The 2010 Zagat Guide doesn't exaggerate when it describes La Belle Auberge - newly anointed as the Top Food award-winner for the Greater Vancouver Regional District - as one of our "best-kept secrets."
Have you even heard of this "world-class" Ladner, B.C., restaurant? If not, don't feel badly. Neither had I.
Executive chef Bruno Marti is a familiar name. He's a local legend in industry circles, having been a member of the Canadian Culinary Federation Olympic Team that clinched the world championship back in 1984.
I knew that at some point he owned a fine-dining restaurant somewhere in the suburbs, but I honestly had no idea that La Belle Auberge was still going strong after 30 years.
Nor did I realize, as Zagat's consumer-survey review informs, that it delivers "divine," "deep flavours" via "seasonal menus" - which are apparently so "exquisite" they trump Vij's and Cioppino's (the second and third-ranked restaurants in the guide's prestigious top-food category).
I've always been slightly suspicious of the Zagat Survey, which bases its ratings on the voluntary participation of the voting public. (Who are these surveyors? How is the information gathered? Why won't the New York-based company say how many of the 2,271 people polled for this guidebook voted in each category?)
On the other hand, Zagat's famous burgundy books, available at airport kiosks across North America, are hugely popular. Millions of consumers rely on its restaurant recommendations every year.
It was time to take a drive out to Ladner, a quaint fishing village on the south bank of the Fraser River, to find out what all the fuss is about.
From the exterior, the restaurant certainly looks "romantic," in a Victorian Gothic kind of way. It's housed on a quiet, leafy side street in a 100-year-old manse surrounded by a white picket fence.
But as soon as you step past the muddy gravel walkway and through the creaky front door, it quickly becomes apparent why La Belle Auberge hasn't won any decor awards.
The restaurant's five small dining rooms, spread across two floors, are ablaze with chandeliers lit brightly enough to appease customers who may have forgotten their reading glasses.
We are seated next to a dusty side table adorned with droopy violets in a tightly squeezed, poorly ventilated main-floor room that is uncomfortably warm and musty smelling. With an eerie Sturm and Drang symphony clashing and banging through the speakers, it feels like we've stumbled into a funeral parlour.
While some of the floor staff does indeed seem "impeccable" and "charming," our waiter is hopelessly incompetent. While taking my order, he stands behind my chair, forcing me to twist around and stare at his waist (the lumpy seats are freakishly low).
Three times we ask for water; three times he forgets (a busboy eventually fills our glasses). The table beside us has to ask him twice for menus.
The wine menu is stacked with plenty of heavy hitters in the $500-plus range, yet offers few selections for less than $100 and none that are very enticing (think Stump Jump and Mouton Cadet). I settle for a glass of Alsatian pinot blanc. After a lengthy wait and two reminders, the waiter brings me chardonnay.
By this point, I am not holding out much hope that the rather pricey food ($95 for a seven-course table d'hôte, with à la carte main courses averaging $30) will be anywhere near as "delightful" as the Zagat Survey suggests. How nice to be proven wrong.
An elegant amuse bouche looks like a competition platter, with its Lilliputian goat-cheese cube adorned with a feathery frond of dill on a tiny pumpernickel round floating in a sweet pool of pineapple terrine; a miniature bite of butter foie gras mousse bursts with big cognac flavour.
Mr. Marti, who hung up his chef's whites last year, leaving the kitchen in the extremely capable hands of chef de cuisine Tobias MacDonald, delivers the lobster bisque ($14). "Now you see it," he says, nodding at a round ball of glistening fresh lobster meat at the centre of the bowl. "Now you don't," he adds with wink, pouring the thickly creamy, deeply savoury soup over top.
A taut-skinned slab of perfectly seared foie gras ($25) is paired with a sweetly acidic apple tarte tartin and port wine jelly that renders an optional glass of sauternes completely unnecessary.
Mr. Marti, who until recently lived on a nearby farm where he raised his own sheep, geese, chickens and ducks, chooses his prime ingredients with care. Campbell's farm pheasant breast with brandy cream ($34) and Peace River lamb sirloin with Dijon and thyme ($31) are succulently moist and richly flavourful.
He now lives on a different farm, where he grows his own vegetables (which he sells at the Ladner market) and he treats his side dishes with just as much love. The main courses are served with an astonishingly good medley of sugary carrots, crisp long green beans tossed in minced garlic, juicy beets, tender eggplant and a wondrously cheesy wedge of Potato Lyonnais sliced wafer-thin.
The dishes are all beautifully presented, especially the chocolate-hazelnut mousse for dessert, which is topped with a sweet pastry cone filled with liquid passionfruit that is slightly tipped and carefully timed to slowly pour out over the plate as it arrives.
Skeptical as I may have been, the Zagat surveyors were right. La Belle Auberge is a diamond in the suburban rough that serves top-notch food. But unless something is done about the restaurant's dreary lighting, music and ambience, I doubt it will ever become a top dining destination.
La Belle Auberge: 4856 48th Ave., Ladner, B.C., 604-946-7717.