It’s been almost four years since star chef David Hawksworth departed West to begin developing Hawksworth Restaurant in the Rosewood Hotel Georgia, which finally made its long-awaited debut on May 16.
Every cosmopolitan city needs at least one splashy, special-occasion restaurant that provides revelatory cuisine, impeccable service, a discerning beverage program and decor glamorous enough for royalty (be it of the regal, rock ‘n’ roll or princess granddaughter variety). Vancouver has waited for years for such a restaurant.
That is the potential that Hawksworth offers. Everything about the restaurant – the enormous crystal chandelier, the five staff sommeliers, the fanciful olive-oil cotton candy – flies in the face of the larger, North American-wide downscale dining trend. This is why the city has embraced it. (Have you tried securing a weekend dinner reservation without two weeks notice?) But that potential is as yet unfulfilled – and this is why we must ask it to be better.
Four years ago, Mr. Hawksworth was at the top of his game. His much-lauded cuisine blended a deep admiration for fresh, regional, seasonal ingredients with a mastery of classic techniques acquired from a decade in some of Britain’s most acclaimed kitchens (Canteen, Le Manoir Aux Quat’ Saisons, L’Escargot).
After the long hiatus, his cooking still sings with the same confident voice. It’s a light-handed, harmonious style that puts flavour before ego and could respectfully be called feminine. But there are some changes.
He now folds more Asian influences into his repertoire, which seems a natural progression for a locally minded chef in Vancouver. His 48-hour sous-vide-cooked beef short rib – wondrously tender yet tense enough to be thinly sliced without falling part – is anchored with sharp smear of black-pepper jam, tartly soothing green papaya and salty crushed peanuts.
Sablefish, surrounded by a moat of creamy, perfectly balanced tom yum broth, is a gold-standard example of why it’s worth paying dearly for restaurant fish prepared well: On a home stove, it would be impossible to achieve such a thick, gloriously gilded, pan-seared crust that yields to a velvety treasure of opalescent flesh.
Mr. Hawksworth is now styling his dishes with more modernist garnishes. Yet he seems hesitant about integrating the edible tchotchkes in any meaningful way. Compressed honeydew cubes accompanying the aforementioned short rib, for example, are tossed on a different salad on another day in the same superfluous way that cooks once threw curly parsley over everything.
The puffs of olive oil cotton candy adorning a bowl of intensely rich, silky smooth gazpacho studded with large hunks of lobster are fun, yet flavourless. The only dish that makes good use of molecular techniques without being gimmicky is the Dungeness salad, stretched out along a plate like a wispy dream with sliced hearts of palm, spiky crisps, sprigs of dill and mini clouds of softly shelled lemon meringue. The lemon definitely enhances the crab.
Mr. Hawksworth’s plates are beautiful. Even the manly, marbled flat iron steak is folded into a scroll of pink, char-edged ribbons, surrounded by a riot of vibrant greens and swirls of smoky tomato purée. The food is superbly cooked, and carefully composed. Yet there’s nothing groundbreaking nor astonishing – except for one amuse-bouche, a clever play on nigiri that consisted of a lusciously cured slice of salmon laid over a toasted sticky-rice cube.
A six-course menu in July felt lazy. The menu repeated itself twice – by using English peas as the main vegetable on two separate plates and serving broths poured tableside on back-to-back dishes. This is shocking, considering that tasting menus are an opportunity for chefs to show off their range.
Perhaps Mr. Hawksworth has been lavishing too much attention on all the little details – the purse hooks under the white-marble-topped tables, the colour-co-ordinated napkins, the branded fork-and-knife lapel pins – and has forgotten his priorities. Has he spent too much time out on the floor, and on overseeing the admittedly impressive art installations, and lost sight of the big picture?
Whatever is going on behind the scenes, the front of the house needs fixing. You can’t be the best restaurant in town if there are 80 people on staff yet no one has time to answer the phones or confirm a reservation. You cannot be called Michelin-star-worthy when there are constant mix-ups at the front reception desk, and seldom any managers around to smooth things over.
The dining rooms are gorgeous. The cocktails are excellent. The wine list is inspired. But you will not persuade foodies to fly across the country, or even drive up from Seattle, if they have to wait 20 minutes in a standing-room-only bar before being offered an aperitif, only to be later pressed to choose a wine before deciding what they’d like to eat.
I want to be dazzled by Hawksworth. All of Vancouver does. We’re still waiting.