In bygone days, Le Gavroche tossed Caesar salads tableside. Today, the servers plunge scoops of stinging nettle cream into smoking vats of liquid nitrogen to create frozen green popsicles served on sticks.
I guess you can teach an old dog new tricks. The legendary French restaurant is celebrating its 35th anniversary with a new owner, a modern menu and bright, contemporary look.
In July, long-time proprietor Manuel Ferreira sold Le Gavroche to his executive chef, Robert Guest. Together with director of operations David Auer, Mr. Guest recently renovated the venerable West End heritage home and unveiled a new menu.
You might not recognize the once dark and dowdy grand dame in her spiffy new coat of white paint with clusters of clear teardrop pendant lights hanging from moulded ceilings. The walls are adorned with paintings by Vince Dumoulin that were inspired by the new movie poster for Les Misérables and Victor Hugo’s original drawings. (Gavroche was the fictional street urchin in the celebrated novel).
The tables are still covered in white linen. But they’re now set with bendy glass-bulb vases filled with bright flowers. The dark wooden chair backs have been sanded down to a warm blonde. Some time this summer, Mr. Guest plans to convert the private dining room on the main floor to a casual wine bar with sliding doors that open up to a new patio in the front driveway.
Le Gavroche’s new flavours taste just as fresh forward and sunny. The kitchen has embraced an all-local philosophy, which means no more annual lobster festival.
In place of butter-poached lobster salad, the hors d’oeuvre include a baby artichoke and rocket salad tossed with thin slices of ambrosia apples and Harrison hazelnuts all sourced from small local farmers. The old steak tartare, which was also mixed tableside on creaky trundle trolleys, is reinvented in a refreshing Pacific salmon tartare – cleanly cubed, zested up by dill crème fraîche and texturized with crispy caper berries, Pemberton potato crisps and a silky sunny-side-up quail egg.
Until the end of April, the restaurant is offering a great value anniversary menu (three courses for two with a bottle of wine for $99). But the best way to experience Mr. Guest’s cooking is through his six-course degustation menu ($75 a person), comprised of smaller versions of regular menu items, plus a few additional whistles and bells.
Don’t forget to order wine. The restaurant came with half of Mr. Ferreira’s magnificent cellar. The tasting menu can be paired with local wines for $35 or stunning Burgundies and Bordeaux for $95.
Although the menu changes weekly (as it should, when the focus is local and seasonal), the format will be similar to the near-perfect dinner I ate earlier this month.
It began with a whimsical “walk through the garden,” which translated into a test tube brimming with gingered carrot juice planted in a portable flower container. Sure, the presentation was a lovely looking gimmick. But the palate-cleansing amuse-bouche also served as a thoughtful method of putting the entire vegetable to good use (and making the most of a limited growing season).
The rest of the carrot turned up at dessert in a sweet and savoury trio of sorbet, mousse cake and a hazelnut-rolled crescent. Although the flavours were fine, the presentation was a bit amateurish – the mousse cake was too big for the plate and the rounded mould slightly lopsided, while the grated carrot in the crescent was raw and coarse. Mr. Guest concedes that desserts aren’t his greatest strength and he is currently scouting for a pastry chef.
Back to the layers of flavour echoed through the menu. The second and third courses were both built from beets – nicely chewy medallions in a crème fraîche-dotted salad and a smooth soup poured over small cubes of beets and an herbed crème-fraîche quenelle.
The chef’s use of sour cream was perhaps overly repetitive, but he redeemed himself with several interesting twists on tired classics. Take his trout meunière amandine, for example. Traditionally, the pan-fried fish would be breaded. Here, it was served naked, save for its crispy skin. And although sauced with brown butter and almonds, the chef cleverly cut through the richness by topping it with slightly bitter, steamed stinging nettles.
His foie-gras torchon, which I tried on a different occasion, was again lifted out of its traditionally stodgy heaviness by being poached in Riesling rather than sweetly cloying sauternes.
Mr. Guest is a master at red meat. Muscovy duck breast and venison tenderloin were perfectly cooked (sous-vide, then seared) and adequately rested for a full five minutes so they were lusciously tender yet rare without bleeding all over the plates.
Interspersed through the meal were several interludes of liquid nitrogen. Yes, the smoking trickery may be old hat at the Fat Duck outside London. But I don’t know of any other Vancouver restaurant that’s using it for show. And it’s certainly a fun way to reinvent those old trundle trolleys.
Halfway through the meal, the server rolled up to the table with a wooden box of fresh herbs. He picked a bouquet of mint and sage, tore them into a thick, metal bowl, poured in the liquid nitrogen, slid in a spoon of lemon sorbet and presented the fragrant concoction in soup bowls to the table with individual mashers. The frozen herbs were rustic, crunchy and refreshing.
The servers don’t take themselves too seriously. Led by Mr. Auer (formerly David Fert, who took his wife’s surname when they recently married), the mood was as warm and jovial as the meal was full of surprises.
Everyone in the dining room seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely, especially the couple sitting beside us who were returning for the first time in 30 years.
“We won’t wait another 30 years to come back,” the gentleman joked.
Mr. Guest and Mr. Auer have achieved what they set out to do – turn a fine-dining legend into an approachable, modern French restaurant that’s not just for special occasions any more.
As for the outdated Caesar salad? Apparently, one person called to ask if they still serve it tableside (which they will do by special request). But other than that, no one seems to be missing it.