When it comes to nightlife in downtown Vancouver, a small group of influential companies control a large slice of the casual-dining pie -- Cactus Club Café, Joeys, Earls, Milestones, Moxie’s Classic Grill and the Donnelly Pub Group.
Donnelly who? A restaurant chain in every way save standardized venue name, Donnelly Hospitality Management is a rapidly expanding empire that oversees the operation and marketing of one cocktail bar (Granville Room), three nightclubs (Bar None, Republic, Post Modern) and eight pubs (the Academic, the Calling, Cinema, the Lamplighter, Library Square, Metropole, Smiley’s and the recently launched New Oxford).
Next week, the company will start rebuilding the fire-ravaged Bimini’s Tap House. And over the next few months, it will open two more cocktail rooms. All told, the company will soon own more burger-and-beer joints in downtown Vancouver than Joeys, Earls and the Cactus Club Café combined. That’s a lot of chicken wings.
The New Oxford on Homer Street, which took flight in December, is the test kitchen and launching pad for the company’s new local and artisanal-focused food and drink program. The menus began rolling out to its other venues, one pub at a time, last week.
Obviously, a lot of love was lavished on the redesign of this Yaletown heritage space, which has housed the Soho pool hall, the tragically named Plan B restaurant and the weirdly British spy-themed Shakin’ Not Stirred. The original warehouse is complemented by dark-wood panelling and deep, tufted banquettes in luxurious tan leather.
The walls are lined with black-and-white photos of notable Oxford grads that include Margaret Thatcher (drinking a pint), Oscar Wilde and Bill Clinton. There are bicycles hanging from the ceiling at the front and taxidermy foxes in the back.
It’s a handsome homage to the sporting life and a light-hearted wink at a storied place of learning – which seemed particularly ironic when conventioneers from the Taboo Naughty But Nice Sex Show began slinking in for an after-party last Friday.
But seriously, the New Oxford feels like a comfortable, relatively tame drinking den for professionals who’d rather not be mistaken for a badger, cougar or other form of ignominious wildlife when going out for an after-work cocktail or a late-night nosh.
The new drinks menu composed by bar and beverage director Trevor Kallies includes more local craft beer on tap from Granville Island Brewing (Lions Winter Ale), Phillips Brewing Company (Hop Circle IPA and Phoenix Gold Lager) and Driftwood Brewery (the gold medal-winning Farmhand Ale).
Cocktails are surprisingly pleasant, especially the Cherry Cobbler with Red Stag cherry bourbon, which could have tasted like candy but was nicely balanced with bitters and lemon.
The wine list is serviceable, although the $4.25 VQA glass promotion is overstated. There are two options (a red and a white from Okanagan Vineyards) and only a few local upgrades.
Chef Michael Knowlson, who has worked for the Sequoia Group and Players Chophouse, has launched a menu that emphasizes local ingredients, Oceanwise seafood, daily roasted meats and organic produce, when possible.
That’s all fine and dandy. But does it really matter if the wings ($11) were once attached to happy, free-range chickens at Maple Hill Farms in Abbotsford if you’re going to drown those premium flappers in a sticky sweet BBQ sauce that is allegedly made with Guinness, yet primarily tastes of Worcestershire?
A fresh whiff of lemongrass wafts off the chili squid ($11), but this is a tough dish to pull off because it’s so ubiquitous in Vancouver. This soggy, sweet, chewy version is not the best of the bunch.
The nachos ($16) aren’t bad. It’s a huge platter with nicely thin white-corn tortilla chips generously slathered in melted cheddar, sliced olives and jalapenos. The salsa is fresh, as is the herbaceous cilantro cream. But then there’s the runny, bland guacamole. If it didn’t come out of a can, the kitchen should reconsider and save itself the wasted effort.
Truffle oil was a bad idea five years ago, when restaurants were laying it on thicker than the smell of Aqua Velva at a legion hall euchre tournament. Time hasn’t done this condiment any favours, especially not in the wild mushroom signature soup ($6), where it commingles noxiously with the taste of packaged bouillion and separates into a floating scum of scallion puree.
The parsley-truffle fries are at least nicely crisped. Not so much two days later, when the spuds in the poutine are firmly undercooked and covered in melted, stringy cheese, which is obviously not squeaky cheddar curd.
The Hangover Burger ($14), a half-pound chuck steak patty loaded with smoked bacon, cheddar and fried egg on a toasted brioche bun, is solid. As is the twice-smoked and slightly sweet short rib hash with two eggs ($14). I’d recommend both, although neither item is new.
But would I suggest you go to any of the Donnelly Group pubs to eat in the first place? No. Does it matter that a pub is serving pedestrian slop? Yes.
As media coverage around the province’s new drinking-and-driving laws has made clear, alcohol is absorbed far more slowly on a full stomach. It’s bad form these days to serve booze without food. If a company, no matter how large, expects its customers to stay and spend, it has to offer more than good music and cheap drinks.