"So what does one wear to Grouse Mountain?"
Excellent question. It's sent by e-mail from a friend in Calgary, who is coming to visit with her new beau. This being the beau's first time in Vancouver, we plan to do something gastronomically inspired, yet typically touristy.
An impossible combination, you say. I thought so, too. Then I remembered that the Peak of Christmas is under way on top of Grouse Mountain.
Running until Dec. 24, the outdoor festival sounds like a good old-fashioned romp, replete with carolers, sleigh rides and Santa's workshop. After frolicking in the snow, we hope to glide right on in to the Observatory, a fine-dining restaurant I've been hearing great things about.
Alas, it's not that easy. The Observatory has a business-casual dress code: no winter boots, sports gear or jeans.
"No jeans at all?" my friend gasps, via e-mail. The beau only ever wears jeans. "Are those expensive G-Star Raw dark denim ones okay?"
They must be. This is Vancouver. Other than private-member clubs, I don't know of any restaurants here that enforce a strict no-jeans policy. And of all places! Grouse Mountain is a ski resort, for Pete's sake. Why aren't winter boots allowed?
"Whooaaa!" A thrilling ride up the mountainside on the aerial tramway takes our minds off frozen toes. We're swinging over the towers, clinging to each other for support, as a panoramic vista of glittering lights unveils itself below. It's a crystal-clear night and we can see all the way to Vancouver Island.
Dinner with a view this stunning doesn't come cheap. The menu's à la carte pricing is a flat $16 for appetizers and $39 for entrées. Advance reservations do, however, include a free Skyride ticket, which would otherwise cost $37.95 a person. So if you want to make a night of it and enjoy the outdoor activities, the cost is actually quite reasonable, provided you go early and bring a change of clothes.
It's 8 p.m. by the time we get to the top, and Santa has already gone home. So have the carolers. And we don't see any reindeer. There's not enough snow for sleigh rides, but the white stuff is deep enough to prevent us from wandering too far from the dying embers in the fire pit next to the skating rink. Should have worn winter boots, dress code be damned.
The hostess graciously seats us early. She doesn't say a word about the dark denim.
The dining room is a small, round gem, cantilevered over the edge of the mountain, wrapped in sloping windows, clean lines and honey-coloured wood. Still, something feels strangely unsettling. And no, it's not the altitude (3,700 feet). The beau puts his finger on it: The throbbing techno music, while not loud, at least not yet, has a harsh, edgy industrial beat that subtly rattles the nerves.
The wine list is more overtly irritating. It's immensely thick, bursting with icons, and has won several awards. But good luck finding many bottles for less than $100. The wines by the glass are fairly pedestrian and steeply marked up. When we ask to taste one, it's corked.
Thank Christmas for the food. They start us off with warm crusty epi loafs and round pats of butter drizzled with olive oil and sea salt.
Wild mushroom ragout is a creamy, herbaceous, sherry-fortified medley of softly chewy gorgeousness, studded with meaty morsels of ridged chestnuts and served with a dainty stack of buttery brioche wafers. Veal cheeks are encased in a richly caramelized seared crust that yields to tender hearts of warmly spiced braised meat.
Executive chef Dino Gazzola deserves much more attention than he's received, which is virtually none. Classically trained, he apprenticed at Vancouver's William Tell Restaurant, after which he spent a year in northern Italy. Before joining Grouse Mountain in 2007, he was executive chef at Bridges Restaurant for 71/2 years.
His technique is almost flawless, side dishes thoughtful, sauces fabulous and presentation lovely. Lamb loin is crisply seared and succulently tender, served over a loose bed of savoury cassoulet that's been jazzed with confit lamb shoulder and sweet heirloom carrots.
Qualicum Bay scallops are a lovely golden brown and even richer than usual with a sprinkling of smoked truffle salt, which also marries well with a tangle of wild mushrooms, creamy sunchoke purée and crunchy cauliflower triangles.
Roasted venison loin, however, is the star of the evening. The perfectly pink melt-in-the-mouth meat is rubbed and seared before being finished in the oven. It's served sliced, atop a tall pavé podium layered with tender potato and crisp celeriac that's decked with juicy red cranberries and drizzled with juniper jus. On the side, a soft confit shallot rests on a puffy pillow of bright green Brussels sprouts that have been delicately unfurled.
Organic beef tenderloin with stout-braised short ribs is the only misstep of the night. The shorts ribs are moulded into a cute little square that's been glazed with a decadently rich and glossy red-wine reduction. But the meat inside is dry and disappointing.
Over all, however, the food is very good - exceptionally good for a mountaintop restaurant that I had always dismissed as a tourist trap.
Unfortunately, the chef is not well served by the floor staff, and that could be partly his fault. Our waitress, although nice, obviously hasn't had much food training. She's unsure about the menu and has to go back to the kitchen every time we ask a question. By the end of the night, the annoying techno music has been eclipsed by the even more annoying AC/DC dance tunes from the wedding party next door. No matter how many times we ask if someone could please shut the door, it keeps swinging open. And then when we get our split bill, we realize that one party has been overcharged by $130.
For a high-end restaurant that charges premium prices and enforces a relatively formal dress code, the Observatory simply isn't giving back as much as it should.
The Observatory: Grouse Mountain Resort; 6400 Nancy Greene Way, North Vancouver, 604-980-9311.