2881 Granville St., Vancouver
Elements $3 to $19; appetizers $13 to $18.50; entrées $29.50 to $38.50; tasting menus $58 (vegetarian), $74 and $78
Cuisine: Pacific Northwest; modern classics
Stars: 2 ½
Come gather ‘round restaurant owners
From Vancouver to Rhône
And admit that the days of designer water
White tablecloths and stuffy service have flown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be slinging pork-jowl sliders and marrow of bone
If your restaurant to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start downscalin’
Or you’ll be chopped like a Top Chef reject on blades honed by stone
For the fine dining times are a-changin’.
Apologies to Bob Dylan. But the way we dine out is evolving. Need proof? Look no further than West. When one of Vancouver’s most esteemed fine-dining restaurants unbuttons its collars, quilts the walls and adds tapas to the menu, something has obviously shifted.
The South Granville room certainly feels more warm and inviting. Designer Marc Bricault has embroidered the walls with Maharam fabric and topped the tables with bare white quartz etched in damask. It’s a tactile space that makes you want to reach out and touch things. Especially the quirky Wall of Whang, nicknamed after executive chef Quang Dang, which looks like a softly lit balustrade of unicorn horns.
Having whipped off their ties, the servers seem more relaxed. They chat longer and laugh louder, but still crumb the tables between courses, use a tray for setting silverware and don’t remove plates without asking, “If I may?”
The bar hasn’t changed. In fact, bar manager David Wolowidnyk, recently crowned World’s Most Imaginative Bartender at a Bombay Sapphire competition in Marrakech, is probably the restaurant’s most alluring attraction. Where else will you find saffron-infused mint tea garnished with a tiny star stamped out of lemon zest (in homage to the Moroccan flag)? His attention to detail is astounding.
Mr. Dang’s new “elements” are intentionally less showy. The small, single-component plates range from raw oysters at $3 each to a butter-poached half lobster for $19, with most priced from $9 to $14. Two elements offer a nice snack, three or four a sating dinner (making a full meal only slightly less expensive than an appetizer and entrée.)
Unfortunately, the young chef seems hesitant about drawing on his Vietnamese heritage, which he had so impressively begun cultivating in his previous position helming Diva at the Met. For Asian-style beef tartare, he mixes choppy tenderloin with dark soy and ramen seasoning for a deep, earthy twist. Wild salmon tataki are gorgeous slices of plump pink spring (topped with pristinely fresh salmon eggs) that are given just a faint sear to render its rich marbling. This is a chef who respects his ingredients. But then he teases us with a crazy creamy daub of citrus-sake aioli, leaving us craving more of this shy creativity.
Other elements are tasty, but hardly groundbreaking. With spring pea ravioli, he extracts full flavour from a lean growing season by stuffing mascarpone into silky pasta pockets and crumbling them with truffle pecorino. This dish is impressively plated, as are the foraged mushrooms lightly roasted with smoked oil en papillote. The golden pastry parcel is snipped open tableside, releasing a fragrant puff of steam.
This is the refined presentation one expects at West, no matter how small the plates or casual the ambience. What one doesn’t expect to find is a clump of creamed Swiss chard plopped into a bowl looking like something you would order at a mom-and-pop curry joint. Velvety gnocchi tossed with woodsy nettles slide down the throat like an evergreen cloud, but they’re a squishy mess. And they leave a slightly bitter aftertaste when safely paired with unmemorable wines that cost $17 a glass. That’s casual?
There’s a stilted disconnect between West’s newly accessible elements and its traditional fine-dining components. While the à la carte dishes are more visually pleasing, they’re poorly executed and bland. Lobster bisque is watery and weak. Herb crusted lamb, served with soggy sweetbreads, is undercooked, rubbery and missing its crust. Fresh halibut is beautifully seared to a golden crisp. But halibut doesn’t have much flavour. And the accompanying trio of cauliflower, a dull vegetable at the best of times, certainly doesn’t make it shine any brighter.
By contrast, Rhonda Viani’s extroverted desserts dazzle with voluptuous creams, zesty compotes and full-bodied chocolate. Paired with a boozy caramel flip from the bar, her dark chocolate profiterole is reason alone to visit.
And I suppose that’s the whole point. West now offers something for everyone, be it a light snack or full-blown tasting menu. But diversity without distinction tastes merely diluted. Some might even say desperate.