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A backlit oyster bar at The Courtney Room in downtown Victoria, B.C.BEN NELMS/The Globe and Mail

Name: The Courtney Room

Location: 619 Courtney St., Victoria

Phone: 250-940-4090


Cuisine: West Coast fine dining and brasserie

Prices: Brasserie lunch menu, $9 to $28; three-course pre-fixe, $29. Dining-room appetizers, $14 to $21; mains, $27 to $58; à la carte meat, $40 to $52; chef’s tasting menu, $88 a person.

Rating System: N/A (it’s both fine dining and casual)


2 out of 4 stars

Ah, now isn’t this elegant?

The Courtney Room in Victoria’s Magnolia Hotel opened last spring after a $1.5-million renovation that transformed the previous restaurant, an unremarkable warren of dark cubbyholes, into a grand Parisian bistro with soaring ceilings and tall windows.

On the main floor, where the menu leans casual, a backlit oyster bar takes pride of place. Every groove and joint is smartly corniced and capped with classic black mouldings, white tiles, dappled grey marble and brushed brass.

The upper-level dining room is a much more formal affair – at least by local standards, considering that Victoria is a city in which many of the best eateries only offer counter service. The floors are padded with carpet, the tables are set with white linen, the main focal feature is a glassed-in wine cellar and the service is exceptionally suave.

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Dry-aged beef with chanterelles, turnip and demi glace is pictured at The Courtney Room.BEN NELMS/The Globe and Mail

Comfortably ensconced at a window table, the candlelight flickering against etched glass, I am fluttering in anticipation of an $88 tasting menu created by executive chef Sam Harris. Will his cooking be as swoon-worthy as it was at Agrius, an ambitious farm-to-table café just a few blocks away, upon which I bestowed my first four-star review?

But first, a cocktail, because I am so intrigued by a little pink martini called Pixie On My Rind that I must taste for myself how smoky mezcal can possibly play nice with a local kelp-and-caraway akvavit from Sheringham Distillery, Lillet blanc and Luxardo Maraschino. Apparently all it takes is a backbone of habanero bitters, a dash of citric acid and a splash of watermelon shrub to balance the complex mix into a fresh quencher.

In comparison, the amuse-bouche delivered next is a stunning display of unexpected … simplicity. On a plain white plate, there is a single slice of garlic salami, a chewy nub of cured halibut cheek and a single grape wrapped in an astringent hyssop leaf. Is this a joke?

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Part of the 'Walk in the woods' dessert sampling at The Courtney Room.BEN NELMS/The Globe and Mail

An amuse-bouche is meant to capture a chef’s philosophy in one tantalizing bite and I can certainly read the outline. Mr. Harris is nodding to all the farmers, foragers and fishers of Vancouver Island that inform his ingredient-driven menu, while highlighting the kitchen’s high-tech curing chamber in which he hangs his plentiful charcuterie and dry-aged meats.

But those are just the technical bones of a chef’s artistry. Where is the flesh of his menu’s “French twist” around which the whole restaurant has been designed and marketed? Where are the tangy high notes of Meyer lemon, crisp shaves of celery, silky beurre blancs and succulent gobs of rendered fat that I remember flowing through the dishes at Agrius?

It’s not in the next dish, a Cache Creek beef tartare that I order in addition to the tasting menu because the lamb tartare at Agrius left such a lasting impression. It looks similar, with cleanly diced cubes of ruby red meat adorned with hand-torn croutons saturated in brown butter. But the binding emulsion, a creamy aioli tossed with fermented daikon, merely lards on the richness with a rounded slump. There isn’t enough sourness in the spine or arch of freshness to give it poise.

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Part of the 'Walk in the woods' dessert sampling.BEN NELMS/The Globe and Mail

Pork and porcini soup offers a tingle of recognition. The consommé, deeply flavoured with aged pork bones, is incredibly rich but spiked with chili and clarified as clean as a whistle with no sticky residue.

Baked halibut is perfectly cooked to velvety flakiness under a crackling sourdough crust. But a drizzle of sauerkraut emulsion doesn’t offer enough fermented acidity to balance the overwhelming sweetness of carrots cooked three ways.

Mr. Harris definitely has a good handle on meat. An impressive slab of ribeye, dry-aged for 80 days, is streaked with melting fat, charred with a caramelized sear and infused with the funky blue cheesiness of its splendid decomposition.

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Part of the 'Walk in the woods' dessert sampling.BEN NELMS/The Globe and Mail

But he is certainly not the same chef who made me swoon. That was Cam Picyk, the original executive chef at Agrius, who was let go for reasons of “creative difference” after six months. Mr. Harris received the accolades.

He’s not the only loose thread in The Courtney Room’s stylish façade.

Pastry chef Yuka Watts obviously has talent. Her canelé, one of the most finicky pastries in the French canon, has an evenly caramelized crust, perfectly flat bottom and solid honeycomb structure. But it’s just slightly overcooked, making the crumb a bit dense and lacking the desired just-set custardy texture.

Lunch service, which is surprisingly quiet for a restaurant that was just chosen one of the top 10 new openings in Canada by enRoute magazine, is even more disappointing.

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Sous-chef Chris Klassen prepares a halibut with sauerkraut, sourdough crust and charcoal grilled carrot dish at The Courtney Room.BEN NELMS/The Globe and Mail

When I ask if a Riesling by the glass is off dry, the server at least has the honesty to tell me he doesn’t know. I suppose there is no one else for him to ask or he just couldn’t be bothered to check. He probably also doesn’t know that Parisienne gnocchi is made with choux pastry. This difference in the level of professionalism from bistro to dining room is quite shocking.

Potato, leek and arugula soup is covered in a film of wrinkled skin from sitting under the heat lamp, while an otherwise impressive slice of coarsely minced pork-and-rabbit terrine is served cold and tense straight out of the fridge.

I went to Victoria with high hopes of being swept off my feet by The Courtney Room, but left feeling rather sad.

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