Secret Location has always struck me as a strange anomaly. The glossy white restaurant and retail boutique sticks out like an haute thumb in the middle of Gastown’s cobblestone charm.
My lifestyle obviously is not bespoke enough to appreciate the store’s carefully curated mix of clothing, jewellery, music, home decor and magazines. To a Philistine like me, this Euro-style concept store has always seemed more like Urban-Outfitters-on-a-trust-fund than a French Colette or Italian 10 Corso Como in training.
But then Jefferson Alvarez was hired as executive chef of the Secret Location Tasting Room restaurant, and suddenly it all made sense.
I have been following Mr. Alvarez for nearly five years, since he first touched down on Commercial Drive at DiVino Wine Bar with his unexpected blend of house-made charcuterie and spicy global dishes. From there, he flew to Fraiche, at the top of the British Properties, and made a brief descent at Lift in Coal Harbour.
Now unleashed in Gastown, his modernist cooking – honed during lengthy stages at some of the world’s top Spanish restaurants, including Arzak, Mugaritz and El Poblet – is showing its true range.
Take his edible clay, for instance. Imported from Spain, this is an ingredient Mr. Alvarez has been playing with for several years. In the beginning, he baked it in the mould of a chalky stone. Later, he teased it into a cookie.
Now, at Secret Location, he has created a fragile shell for a showpiece egg slowly poached for a week in vinegar (to break down the calcium in the real shell), then bathed in a saffron broth to dye it yellow throughout. When you fork apart what looks like a soft-boiled egg, the yolky centre pours out onto a bed of foraged mushrooms, melting the broken shards of clay “shell” into a liquid. The clay, gently shaped on the exterior of a small balloon, does not have much taste. And it is certainly not for everyone. But it’s an experimental sleight of cooking that no other chef in Canada is doing.
When Mr. Alvarez is on his game, his dishes are some of the prettiest you will ever dine on. His puffed foie gras, aerated in a whip-cream canister, is infused with violet sugar, and laid out along the edge of a broad white plate with flowers, crumbled almond, toasted brioche, dots of mauve violet-flavoured gel and a tart smear of black mustard. It melts in the mouth with equal measures of tang and sweetness.
His octopus, hand-cleaned and lightly grilled on a flattop, looks like a chewy tentacled monster but tastes like a soft dream cushioned in smoky chorizo.
Mr. Alvarez has a passion for unusual proteins. Ostrich, for example, is a delectable mainstay on the regular menu. The lean red meat, raised in Merritt, B.C., is crusted with coffee, blackened garlic and herbs to mimic a seared skin.
His yak, which I have had in various forms on several tasting menus, is much less tender. Especially the heart, which was gummy and chewy.
In his quest for constant innovation, Mr. Alvarez occasionally makes missteps. Smoked sturgeon daubed with garlic-caramel sauce was a sickly sweet aberration that awkwardly clanged against a ringed salad of striped zucchini, pickled green beans and sea asparagus.
Sweet flavours and soft textures appear to be his weakness. (Lobster should never be dunked in vanilla cream.) Except when he’s working with pastry chef Kira Desmond, who has been with restaurant since it opened.
In a city that undervalues the final course, Ms. Desmond stands out as one of the best in her league. Her desserts are deconstructed jewels with multiple layers of texture and flavour.
Le Tourment Vert, also known as the Tim Burton, is a bizarre-looking abstract of tempered chocolate twigs, green fennel fronds, puffy pistachio sponge, absinthe sauce and Douglas fir ice cream.
Ms. Desmond makes her own bread, cheese sticks, breakfast Cronuts and a dazzling array of petits fours. Be sure to try her chocolate-glazed mezcal if you get the chance.
It would be nice to see her try some more conventional desserts. But that is not her forte. That is not what this restaurant is about.
From the underlit slabs of quartz on the bar to the showpiece umbrella-shaped chandelier (designed by Phillipe Starck for Baccarat), Secret Location wants to wow you.
The 3,500-square-foot dining room is one of the most spacious in the city. And if the coffee tastes profoundly Italian, that’s because special minerals are added to the water to make it extra smooth and chocolately.
For a restaurant that knows no bounds, it would be nice to see closer attention paid to the wine pairings. The matches are pedestrian, at best. And the service could loosen up a bit. Most nights, the servers seem as stiff as the ceramic bow ties on their collars.
Secret Location is not the type of restaurant that entices you to sit back and relax. But it will make certainly make you stand up and pay attention.