For years I've been complaining that Vancouver izakayas - and the foodies who frequent them - take themselves way too seriously. In Japan, these cheap and cheerful watering holes are modest places that serve simple dishes, primarily to soak up the alcohol.
Sure, Canada is a free country. Anyone can elevate the concept as haute as they want. But after trying many lacklustre fusion experiments, I've only now found a sparkling Western izakaya in the rough.
The Diamond is a new Gastown cocktail parlour that puts its Asian-inspired plates in their proper place - after the drinks. Located on the second floor of the historic Ferguson Block, this smartly updated gin joint looks like a lovely place to get mildly soused.
On a sweltering hot evening, we make a beeline for a table next to one of the soaring arched windows overlooking Maple Tree Square. There isn't a ripple of breeze to be felt. But the lengthy, leather-bound cocktail list, conveniently organized into such categories as "refreshing," "boozy," "not so boozy" and "proper," promises quick relief.
The bar program is a fairly sophisticated affair, as one would expect from any establishment operated by three of Vancouver's top mixologists: Josh Pape (formerly of Chambar), Sophie Taverner (ex-Cascades) and Mark Brand (who is also a co-owner of the nearby Boneta). The menu descriptions include the provenance of each drink and little icons that show you what type of glass your drink will be served in (champagne, rocks, martini, saucer, and so on).
We start off slowly with a "delicate" Isadora ($8), circa 2009, The Diamond. The sparkling wine and cantaloupe-juice spritzer is almost too delicate, with a very subtle hint of ginger and nearly indiscernible basil finish.
Much more pleasing is the "not so boozy" Diamond Cup #6 ($8), another original that puts a slightly bitter herbal twist on the classic Pimm's Cup, with splashes of orancio vermouth, Dubonnet and ginger ale in addition to the standard gin and lemon. Loaded with mint and cucumber, it's a delicious summer sipper.
After a couple more not-so-boozy cocktails chased with plenty of water, we finally turn our attention to the nosh.
Christie Peters (who previously cooked at Chow and Feenie's) and Pierre Natarani (Feenie's, Boneta) have created small sharing dishes that range from $3 to $12 and are presented on a dim sum-style checklist with a pencil. Although unpretentious, the nibbles are satisfying and stylishly plated.
Pickled egg and beets ($4) is awfully pretty - think Gourmet magazine, not dusty tavern fare. The quartered hard-boiled eggs have been pickled in beet juice, giving them a bright purple rim that contrasts stunningly with their mustard-yellow yolks. The salad comes with crunchy tri-colour beets, a smear of slightly sweet soy mayonnaise and a sprinkling of pea shoots.
Red snapper carpaccio ($12) is thinly sliced and quiveringly fresh, topped with another tangle of pea shoots (some of the ingredients become a bit repetitive) and splashed in a bright chili, lime, sesame and cilantro dressing.
Pork gyoza ($5 for six) is loosely stuffed with luscious mirin, shiitake and Sloping Hills organic pork mince. Although I'm tempted to say the meat is too tasty to be overwhelmed by all the chili powder piled on top, this would probably be taking the menu more seriously than it's meant to be.
Likewise, I have no idea what kind of cocktail should be paired with the Peking duck and chicken sandwich ($8), although the bartenders have probably given it some thought. We didn't ask and ended up with some strange combinations.
This sandwich, a toasted salute to Vietnamese banh mi retrofitted with pickled raisins, Asian pear and sweet mayonnaise, stymies the light peach and rhubarb flavours in the vodka-based Stonewall ($9). And it actually clashes horribly with the green chartreuse Rumble ($10), shaken with egg white and muddled blackberries, basil and apple.
But I bet this addictively good sandwich will fast become a munchies-fulfilling, late-night favourite. As will some of the ramen soups. (The duck broth was slightly pedestrian, but the lemon-grass broth with glass noodles was freshly fragrant.)
As the sun sets and the drinks cool us off, we lean back in our antique wooden seats to admire what a nice job the owners have done with the design. The funky crystal chandeliers, custom diamond-motif wallpaper and handsomely finished bathrooms give it a distinguished grown-up feel, without being stuffy.
It's heartening to see this significant heritage building, which was one of the first to be rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1886, occupied again.
Although many stories abound about it being Vancouver's first brothel or a temporary site for City Hall, according to Donald Luxton, president of Heritage Vancouver, the second floor was actually a CPR land office. The Victorian Italianate building is one of the oldest buildings in Vancouver still standing in its original location.
In recent history, the top floor was home to the Savoy, a notorious music hall that was the place to be seen during Expo 86. This part of the building has been closed since 2003, when three people were killed in a shooting at the Loft Six nightclub.
Though the streets outside are still almost as rough-and-tumble as they were in the days when Gassy Jack ruled the roost, the neighbourhood certainly is gentrifying fast. Looking down at the recently renovated Byrnes Block across the street, which now houses a Vera's Burger Shack and will soon see the arrival of a Nando's Chicken chain restaurant, we wonder how long it will take before Gastown becomes as commercially bland as Yaletown or Robson Street.
So three cheers for The Diamond, an independently owned joint that remains true to the neighbourhood's roots yet tastes refreshingly unique.
The Diamond: 6 Powell St.,
firstname.lastname@example.org (no phone number)