Don’t go to Cinara when craving pasta. Although predominantly Italian, this new Crosstown restaurant doesn’t specialize in bucatini, agnolotti and gnocchi.
The noodle-light direction may come as a surprise to fans of chef-owners Lucais Syme and Gillian Book. The husband-and-wife team cooked plenty of pasta while working at Parkside (where they met), La Buca, La Quercia, La Ghianda and La Pentola at the Opus Hotel (which they still own).
But for the couple’s first solo venture since amicably parting ways with Mr. Syme’s former partner Adam Pegg (who took full control of La Quercia in exchange for La Pentola), they have busted out of their previously narrow Northern Italian niche.
The decision was partly a matter of necessity. Housed on the main floor of the 117-year-old Victorian Hotel, Cinara has a small open kitchen with three induction burners and one oven. The tight nature of the space doesn’t allow for a dedicated pasta board. Ceramic-topped induction ranges would crack under constant pan-tossing and banging.
But when the lid clamps down on one pot of boiling water, a whole world of culinary possibilities open up. “Ultimately, we created a place where we could cook whatever we wanted,” Mr. Syme said by phone, explaining the southern European repertoire that trips from salt-cod baccala and polenta crostini to fermented-kamut crespelle (or crepe) stuffed with ricotta, braised oxtail and nettles.
“I guess you could call it European modern,” he added. “But the hairs on the back of my neck stand up whenever I say that.”
No, modern isn’t the best way to describe Cinara. Sure, they do some things a bit differently. Traditionalists might balk at the striploin entree, which is roasted and served thinly sliced. (Again, because of the space; searing would smoke out the dining room.) And all those funky ferments, which also appear in sprouted-grain bread and various vegetables, are nods to nouveau healthy hippie cuisine.
But by and large, the cooking is rigorously classical. Take the octopus salad, for example. Tossed with warm potatoes, arugula, parsley and lemon, it’s a (deceptively) simple Mediterranean standard. To get that perfect tooth-pull, which is firm on the first few bites before melting into tenderness, the octopus goes through a complicated multi-step process that involves a salt rub, several white-wine court bouillon poaches and a tepid, two-hour bathe in the oven.
The weekly (often daily) changing menu is a slave to freshness over fashion. I could tell you about a divine squash blossom deep-fried in rice bran oil – an odourless, neutral flavoured, high-smoke alternative to canola – which gave its egg wash and light flour coating a golden gossamer texture. Served with beets two ways (ruby-red medallions and tops tossed in balsamic), a splash of olive oil and generous lashings of salty pecorino, it was a sunny blast of summer on the palate. Unfortunately, the season for squash blossoms has passed and it’s off the menu, as are almost all the dishes I ate in early July.
The flavours at Cinara are clean, pure and occasionally bold, but never deliberately shocking. Corned veal tongue, now back on the menu, is cured for three weeks until the tough meat turns slippery. Served thinly sliced, it doesn’t taste pickled or overpowered by spices. It’s just tender tongue through and through, much like the dish’s hard-boiled heirloom egg and watercress mayonnaise.
And those are just the starters.
I actually didn’t order any mains. And to be frank, they looked awfully small for the price. I found better value with a hodgepodge of appetizers and mid courses. Sometimes it’s fun to bounce around a menu. This one, with its various price points that include snack-sized chicheti, makes for an easy romp that feels right at home in a whimsical room with bright corner windows, mismatched wooden chairs and a gumball assortment of antique china.
Before ordering anything, start with a cocktail. It’s a small selection, dominated by bitter aperitifs. But if the rhubarb fizz mixed with fresh juice and house-made ginger beer is one to judge by, the list holds many delightful surprises.
As does the wine cellar. To me, it’s always a joy to look at a list and not recognize three-quarters of the labels. Of course, it helps when you don’t have to pay through the nose to try something new and the servers can knowledgeably explain that Bordeaux-like Italian blend of exotic varietals – Punica Montessu Isola dei Nuraghi, a delicious discovery for $65.
If you must have pasta or a similarly starchy plate, there are always a few options. It might be the bubbly, crispy above-mentioned crespelle or creamed farro. I had a slightly rubbery rotollo stuffed with peppery rabbit ragu, Swiss chard and fresh ricotta. Linguine pomodoro with buratta is currently being featured. Vegetable lasagna pops up occasionally.
But pasta isn’t Cinara’s forte. And that’s the most refreshingly modern thing about it. Pasta is only one of three or four courses that Italians typically eat at dinner. It’s a sign of maturity – for the owners and Vancouver – that a primarily Italian restaurant can move on to other things. For diners, Cinara is a tantalizing place to explore them.