12 Water St., Vancouver
$150 for dinner for two with wine, tax and tip
Cuisine: West Coast Bistro
When Boneta opened four years ago on the rough-and-tumble corner of Carrall and Cordova streets, a colourful cast of characters played large supporting roles. There was Rusty (a general handyman), Wolf (a down-and-out electrician) and a few other neighbourhood residents who were hired off the street and helped transform a rat-infested bank into Gastown’s biggest hit.
On any given night, you could find at least one of the local legends ensconced at the bar – grubby, bleary eyed and merrily rubbing shoulders with tattooed scenesters and thrill-seeking fashionistas who chased their Chi-Chi cocktails with a stiff shot of grit.
Like many trailblazing gentrifiers, Boneta’s edginess cut both ways. The posh dive certainly gave a boost to the Downtown Eastside’s slow climb out of poverty. But by way of location, it also pierced deep into the community’s darkest underbelly, shining a harsh spotlight on all the bloodied guts and broken souls strewn across the sidewalk. With deranged addicts howling outside and the odd streaker running past the windows, the restaurant sometimes teetered precariously along the thin wire between social realism and sideshow spectacle. But it nevertheless racked up rave reviews and numerous awards, which included being named fifth-best new restaurant in Canada by enRoute magazine.
And now Boneta has moved on to its second act – relocating only a block away, yet secluded from all the front-row frenzy in a cozy new solarium on the courtyard redevelopment of old Gaoler’s Mews.
Custom tailored, the sophisticated yet unusual digs are a perfect fit for this singular hybrid of classic French bistro and modern West Coast cuisines that combine unbuttoned exuberance (Yes, cocktails for dessert sounds grand!) with polished service (I’d be tickled pink if you’d fetch my coat) and relatively high prices.
The hidden glass box surrounded by a brick courtyard offers a surprising sense of intimacy and very good acoustics. And though the bar has shrunk to less than half its former size, it is clearly separated from the dining room by a half-wall and gained its own entrance, on Blood Alley. Thanks to Ben de Champlain, who began his bartending career at Boneta as a rookie and has now returned as manager, the renowned creative cocktail program hasn’t skipped a beat. (Do try the delightful Driftwood Tug shandy, which balances bitter hops with sweet jasmine tea syrup for a refreshing palate cleanser.)
The clientele looks different than it did four years ago. Rusty (who’s been ill) and Wolf (who found gainful employment) are gone. And the new scenesters now mix and mingle with formerly skittish suburbanites who no longer live in fear their cars will be broken into.
Yet the show goes on, with less edge and more grace. Except in the kitchen. Last February, six months before the restaurant relocated, executive chef Jeremie Bastien went on sabbatical. Jason Liezert, formerly of Corner Suite Bistro Deluxe, is his stand-in.
An accomplished butcher, baker and French food maker, he covers the casual classics very well. His excellent beer tartare is finely diced into succulent cubes that keep their shape when gently folded into a zesty egg-yolk mix. And his desserts are delectable, especially the velvety, densely rich chocolate-ganache flan.
Octopus chips could become addictive. The octopus is thinly sliced into rounds, marinated in sweet mirin, Thai chili and lemon, dusted in tapioca flour and (ideally) lightly deep-fried into tender sweet-and-sour crisps. That’s on a good day. On a not-so-good day, they’re greasy, chewy and flatly seasoned.
This is a chef who obviously loves animal protein and treats it with a lot of care and skilled technique. He scores his duck breast into a checkerboard of deeply grooved diamonds so all the fatty juices seep into its flesh and the skin crisps into a beautifully textured, caramelized crust. Pork loin is moist, tender and carefully trimmed off the chop. Lingcod is perfectly pan-seared in a golden crust. The only meat dish that misses its mark is lamb-cheek croquette, which hasn’t been braised long enough to break down the chewy fibres.
But he’s more of a technician than an artist, and stumbles when composing a full plate of many parts into balanced harmony. The main courses are very heavy, dull and missing the little twists of seasoning, contrasts in flavours, bright vegetable beats and pops of mouth-watering acidity that could make them sing.
That gorgeous duck breast, for instance, is served with braised white beans, braised leeks and a slow-poached egg. It needs a livelier note, and it doesn’t have to be fussy, A little kale tossed in vinaigrette would lift this plate right out of its doldrums. The pork loin is served with a double dose of starch (yam perogies and blue-potato puree) and noxious smear of truffle-oil beurre blanc. What’s wrong with mustard?
Plate composition is probably one of the toughest skills for any cook to master. But it’s a talent that separates the great chefs from the merely average. And average is how I’d describe the food at Boneta these days. No total flops are coming out of the kitchen, but no showstoppers either.
I guess we’ll have to wait and see what happens in the third act. Mr. Bastien may or may not be returning. Mr. Liezert could discover new inspiration this summer when the restaurant’s glass doors slide open and the gardens burst into bloom. Who knows? Rusty might even come back.