Location: 1485 West 12th Ave., Vancouver
Price: Appetizers, $4 to $12; entrees, $15 to $22
The last thing Vancouver needs is another mediocre Mediterranean restaurant. Sadly, such is Siena – a dull relic from the 1990s offering poorly executed comfort food.
Shame, because a casual, modestly priced trattoria could be a great fit for South Granville, where the side streets are tightly packed with underserved mid-rises and the dinner hour attracts plenty of famished theatre goers. And given that Siena is related through the same owner to the award-winning Cru, a nine-year-old neighbourhood institution that will close at the end of June, it really should hit much higher.
Siena, mind you, is not Cru, and it isn’t fair to draw direct comparisons.
If Cru were a polished nobleman, Siena would be his rustic country cousin. Whereas the former is appointed with crisp white linen, soft lighting and languorous oil landscapes hung on demure beige walls, the latter is bright and cheerful, splashed with mustard-yellow paint, bare wood tables and a chalkboard wall menu that features a peek-a-boo view of the kitchen through a built-in glass window.
Cru, while never overly daring, did often venture ambitiously afield with tricky soufflés, sake-marinated sablefish and Moroccan spice rubs. Siena, on the other hand, sticks close to the southern shores of France, Spain and (mostly) Italy with classic pastas, roasts and antipasti.
Still, simple comfort food is deceivingly difficult to prepare well. When cooking familiar standards with few ingredients, there’s not much room to go wrong. Small missteps can look and taste as glaringly clumsy as a ballroom dancer stumbling around in galoshes.
Take, for instance, the small Italian rice balls known as arancini. When served hot out of the deep fryer, these snack-sized pockets of meltingly creamy risotto encased in a crisp, golden shell can be a textural dream. But they’re not all that special when served as dry, gummy rice pucks breaded in a thick layer of coarse Japanese panko, as they are at Siena.
Dense, heavily cheesy polenta fritters are similarly lacking in lightness and lustre. Grilled squid is rubbery, its chorizo stuffing chewy and compacted. The daily bruschetta selections may be adorned with such inventive toppings as white bean and fig balsamic, but the spread is thin and the dry bread appears to have been flatly squished under a panini press.
Siena’s menu was created as a collaboration between Cru’s long-time executive chef, Alana Peckham, and her sous chef, Tim Evans. The latter, who worked at CinCin under local Italian master Julio Gonzalez-Perini, was always meant to lead the kitchen, and still does.
But Ms. Peckham recently departed for Hart House Restaurant. And without her perfectly poised direction, which could make even the simplest plate of mac and cheese sing, the pastas are all flatly garbled. Everything is heavy, oily, inadequately seasoned and void of acidity. The tomato sauce for puttanesca spaghettini is thickened up with way too much paste. Prawn-stuffed ravioli are gluey. The mushroom tagliatelle’s Madeira cream is unctuously slippery.
Even an ordinary brick-roasted chicken breast goes awry with poor technique. This method of searing a split chicken under a heavy weight is supposed to produce a crisp, crackly skin and juicy meat. But here, there’s no crackle and the meat is dry. Sockeye salmon is so overcooked it tastes spongy.
There’s monotony in the side dishes. Sautéed kale shows up three times on a single daily menu. Even the desserts – an overly gelatinized raspberry panna cotta and granular olive-oil polenta cake – are boring, and shockingly slow. A full hour had passed between the time it took to flag our waitress to clear our main courses and then flag her again to clear our desserts and bring the bill. Although friendly, the service is annoyingly inattentive.
The best thing Siena has going for it is a short, but sweetly edited, wine list. It’s especially enticing on Monday nights when all bottles are 50 per cent off.
Perhaps it’s for the best that Cru is closing. As announced this week, owner Mark Taylor plans to reopen his first restaurant at a different location at some point in the future. But for now, he wants to focus his energies on Siena. The restaurant certainly could certainly use more love and attention.
Special to The Globe and Mail