The lamb tartare at Agrius by Fol Epi is, hands down, the brightest, tastiest, singular most impressive dish I have eaten in years. Beyond being jaw-droppingly delicious, the tartare captures this stellar new restaurant’s slow-food ethos and unwavering – almost unreasonable – commitment to the highest standards.
Let’s dissect it.
The tartare begins in the field, with happy, hormone-free lamb from Parry Bay Sheep Farm in nearby Metchosin on the southern end of Vancouver Island, where the mothering ewes frolic freely on a rotation of rented pastures for nine months of the year.
Agrius – which might very well be the only small (36-seat) restaurant in all of British Columbia that boasts a full-time butcher on staff – purchases the lambs whole (same with its Stillmeadow Farm chickens and pigs) and processes them at the back of the kitchen. In addition to breaking down the meat cuts so that every morsel of sinew, bone and fat is used, Paul van Trigt, former assistant at Victoria’s beloved Choux Choux Charcuterie, makes all of the restaurant’s terrific sausages, pâtés, cured and smoked meats. The lamb legs used for the tartare are aged for several weeks in one of the kitchen’s two humidified, walk-in curing chambers, allowing the young meat to develop a mild gaminess without growing too funky.
The vibrant-pink protein is cleanly cubed to order (not necessarily a given these days) and emulsified with exquisitely tart house-preserved Meyer lemon, a tropical winter fruit that is grown locally (indoors) and is in season right now. Executive chef Cam Picyk and his talented sous chef Sam Harris also pickle vegetables, cook fruit syrups for canning and ferment their own kimchi and sauerkraut.
The emulsified lamb cubes are tossed with chewy bits of preserved lemon rind and crisp celery shaves. Brilliant-green stalks of barely blanched broccolini are rested over top. More than 90 per cent of the kitchen ingredients – including produce, fruit, dairy, cornstarch, salt and cooking oil – are certified organic. Most of it is sourced locally from single suppliers. Mr. Picyk says Agrius is the only restaurant he knows of that doesn’t have an account with Sysco Corp., the multinational food-product distributor. For anyone who knows anything about how commercial kitchens are run, that is extreme.
For its crowning pièce de résistance, the tartare is topped with rustic, golden-baked croutons torn from handmade loaves and saturated with deliriously rich lamb fat.
Fresh, gamey, silky, crunchy, acidic, voluptuous – this insanely sumptuous lamb tartare tingles every flavour receptor with a single bite. And that was just the appetizer.
Agrius restaurant’s remarkable attention to quality will probably come as no surprise to fans of its owner, local artisan baker Cliff Leir. When serious foodies from Victoria talk about his Fol Epi Organic Bakery and Patisserie, their eyes light up with pride. They weave stories about their Saturday-morning sojourns to his flour-dusted shop in Dockside Green that sound a lot like summer holidays in Provence.
They ooh and aah over the hand-shaped, golden-crusted bread loaves made with chlorine-free, filtered water and leavened with natural starters. They brag to visitors about the two silos out back (used for storing heritage Red Fife wheat bought direct from Saskatchewan farmers), the hand-built stone grinder and the wood-fired brick oven. Trickles of saliva often dribble from the corners of their mouths.
Like everything else Mr. Leir does, Agrius grew organically. Last year, he was looking to expand into a second location dedicated to pastry. Then a downtown space came available on the ground floor of the newly rebuilt Era Building with its glass-and-concrete condominium tower above. Mr. Leir thought maybe he should open up at night for desserts. Then he thought, “Oh, if we open at night, perhaps we should offer wine and cocktails. And since we have the patio [20 seats come summer], we might as well have a full-service kitchen.”
He hired Mr. Picyk, who was working as the bakery’s delivery driver. Although a serious chef who has spent time in many of B.C.’s finest kitchens, Mr. Picyk moved back home to Victoria three years ago, feeling jaded about the restaurant industry. He began doing deliveries as a day job to subsidize his nighttime pop-up dinner business. He was also working on and off at Stage Wine Bar to help out his friend Sam Harris, with whom he had worked at Sonora Resort.
Given the owner’s dedication to organics and slow food, you are probably picturing a rustic, farm-style restaurant with exposed brick and wrinkled linens. Wrong. Agrius is a clean, airy contemporary space with tall ceilings and lots of glass. The single wall ornament is a picture window that looks onto racks of prosciutto hanging in the charcuterie chamber. Mr. Leir wanted a restaurant and café that could be all things to everyone. So he built a café in the front that is open for breakfast and take-out lunches (quiches, charcuterie plates and a wide array of sandwiches on Fol Epi bread stuffed with gorgeously smoked ham and spicy salami).
The restaurant is in the back. I knew I’d love it the moment I sat down at the zinc-topped bar and spied all my favourite bottles on the back rack. It is a small but well-curated spirit selection that bartender Adam Bonneau shakes into such quenching, tongue-tickling cocktails as the Alderlea Sour, with local Ampersand gin (from Duncan, B.C.), fresh-squeezed Meyer lemon, egg white and freshly ground black pepper. The wine selection is also small, but discerning.
The night I ate the lamb tartare (the second of three visits), Mr. Bonneau made every guest feel warmly welcomed – me alone at the bar, the couple who came in for coffee before a movie, the father and son leisurely chewing on some snacks.
After the lamb, Mr. Bonneau suggested roasted black trumpet mushrooms with savoy cabbage sautéed in sauerkraut brown butter. My god. I haven’t tasted a dish this sinfully buttery since Rob Feenie’s mascarpone-stuffed ravioli. No wonder. As I later discovered, Mr. Picyk once spent six months making nothing but the beurre blanc for that ravioli on the line at Lumière.
Other delights included a wonderfully grainy soupe de poisson built from a traditional trout-bone fumée and duck confit slowly tenderized in a fatty sous-vide bath and baked to a perfectly golden, crunchy crisp. Desserts – from dark-chocolate éclairs with semi-sweet, vanilla-bean cream stuffed in flaky pastry to a standout mini baked Alaska brightened with tart lingonberry and more Meyer lemon – were exemplary.
I may not have eaten extensively from the daily changing menu, but every single bite was divine. From excellent beverages and service to all the locally sourced ingredients, in-house charcuterie and serious kitchen technique, Agrius is everything a great casual restaurant should be. And that is why it is receiving my very first four-star review.Report Typo/Error