Now I know how to get noticed on Twitter. A few weeks ago, I posted this tweet: “Last night I ate the best Vancouver restaurant meal of the year. Watch for the review on Dec. 21st.”
The response was fast and furious. “Where???” “TELL US NOW! “Cannot WAIT.”
The wait is over. I’m happy to announce it was the Farmer’s Apprentice that blew me away. And yes, it replicated the near-perfect experience a week later.
In the sweet afterglow of that first meal and my hastiness to tweet, I may have slightly overstated the case. It was not actually my best meal of the year. That honour goes to Cioppino’s, where the chef carved me a tiny, amazingly succulent rack of rabbit for my birthday dinner last spring.
But of all the new restaurants of 2013, Farmer’s Apprentice impressed the most.
Why? It started with the room, a cozy 30-seater seemingly plucked from the pages of Remodelista.com. Low ceilinged and appointed in mismatched wood, the rustic space has a studied casualness that includes wrinkled denim napkins, blue-rimmed enamel water tumblers, an Impressionist-style still life of wild leeks painted on a concrete wall, high shelves lined with house-made preserves and early Rolling Stones softly spinning on vinyl from a turntable in the back.
In our front corner nook, sectioned off from a narrow row by an antique, stained-glass window frame with a fresh bough of cedar draped over top, we eased into a couple of inspired cocktails frothed with sea buckthorn and shaken with wild thyme (which, by the way, were all created through collaboration with the kitchen and front-of-house staff).
When it came time to order a bottle of wine, our attentive waiter kindly steered us away from a well-aged Rioja on the reserve list, suggesting a juicier, more moderately priced Loire that would better pair with our chosen dishes. Nice. I also found it interesting that even though the wines are all natural or biodynamic, the menu did not mention it. The Farmer’s Apprentice is as organic as it gets, yet they don’t beat you over the head with condescending manifestos.
It was not always this way for executive chef David Gunawan, who co-owns the restaurant with his life partner, Dara Young (a former cook at the award-winning Acorn). After a short-lived stint as the top chef at West, Mr. Gunawan hightailed it to Europe, where he ate his way through Spain, Flanders and the Nordic region, then did a three-month stage at Belgium’s world-renowned In De Wulf. He returned to Vancouver to open the now wildly lauded Wildebeest.
While waiting for Wildebeest’s permit approvals, he launched ph5, an underground dinner series with rotating guest chefs, which he branded as a “movement” that “rebels against convention and current trends while embracing the land and the purity of the ingredients that it offers us.”
The self-aggrandizing mission statement rubbed some people the wrong way. Especially considering that his menus – at ph5 and Wildebeest – were reverentially inspired by the food at In De Wulf. Last January, less than six months after Wildebeest opened and a few months before it was named best new restaurant by the Vancouver Magazine Restaurant Awards, Mr. Gunawan resigned. His plan was to become a partner at the redesigned Che Baba Cantina on the Kingsway, but the lease negotiations went sideways. Last spring, he announced that he would open the Farmer’s Apprentice in the summer.
The chef’s chaotic movements seemed somewhat circumspect. But atFarmer’s Apprentice, I can better appreciate his philosophy, which allows the farmers to dictate the menu. Every week, they bring in boxes filled with random vegetables and from there he decides what to cook. The menu changes daily, depending upon what’s fresh and available. Mr. Gunawan may sometimes nudge his suppliers into planting a few heirloom seeds, but he basically makes do with what he gets.
From that indecipherable grab bag he creates some of the most gorgeously plated dishes known to Vancouver. Take the rouge d’etent pumpkin, for example. This was actually my least favourite item – the burrata was too cold. Yet it was hard not to swoon over the compressed orange squash (a French heirloom variety with sweet floral aromas grown on Salt Spring Island) sidled up against thin medallions of pink lady apple all showered in hot-pink beet powder.
Mr. Gunawan is also a master of texture. A bowl of silky raw scallops and pimply soft sea urchin with smoked sablefish and luscious sunchoke foam was served with a classic, richly reduced fish-bone bouillabaisse and crunchy sprinkling of dehydrated olives. A humble winter salad of smoked cabbage and fennel was tossed with toasted buckwheat for extra chew and freshly fermented cream for tangy sweetness.
As unusual as his ingredients sound – think poached egg in goat’s whey polenta with smoked brown butter, chorizo and brioche or candy cap mushroom mousse with nectarine sorbet (for dessert!) – the flavours are exquisitely balanced.
Most avant-garde chefs go astray because they fly too high without being grounded in the classics. That’s not the case here. Mr. Gunawan’s sweetbreads were perfectly slow-poached then seared in a thin flour batter, with lightly charred baby Brussels sprouts that bloomed bright and green with a wintry splash of spruce jus. His beet tartare, slowly roasted and dehydrated to concentrate the sweet flavour, was brunoised on edges so sharp the tiny cubes felt silky on the tongue. A thick tarragon smear on the side was expertly emulsified.
I hope I don’t sound sappy because it’s the end of the year. But I must say quite honestly that one of the most rewarding aspects of being a food critic is the front-row portal it offers for watching local chefs mature, progress and find their own groove. In my short experience, none has risen to the occasion quite as brilliantly –and swiftly – as Mr. Gunawan. That was worth waiting for.
No stars: Not recommended.
* Good, but won't blow a lot of minds
* *Very good, with some standout qualities
** *Excellent, well above average with few caveats, if any.
*** *Extraordinary, memorable, original, with near-perfect execution