrus juices and some house marmalade. The herbal notes tumble over each other as they bristle against hints of bitterness and sugar. It tastes like early spring in a glass.
Single-origin chocolates at East Van Roasters
Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside is famously Canada’s “poorest post code,” but it’s also a vibrant neighborhood dotted with inspiring social enterprises. On a walking tour of a few of those businesses, we met the crew of East Van Roasters, a chocolate shop and café that employs women in transition. Through glass walls, customers can watch the women winnow the fair-trade beans and then shape them into chocolates. Manager Shelley Bolton explained the process and social enterprise model to us over some rich café mochas and a tasting “flight” of single-origin chocolate bars made from beans sourced in Peru, Madagascar, and the Dominican Republic. Their flavors ranged from spice and berries to citrus and even hints of flowers.
Fennel-apple soup at MARKET by Jean-Georges
Shown at right is the moment before a barely-sweet fennel-and-apple soup was poured atop this artful arrangement of fennel fronds and slivered apples. It was part of the antioxidant-stuffed ‘Food For Thought’ tasting menu that chef de cuisine Scott Henderson created for us inside MARKET by Jean-Georges, the elegant, earth-toned restaurant inside the Shangri-La Hotel. Downstairs, the hotel’s lobby was filled with cast and crew for the shooting of an episode of Mistresses (starring Alyssa Milano). Upstairs, we feasted on steamed halibut, mackerel tartare and roasted duck with date sauce. Jean-Georges Vongerichten wasn’t in the house, but Henderson — who is passionate about sustainable seafood — did him proud.
Maple-seared sablefish in the Vancouver Convention Centre test dining room
One of the best dishes of the trip came — inside a convention center? Yep. Since 1991, the Vancouver Convention Centre has had a world-renowned chef behind the stick, Blair Rasmussen, who has helped shape a modern British Columbia cuisine that tends to fuse Asian touches and flavors with farm- (and ocean-) to-table ingredients. Nestled within the Centre’s massive kitchen is a private, white-tablecloth dining room where catering staff can test dishes out on potential clients. Coming off the crazed days of the TED2015 conference — for which he created 250 new dishes — chef Rasmussen (and his team) whipped up a scrumptious lunch that married unlikely ingredients in alluring ways. His seared sablefish, with just a hint of maple syrup clinging to its edges, was tender and buttery.
Oroshi Japadog on the corner of Burrard and Smithe
The humble Japadog food cart has been “making the world happy and alive through hotdogs” (their motto) for a decade now, topping fat bratwursts with morsels such as seaweed, miso, or deep-fried pork cutlets (katsu). As serendipity would have it, the Japadog cart did brisk business right outside the Sutton Place Hotel, where we were staying. On our last night in Vancouver, we dutifully trekked from our dinner inside Boulevard to the Japadog cart, one side of which is plastered with a pictorial menu and the the other, photos of celebrities enjoying Japadogs. On the recommendation of Amber Sessions, Tourism Vancouver’s manager of travel and trade media relations, we collectively ordered an oroshi dog. The weiner arrived on a charred bun topped with minced radish and soy sauce, but we slathered on some wasabi mayonnaise, too, and divvied it up. While the dog couldn’t quite hold a match to the outrageously delicious food we’d eaten for three days straight, a late-night Japadog definitely hits the spot.