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Kaffir Lime Dusted Popcorn Prawns Tempura Sea Asparagus, Spicy Mayo at Ensemble Tap Restaurant in Vancouver April 11, 2012. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Kaffir Lime Dusted Popcorn Prawns Tempura Sea Asparagus, Spicy Mayo at Ensemble Tap Restaurant in Vancouver April 11, 2012. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Alexandra Gill

Lots of froth but light on substance Add to ...

Ensemble Tap 990 Smithe St., Vancouver 604-566-9770 ensembletap.com $60 for dinner for two with beer, tax and tip

Cuisine: Modern comfort food

The Canucks’ playoff run has begun. It’s time for fair-weather fans to borrow a jersey, sidle up to a crowded watering hole and drink in the feverish excitement.

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Sound familiar? See you at Ensemble Tap, a hot new sports bar in downtown Vancouver where Canuckleheads-come-lately can slake the thirst for a Stanley Cup and hop on two bandwagons at once.

Exuding a similar sort of gung-ho enthusiasm that compels mild-mannered accountants to race down Granville Street madly honking their horns, Ensemble Tap has jumped all over the craft beer boom. They’ve got 15 great beers on tap, almost all local. And more than 40 bottles representing every possible region and style, from Coors Light (if you must) to the limited edition Cuvée Van de Keizer Blauw Belgian Strong Ale.

The bar offers fantastic daily specials, including open-tap Wednesdays, when every draught beer – even La Chouffe – is only $6 a glass. Yes, they have proper glasses, and tap a fresh cask every Friday. They host monthly beer-pairing dinners and extend a 10-per-cent discount to members of CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale).

But much like those of us in Vancouver’s hockey hall of newbies still trying to understand all this fuss over some guy named Schneider, Ensemble Tap faces a steep learning curve. When trying this hard to position yourself as a temple to serious suds, dirty draught lines and inept service won’t cut it.

Sure, the restaurant might promote flights of four four-ounce tasters for $8.75 on its website, but our bartender insisted there was no such thing – even after I asked her three times.

I don’t blame that flustered gal. She was only a week on the job and hadn’t been properly trained, which is the general manager’s responsibility. Unfortunately, Christopher Cho – who doubles as GM and bar manager – is an overextended employee who seems exceptionally nice, but doesn’t have a clue about serving craft beer right.

Consider this: after eventually receiving a tasting flight, we complained that eTap lager (from Granville Island Brewery) tasted oddly buttery. Mr. Cho returned about 20 minutes later with a crisper pour. The problem, as he earnestly explained, was that the line had been tapped to a special keg for St. Patrick’s Day (five days earlier!) and hadn’t been thoroughly flushed.

If Ensemble Tap wants to be a respected beer bar, it needs to hire a properly trained beer sommelier – which it just did this week. They may also want to look for a reliable cleaning service. The dust-caked bathrooms are even grimier than the tap lines.

I don’t mean to scare you away. This casual bar brims with potential. It’s owned by Dale MacKay, last year’s winner of the Food Network’s Top Chef Canada.

The lofty, 140-seat space – handsomely appointed with dark reclaimed wood and 14 flat-screen televisions – occupies a prime downtown location beside the Scotiabank Theatre, steps away from MacKay’s original, far more upscale Ensemble Restaurant.

Together with executive chef Bradley Hendrickson, Mr. MacKay’s sous chef at Daniel Boulud’s short-lived incarnation of Lumière, he has created some creative comfort foods.

The kitchen house-cures some terrific meats, including a double-smoked bacon, which is folded into fluffy pancakes for weekend brunch, along with a tender brisket Benedict. The homemade sausage platter, served with a big soft pretzel, makes a perfect game night snack, as would the pulled pork nachos and barbecue pork back ribs.

Mr. MacKay has a soft spot for Thailand’s funky fermented flavours, which can be magically paired with all sorts of hazy Belgian wheat beers and bitterly hopped IPAs. His gluten-free Thai chicken wings, marinated in cornstarch and milk, then dusted with ground kaffir lime, are absolutely addictive. They’re served with a perfectly balanced nam prik sauce.

Tempura-battered popcorn prawns, also dusted in kaffir lime after being marinated in fresh lime zest, are accompanied by salty twigs of fried sea asparagus. Golden crisped and spicy, this dish is a top contender for the 100 Things to Eat in Vancouver Before You Die.

Thai sausages are so overloaded with lemongrass they evoke false memory sensations of a creamy coconut curry. Weird. But the caraway and barbecue sausages are fat and succulent.

Watery poached eggs, thin, bland Hollandaise sauce and cold grilled octopus need to be addressed. These are simple prep and timing problems that could be easily fixed, but pop up far too frequently.

Even more worrisome was the perplexed reaction from Mr. Cho and Mr. Hendrickson when we raved about how well the Howe Sound Pothole Filler Imperial Stout paired with gnarly beach-hardened oysters on the half shell. It may sound weird to some, but this is a classic food-and-beer coupling that has stood the test of time. Yet neither of them had heard of it and thought we were crazy.

Most Canucks’ fans probably couldn’t give a toot about stout and oysters. Craft beer nerds, on the other hand, are hardcore.

Follow on Twitter: @lexxgill

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