Did Campagnolo deserve to be named best new restaurant at last week's Vancouver Magazine restaurant awards?
Main Street's "country bumpkin," as the name translates from Italian, faced some stiff competition: Maenam (silver), Market by Jean-Georges (bronze), L'Altro Buca and Daniel Boulud's DB Bistro Moderne/Lumière (honourable mentions). Interestingly, the New York celebrity chefs were shut out from the top prizes for every food category in which they were nominated.
Fabled ending aside, it's hard to take these awards too seriously, given all their ostensible inconsistencies. How does fourth-place L'Altro Buca, for instance, elsewhere race ahead of Campagnolo to clinch the gold medal for casual Italian? Why are DB Bistro and Lumière treated as a single entity for best new restaurant, yet judged separately in the casual and formal French categories?
I honestly can't comment on Campagnolo's early performance because the first time I visited, three weeks ago, there was a new chef in the kitchen and three-quarters of the menu had been completely revamped.
But I can tell you this: If Jean-Christophe Poirier (former executive chef and part proprietor of Chow Restaurant) stays this smoking hot, Campagnolo will certainly deserve to add more awards to the pot next year.
So why stir things up if Campagnolo was already doing so well? Although the restaurant is owned and primarily associated with Refuel's executive chef, Robert Belcham (along with partners Tom Doughty and Tim Pittman), its menu was crafted and its kitchen run by chef de cuisine Alvin Pillay. When Mr. Pillay moved to the Okanagan, the owners decided to recruit Mr. Poirier, with whom Mr. Belcham had once worked at C Restaurant.
First, they had to find him. After Chow closed last year, the Québécois chef (a former chef de partie at Montreal's Toqué! and Lumière under Rob Feenie) went on sabbatical in South America. When Mr. Poirier received the e-mail from Mr. Belcham, he was in a southern Chilean fishing village so remote it took him two days before he could get an outgoing connection to reply.
A great restaurant is, of course, more than just the sum of its chef and menu. And many of the parts for which the Van Mag judges lauded Campagnolo haven't changed. The "affordably chic" lower Main Street restaurant, located a few doors from the infamously divey Ivanhoe Pub, is still "revolutionizing" an "underserved neighbourhood." In other words, there may now be a farmers' market operating nearby, but the train-station environs can still feel pretty sketchy after dark and it was gutsy of the owners to open there.
I don't agree that the room is "truly original." Its austere, concrete-block, prison-chic decor actually seems kind of tired. But I do appreciate some of the quirky little details that earned it a silver interior-design award from a different set of judges. "Bare bulbs are a bit too hip just now," the panel opined, "but [designer Marc]Bricault makes them shine brighter than anyone else" - in charm-like clusters braided with frayed rope.
Campagnolo veers off another beaten track by eschewing southern Italy's seafood-and-tomato-heavy cuisine for the meatier regional diets of northern Piemonte and Emilia-Romagna.
The menu is still crowned by Mr. Belcham's "The Cure" house-made charcuterie, which he distributes commercially. I've never understood the widespread appeal of this under-seasoned salumi. The sampling platter I taste in the restaurant ($21 for three) is remarkable mainly for its consistency of flavour. The saucisson sec and soppresseta taste almost exactly the same.
Crispy ceci is another menu item that will probably never be taken off the menu. The restaurant apparently sold something like 12,000 bowls last year. I like chickpeas. I cook them at home quite often. But why this version is so popular I have no idea.
The lightly deep-fried shells have a nice flakey crunch, but the sprouted seeds are awfully starchy and could stand to be parboiled a little longer. The dressing - mint, scallions, parsley, chili, lemon and olive oil - would be better if there was more (same goes for the scant tossing of arugula and spinach). And the price, $8.50 - for garbanzo beans! - hardly seems neighbourly.
Unless you're a cooking-challenged vegan, I can't understand why anyone would go out of their way to order this when, for a few extra dollars, they could have a generous platter of melt-in-the-mouth grilled octopus ($12), which Mr. Poirier braises in its own smoky juices and buries under a tangled pile of fennel, radicchio and breadcrumby lemon-chive gremolata.
Albacore tuna crudo ($13) is another wonderfully rustic antipasti, garnished with burstingly fat green peas, torn slices of hot grilled bread and shredded basil. The thick wedges of tuna are barely cooked in lemon and olive oil so it remains pink and firm (not mushy, as it's too-often served).
Butternut squash ravioli ($12.50) robed in rich brown butter, sprinkled with crushed amaretti and seasoned with crispy sage leaves, is a classic Tuscan dish. But the mascarpone filling - as silky and creamy as Mr. Feenie's signature dish - is a testament to the chef's well-spent tenure at Lumière.
Pizza is a vexing problem in Vancouver. It sucks all over the city. And I don't know if Campagnolo's new recipe for thin-crust dough will please aficionados looking for an authentic Neapolitan slice.
That's because this isn't Neapolitan pizza ($12.50 to $15). It's an even thinner, northern version with a cracker-like crunch. To me, it's better than soggy, yet could still use a bit more rising time for added chew and flavour. That said, the mushroom-gorgonzola and San Marzano tomato toppings are flawless (even if the latter isn't technically a northern recipe).
A new pastry chef is being brought in soon. I hope he doesn't take the chocolate tart ($8) off the menu. I loved it so much I ordered an extra helping to take home the second time I visited. With its caramel centre, hefty cookie tart and divine espresso cream, this is an all-star gold medalist.