- Royal Dinette
- Location: 905 Dunsmuir St., Vancouver, B.C.
- Phone: 604-974-8077
- Website: royaldinette.ca
- Cuisine: West Coast farm-to-table
- Prices: Lunch, two-course menu, $30. Dinner appetizers, $6 to $21; mains, $19 to $48; family style, $65 a person.
- Additional information: Lunch, Monday to Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; dinner, Monday to Friday, 5 to 10 p.m. Reservations accepted.
- Rating system: Casual dining
Grits are an American classic from the Deep South – generally stodgy, ho-hum at best. But in the hands of Eva Chin, the excellent new executive chef at Royal Dinette, they taste rich, creamy, fresh, thrillingly Canadian and fit for the gods.
Canadian? Yes, because instead of corn, these softly chewy grits are made with whole-grain wheat berries grown in Alberta and distributed in small batches by a terrific Vancouver company called GRAIN (perhaps now best known for its milled-to-order flour).
Fit for gods? The richness comes from an ambrosial chicken cream in which they are cooked. This golden nectar, made fresh each morning, is equal parts milk and cream, steeped with onions and browned chicken skins. The liquid is reduced until it’s condensed into a sweet and savoury, lightly caramelized, chicken-flavoured dulce de leche of sorts. Had there been an ancient goddess of poultry, I could imagine her bathing chubby little cherubs in this heavenly cream and slurping their toes clean. It’s that good.
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Fresh? Ms. Chin tosses her amazing grits with crunchy cucumber, tender potatoes and great lashes of dill. Then she smears the plate with a pale-yellow Parmesan-pecorino cream infused with capers and anchovies – a thick, Caesar-like dressing for beautifully crisp lettuce leaves still radiating sunshine.
And to think that these wondrous components were merely sides for a seared quarter-chicken, part of a two-course weekday lunch menu priced at $30. I wasn’t even going to order the chicken (which was fine free-range chicken, but clearly played second-fiddle) until Ms. Chin leaned over the open-kitchen counter and confidently suggested it would be her first choice. Let me tell you, I swooned out of that lunch, straight into a meeting with my accountant (who swoons when they’re meeting with their accountant?) and raved on about those chicken-cream grits for days.
Royal Dinette was my pick for best new Vancouver restaurant in 2015. The downtown farm-to-table restaurant shared that honour with Grapes & Soda, a natural wine bar owned by David Gunawan, who was also an opening partner in Royal Dinette (but walked away after six months, unbeknownst to many, including me). It is now solely owned and operated at arms length by the Donnelly Group, a one-off anomaly in its empire of public houses and nightclubs. And with Ms. Chin at its helm, this female-dominated dining destination is better than ever – and worthy of awards all on its own.
Except for a sealed front door that now blocks out the noise from the Blackbird Pub upstairs, the room hasn’t changed. It’s still an elegant, old-timey diner with swivel seats at the marble kitchen counter and wooden shelves groaning under the weight of mason jars filled with pickled sea asparagus, dried chanterelles, sorrel vinegar and much more.
The cocktail program is world class, literally, thanks to bar manager Kaitlyn Stewart, who won the prestigious Diageo World Class competition last summer, making her the first Canadian to earn the coveted title of world’s best bartender. Her original creations concocted from a house-made apothecary of orange-blossom water, clarified-milk liqueur and tart cherry shrubs are as unusual as they are tightly balanced and refreshing.
Wine director Claire Saksun continues to build the restaurant’s wide-ranging cellar of organic, biodynamic and natural wines. And I would like to thank her for introducing me to A Sunday In August, a Vancouver-based garagiste winemaker that makes a splendidly tropical skin-contact pinot gris from grapes grown in the Similkameen Valley.
But it is Ms. Chin – a fourth-generation Hawaiian who studied behavioural science at Boston University, worked for six months at San Francisco’s Atelier Crenn, opened an eight-month pop-up called the Lazy Hog in Hong Kong and has staged all over the world (including Maaemo in Norway and Brae in Australia) – who has really steered Royal Dinette into a sumptuous new groove.
She calls her cuisine New American, which is about as indefinable as West Coast or Locavore. It’s still rustic farm-to-table, changing regularly and relying on the bounty of small B.C. farms, foragers and fishers. But whereas the previous chefs, Jack Chen and Alden Ong (both of whom she worked under as sous chef) leaned heavily on their Asian heritage with results that were often austere and sometimes polarizing, Ms. Chin’s style is luscious and comforting, larded with creams and custards, balanced with acidity, textured with layers and brimming with creativity.
Lunch is a great way to start. Before the ambrosial chicken-cream grits, I had a velvety borage-cucumber gazpacho and the most succulent tuna confit, which had been brined in olive juice, slowly poached in herb oil, ladled with warm sauce vierge and garnished with freshly torn basil and blistered tomatoes. The latter was almost as good as the grits.
Even better is dinner, served family style with five to six courses chosen by the chef.
Mine began with a small wedge of Tomme cheese, garnished with honeycomb and preserved crab apple. It was followed by a big bouncy salad of fresh greens dressed with elderflower vinaigrette, toasted hazelnuts, brown-butter crumble and sour sea buckthorn berries that popped like pomegranate seeds.
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There was whole wheat fusilli tossed with smoked olives, funky sheep’s cheese and a slowly reduced duck leg sugo that was darkly spicy, not from pepper, but from the blended char of blackened peppers, tomato, onion and garlic.
Was the seared ling cod a little salty? Yes. The brown-butter dashi and aged kimchi choy were bold enough on their own. Could the skin on a deeply smoky, twice-cooked half chicken been a bit crispier? Sure. But then the fat might not have rendered so perfectly and the sticky texture of the spruce-vinegar honey glaze would have been lost. Was it surprising to discover that charred asparagus with gooey stracciatella cheese was served cold? Uh huh. But it worked so well with a soft-cured egg brined in dark beer.
Although it’s hard to imagine how ripe summer strawberries could possibly be improved upon, Ms. Chin did just that by dipping them in a glossy jelly made from their own juices.
I turned to my friend in astonishment. “This is what Eve’s apple must have tasted like.” Fit for gods and sinners.