At first glance, Wildebeest looks much like many other trendy urban-farmhouse restaurant in Gastown or Brooklyn.
The open-concept room is appointed with brick walls, reclaimed barnboard and the now-ubiquitous bare Edison bulbs (although I must say these handsome light fixtures, strung through ceiling-mounted cast-iron pulleys, are more creative than most).
Long communal tables? Check. Tattooed servers? Check. Family-style shared dishes on mismatched pottery plates? Check. Check. Check.
A cynic might see the humour in a restaurant that claims to have “crafted a menu unlike anything yet explored in Vancouver” but conforms to such a conventional design aesthetic. Others might snort at the arrogance of chef David Gunawan’s slightly exaggerated boast.
But something different is going on in this open kitchen, which is proudly positioned in the middle of the restaurant and staffed exclusively with cooks who have international experience.
Start with a few bite-sized snacks on the menu and you’ll begin to get a taste for it. Here we have fried pigskin, puffy, crisp and sprinkled with chili. Yes, this irresistible bacon chip is becoming familiar as more restaurants embrace whole-animal cookery and all the odd bits that were once discarded.
But Wildebeest also offers hazelnuts, a local product and seemingly simple – yet not. These local filberts are infused with seawater fetched from the deep, glacial-fed inlets around Read Island. Wildebeest’s oyster supplier, Sawmill Bay Shellfish Co., delivers a fresh bucket every week. After being steeped and dried, the slightly soft nuts have a subtle brininess that sneaks up on the finish.
The kitchen is not slavishly local. The snack menu includes beautiful black olives from Sicily, smoked over alderwood. Then there are pork croquettes, breaded balls stuffed with toothy pulled-pork shoulder larded with extra fat so it bursts in the mouth, served with a tangy raspberry “ketchup.”
What I find most interesting is the pork. It doesn’t have that soft, silky texture coming out of every kitchen using a sous-vide machine to break down their proteins. This meat has chew and deep porky flavour.
Not tasting the difference? Well, it’s bigger than just Wildebeest. It’s actually a global culinary movement that can be felt from Copenhagen to Seattle’s Capitol Hill.
At its most basic, it is a rejection of classic French cuisine and the scientific precision of modernism. It embraces the local-food movement, but goes beyond the 100-mile diet by working directly with farmers to create new products – hybrid pigs, cheeses made from milk cows fed grazed on Alpine grasses. It’s New Nordic Cuisine and Slow Food simmered in whey and smoked over hay. It’s pure, simple, fresh, ethical cooking wrapped in esoteric manifestos.
But it’s true that it has not really hit Vancouver in a major way. So after leaving West, where Mr. Gunawan was executive chef, he went on a six-month sabbatical across Spain and Northern Europe to explore it.
Wildebeest’s interpretation is a melding of various influences. The vegetable dishes, probably my favourite section of the menu, are very Nordic, especially in the way they use dairy – not for luscious creaminess, but its acidic sting.
The chewy beet salad, for example, gets its sweetness from the beets – a medley of pink, green and watermelon heirloom varieties that are served fresh and dehydrated into candy. The pears are salted into little cubes. The salad is served over a bed of thick, slightly tangy goat-milk ricotta and adorned with meltingly thin milk wafers.
Not everyone wants their vegetables served with bedhead. I watched as a woman further down our communal table took one look at heirloom radishes with wilted greenery still attached, sprinkled with crunchy, malted-bread “soil” and shoved the plate away as if offended.
Obviously inspired by Kobe Desramaults at In De Wulf restaurant in Germany, where Mr. Gunawan did a three-month stage, he plays a lot with sweet and savoury. Almost all his desserts include vegetables.
Chocolate sorbet with finely diced celery root and walnuts
is light and bright and refreshing.
Oddly enough, especially given the name of the restaurant, the menu has no game or wild foraged foods on the menu. This is a hallmark of most of the talked-about Nordic restaurants. But it’s not Mr. Gunawan’s forte.
There is lots of meat here, to be sure.
Some of it is fun “dude food.” I love the bone marrow “luge.” After excavating all the fatty loveliness from the bone, you hold it up to your mouth and let the bartender pour a shot of sherry down the slide.
Some of it is very experimental. Pork jowl, sliced thin, comes with peppery oatmeal and maple syrup. It sells like hotcakes at brunch and makes total sense when I think of how my ex’s late Québécois mother used to serve sugar pie and tourtiere for breakfast.
Some may take a little getting used to. The short rib, for example, is a signature item. It’s just a big slab of natural Angus beef slow-roasted for 48 hours. Simple, pure and lightly dressed with smoked salt and hay-infused jus (none of the dishes incorporate more than three or four ingredients).
But my short rib had hardly any meat. I like fat. It harbours all the best flavour. But this was a ¾-inch chunk of soft, jiggly fat to ¼-inch beef. (I’ve heard the pork chop is similar).
When I again ordered the short rib a few days later, it had less fat and more juicy, crackly crusted, drool-inducing meat. Then I understood why it was so popular.
It’s the luck of the draw, Mr. Gunawan later explained. Some ribs are excessively fatty, some are not. And I guess that’s Wildebeest in a nutshell: as deliciously unpredictable as nature intended.