It’s a glorious afternoon. We’re on the waterfront patio at C Restaurant enjoying the view, although feeling slightly parched – it’s been 20 minutes since we ordered a bottle of rosé. Oh never mind, here come the canapés.
We ooh and aah at the cute lollipop soldiers marched across the table. Our server explains the savoury confections on each stick: spot prawns bedecked with tomato-jelly cubes, beets adorned with goat cheese, smoked Hawkshaw salmon wrapped around little logs of crème fraiche.
Now, I know Hawkshaw salmon is some sort of sustainable catch that’s very special to the restaurant. But it’s been years since I’ve heard the story, so I ask the waiter to tell us about this signature product, currently featured on a five-course tasting menu. The poor guy stutters, stammers and slinks away to consult the kitchen. (No, he’s not new. He just honestly had no clue.)
Here we go again.
Have you ever been in a bad relationship that you keep returning to, hoping against hope that this time everything will be different? My history with C is a lot like that. I have dined at the “finest seafood restaurant in Canada” – as promoted by Tourism Vancouver, among others – at least a dozen times in the past decade.
But I have never been terribly impressed with C’s ever-changing style of seafood cuisine. At times, the food has been overprecious (recall the expensive taster boxes sparingly filled with thimble-sized morsels of cured salmon belly); at other times, cutting-edge avant-garde (think exploding beet bombs and urchin soup served in twitching shells). I have often been disappointed to taste what should be bracingly fresh fish obliterated by heavy meat-based glazes, and occasionally dumbstruck by the bland austerity of crustaceans and heirloom vegetables that should rightfully pop in the mouth.
It’s been almost a year since Lee Humphries took over as chef de cuisine. I was a big fan of the native Brit’s innovative Spanish tapas at Judas Goat, and have thoroughly enjoyed two separate dinners prepared by him at C: One happened to be served during his first week on the job (and thus, wasn’t appropriate to review); the second was on New Year’s Eve (ditto). So I waited until summer, thinking it would be the opportune time to enjoy C-food by the sea. Wrong.
Of the dozen-plus dishes sampled over two visits, there were definitely a few knockouts. Take the seared scallops, for instance. Four divinely meaty discs, seared to a golden crisp with sweet Chinese XO sauce, are set on an herbaceous cushion of buttery confit pork belly, wilted spinach and melting lobes of foie gras torchon. Fried apple beignets leaven this incredibly rich dish with a dash of acidic crunchiness. Lobster tagliatelle is likewise lusciously coddled in cognac cream and tangled with bright tarragon. Terrine of crab and foie gras is a surf-and-turf sandwich of velvety complements.
But for every winning dish, there are two disastrous duds. Roasted sablefish, burnt to a black crust on one side, swims in a soup of lemony mussel nage that cries out for more reduction time. Sockeye salmon, also blackened, is plunked on a soggy wad of lettuce leaves in a pulverized spring-pea pabulum.
Mussels are deep fried in a straitjacket of thick panko breading, served on a pulpy bed of tomatoes seasoned with great lashings of smoked paprika. What is this, a biker bar? Where’s my pitcher of Budweiser?
Meat accompanies almost every seafood dish, sometimes successfully (ibérico ham shaved over spot prawn ceviche), often not (smoky chorizo risotto, buried under a mountain of calamari overpowers a delicate trout filet). And there isn’t a single vegetable to be found in its naturally crisp state. Even the potato fingers in the lobster bisque and foie gras poutine are mushy.
Fish is cooked as inconsistently as the service (which veers from outstanding one night to barely adequate a few days later). Pan roasted halibut glazed with a port gastrique so sweet I could have sworn it was maple syrup is served moist on one side of the table, dry on the other.
And all this splendid sloppiness is available for an average of $37 a plate at dinner, $25 at lunch. Are there too many tables for the kitchen to handle during the busy summer season when the patio nearly doubles capacity? Have they downscaled the menu as so many other fine-dining restaurants have done?
Mr. Humphries says that’s not the case. Each dish he makes is “a labour of love.” But love’s labour is lost, at least on me.