Letter from the Editor: The Vancouver Scene: Views, Trends, and Culinary Standouts Vol: 75

June 30, 2011

If there’s one reason to visit Vancouver before you die, it’s to have chili crab. There are lots of places to dine on this city, but I love Tropika, whose Dungeness version of this fiery favorite comes covered in sloppy, finger-licking dried shrimp sauce. If there’s a second reason to visit (and believe me, there are plenty), it’s to soak up the views of one of the most striking places on Earth. No matter what direction you look, you’re inspired by water, incredible landscapes, and a sudden—and strong—conviction that you are, after all, the “outdoorsy” type!

Spice and spectacle are enough to bring us back, but there’s more to Vancouver than chowing down on chili crab and reveling in the vistas. In the past decade, the Vancouver food scene has shifted from a Monopoly board of big-name, cookie-cutter hot spots to an idiosyncratic refuge for owner-operators. Chef-owners Lucais Syme and Adam Pegg opened Northern Italian La Quercia three years ago, and since then, they’ve built a thriving, casual haven—a place where Vancouver’s come-as-you-are diners can eat elegant food without fuss or pretension.

The Pan Pacific Vancouver Hotel loved Chef Ernst Dorfler so much that when he wanted to leave, they offered him a buyout of their restaurant space. Dorfler stayed on and now owns and operates Five Sails, a fine-dining fusion of Northwest ingredients and Dorfler’s Austrian heritage. And Vancouver isn’t just about generosity, but flexibility! Chef Angus An’s Maenam was the casual follow up to his fine-dining Gastropod, but when the recession hit, the nimble chef-owner scrapped the haute model for a modern and spare house of curries to great (and delicious) success.

Not only does the new and improved Maenam typify Vancouver’s love of casual dining, but by combining local proteins and produce with imported spices and techniques, it represents the East-meets-West internationalism Vancouver is known for. Longtime blender of food cultures, Vikram Vij and his namesake restaurant challenge the way diners think about Indian food by marrying Vancouver product, French technique, and the exotic flavors of his native land. (In classic Vancouver style, he doesn’t take reservations—to keep costs low—but he’ll ply you with free chai and snacks while you wait!)

Vancouver’s internationalism seamlessly blends into the dining scene. Chef Joël Wantanabe’s modern Chinese menu at Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie features dishes like Beef Tartare (with ginger, burned scallion oil, and taro chips) alongside Duck and Shiitake Wontons. But where Wantanabe crosses the international line best is in his crave-worthy Shao Bing, a comfort-heavy sandwich of braised pork, Asian pear, pickled onions, and mustard greens all stuffed in a crispy, sesame-studded, pita-like pocket. It’s Mediterranean-meets-Southern-barbecue-by-way-of-China, a multi-cultural homage to porcine glory.

In fact, for a city that’s practically half-aquatic (at least where its cuisine is concerned), Vancouver chefs are just as pork-obsessed as their American counterparts. Chef Vij serves a messy and rich pork belly-topped paneer appetizer; while the reigning king of pork Chef Robert Belcham of Refuel butchers a pig each week and turns it into a smorgasbord of sausages and charcuterie.

Even the city’s seafood restaurants embrace the pig. Chef Lee Humphries of sustainability-focused C Restaurant loves pairing Pacific seafood with porky tidbits—his current menu features scallops and pork belly along with spot prawns and shaved Iberico ham. That’s not to say that seafood doesn’t get a fair shake. Chef Elliott Hashimoto serves global Asian-influenced seafood at Cork & Fin—from seafood towers and sockeye salmon to delicately smoked sable fish. And we didn’t see a menu on our trip that didn’t offer a bay scallop, fish fillet, or raw oyster.

Our Vancouver visit was shorter than we would have liked (we were in town for the annual Women Presidents' Organization, but we made sure to visit Vancouver’s veteran pastry chefs. After all, a woman can’t live on surf and turf alone. At Pastry Chef Thomas Haas’ patisserie, we devoured one of the most remarkable croissants to ever cross our lips; it was twice-baked pastry perfection. We also sampled from Pastry Chef Bruno Feldeisen’s playful dessert tapas menu, which had one of our favorite dessert commodities: variety!

And even though British Columbia’s strict liquor license laws dampen the city’s late-night party scene, we couldn’t miss the opportunity to taste with L’Abbatoir Mixologist Shaun Layton, whose impressive cocktail range goes from quirky and revivalist to crowd-pleasing. A Layton cocktail is great way to cap off any night (or visit) in this intoxicating city.

To stay posted on our travels and latest dining adventures, be sure to follow us on Twitter and become a fan of StarChefs.com on Facebook. In the coming months, we’re tasting in Louisville, Montreal, New Orleans, New York, Portland, and so reach out and give us your nominations for the incredible chefs, pastry chefs, sommeliers, and mixologists we shouldn’t miss.

Antoinette Bruno