Last weekend at the Waldorf Hotel, Vancouver culture vultures could watch the first four episodes of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz (introduced by Stan Douglas); catch The Rolling Stones Trilogy, an operatic film installation by Michael Turner; hop through three gallery openings (an outdoor slideshow by Attila Richard Lukacs, a video installation by Paul Wong, and a yarn-themed group show by various emerging artists); shop for lingerie at The Lake and Stars boutique; get styled at Barbarella Hair Salon; or dance to funk, punk and synth-driven pop in three different venues.
The Waldorf's Tiki Bar is certainly a 1950s landmark also worth seeing. The hotel's new owners have retrofitted this enchanting circular room with a vintage analogue audiophile sound-system, while leaving the original faux bamboo trees and twinkling half-domed ceiling intact.
But much more is happening here, so why would the culinary program be constrained to Tahitian fish poke and Samoan mashed taro? It's not. In fact, there is no Polynesian food at all to be had, unless you count the orgeat syrup in the mai tais.
"There are a lot of people who are upset that we're not serving coconut prawns," proprietor and culinary director Ernesto Gomez said, adding, "It's not going to happen any time soon."
As marvellous as the black velvet paintings and bamboo thatching may be, the hotel's historic Polynesian foundations are but a backdrop for this exciting new creative compound. Mr. Gomez and his two partners have resurrected the adventurous spirit of the era's South Seas-faring fabulism and used it as a springboard for all sorts of exotic realms and recipes.
Thus, the Waldorf presents Lebanese slow fast food in Café Nuba, traditional Spanish tapas in the Leeteg Room and a weekend Mexican brunch - in addition to young coconut cocktails with bendy straws in the Tiki Bar for all the diehard wannabe Hawaiian gods and hula girls.
All of these four food and drink genres have been underrepresented in Vancouver, Mr. Gomez notes. And it's no coincidence that they also dovetail perfectly with his own heritage and hospitality experience. He is a Mexican chef of Basque descent who has worked extensively in Spain and is a part owner of the local Nuba mini-chain.
The four other Nuba restaurants have been reviewed extensively here and elsewhere, so I'll skip the hotel's front room café except to say this: If you haven't tried Najib's crispy cauliflower and the sautéed lamb hushwie, you are missing out on some of the tastiest fresh and healthy halal food in the city. And the Desayuno Mexican Brunch is so fun and flavourful that I'm going to leave it for a later review unto itself.
So let's do Spanish. Like many of the flexible spaces in this winding three-storey warren, the Leeteg Room walls aren't clearly delineated. Named after the artist whose black-velvet paintings are hung throughout the hotel, the Spanish restaurant can be found toward the back of the main floor, behind Café Nuba, next to the open grill that serves both menus.
It's a noisy area with loud music that seems to attract large celebratory groups, making it a good bet for stagettes, extended family gatherings and birthday parties, but perhaps not an intimate date.
Given the convivial setting, we opt for casual tapas over the more formal main courses (which may have been a mistake). The small, shared plates, ranging from $8 to $15, are all very good. These are simple, classic tapas dishes that cover all of Spain's regional bases.
There's sumptuously tender Galician-style octopus, poached in olive oil with piquillo peppers and potato confit; a fatty pork Basque-style Txistorra sausage, stewed and served in a bath of garlicky apple cider; and grilled asparagus draped in a creamy almond-red pepper Romesco sauce, which is typical to the Canary Islands,
The Leeteg Room is not trying to wow you with nouvelle Spanish cuisine, at least not yet. If you want crazy textures, daring flavour combinations and molecular flourishes, go to Mis Trucos or Judas Goat. This is traditional fare, more akin to La Bodega or the recently shuttered Café Barcelona, executed with higher standards and much better ingredients (largely organic, free-range, hormone-free, sustainable, etc, etc).
The fritos mixtos, in particular, are very well executed. The delicate ham, mussel and mushroom croquettes are wrapped in a whisper-thin golden breading and filled with a silken red-pepper velouté.
The pork medallions on the crispy bread, a Spanish bruschetta, are a bit dry. The green rice, a very brothy Basque seafood specialty, oozed some grit from its clams. And the Catalan black rice, a sticky risotto slowly simmered with squid, squid ink and sausage, tastes bland. It was the only dish that pulls its fiery spice punch, which is still a pretty decent batting average.
But grilled beef tenderloin from the main course selections? Oh bamboleo! This is one of the best steaks in Vancouver. It's great beef to start with, from the Fraser Valley's Two Rivers Meats. Then it's grilled in a thick mound of sea salt, which locks in the juiciness and creates a caramelized crust. It's served on a bed of pisto manchego, a stewed Spanish ratatouille, and melted Calabres, a pungent blue cheese.
Wow. This is the dish that made me worry in retrospect that ordering tapas may have been a mistake. It was so bold and succulent - eliciting oohs and ahs all around the table - that it made me wish we had ordered more "segundos." Perhaps the Catalan-style Cornish hen, slowly roasted with caramelized onions, tomatoes and brandy, or the grilled lamb chops marinated in sherry vinaigrette.
Coconut prawns? No thank you.
Correction: Sushi Kimura Restaurant is at 3883 Rupert St. I gave you the wrong address last week. My apologies.