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A taste of Latin spice and loco service Add to ...

By now you've heard about the Vancouver food fights, the crazy number of new restaurants and how competition for staff has turned cutthroat. But let me present a case study that shows how service standards have slipped as a consequence.

Cobre Nuevo Latino sounded like a solid concept (and still could be), provided you don't take the restaurant's press release too seriously.

Nuevo Latino cuisine is "a style of cooking that blends the passion of Argentinean tango with the exuberance of Cuban son, the sultriness of a Brazilian samba and the joy of Mexican mariachi."

That's a very unfortunate way of saying that the kitchen is taking traditional, regional dishes from almost everywhere south of Texas and adding modern twists.

Still, in a city seriously lacking culinary diversity (enough with the French bistros and Japanese izakayas), a dash of Latin spice is a welcome addition. And if there is any chef in Vancouver who can pull off this samba-happy tapas menu, Stuart Irving is the one to do it.

The co-owner of Cobre, Mr. Irving is the former executive chef at Wild Rice, which impressively introduced modern Chinese to Vancouver. Before that, he launched the legendary Bin 941 with Gord Martin.

The Gastown restaurant, which opened four weeks ago, is located in a heritage building that has been sandblasted back to an empty shell and elegantly remodelled.

The main split-level bar and dining area boasts exposed brick walls, dark hardwood floors, copper plates on the ceiling and wrought-iron railings on the front windows.

The small-plates menu is divided into five basic categories: sopa, ceviche, papusa empanada, taqueria and tapas. Unfortunately, the menu is indecipherable to anyone who doesn't speak Spanish. And our server, who obviously hadn't tasted most of the items or been given even the most rudimentary training as to what they might include, wasn't any help.

We started off lucky with charred tomato achiote ($8), a hearty soup as thick as salsa with a musky annatto-seed kick, but nicely balanced with crumbled cheese and a sprinkling of fresh cilantro.

Diver-caught scallop ceviche was another pleasant hit. The citrus-marinated scallops were cooked not a minute too long, preserving their silky, sashimi-like texture.

Then the duck confit papusa ($12) arrived. We thought we were ordering a standard empanada. Unfortunately, the server neglected to inform us that papusa is a chewy dumpling made from masa flour, which is derived from soaked corn kernels, and sticks like wallpaper paste to the roof of the mouth.

That said, the mole sauce was perfectly spiced with chili and not too chocolatey.

Pork saddle al pastor ($10) was a traditional taco dish with diced pineapple and rubbed cubes of spicy pork. Simple, yes, but there was something missing. Salsa, of course! The kitchen forgot to add this one basic ingredient. And beverage manager Jason Kelly , who delivered the dish to the table, failed to notice as well.

"Are you sure there wasn't any salsa on it?" he said, looking down at our obviously salsa-less, half-eaten plate. At this point, he could've - should've - offered to fix it, but he just walked away.

Mr. Kelly has worked for too many high-end restaurants to think ignorance is the best policy. If this is the example he's setting for his still wet-behind-the-ears staff, it's no wonder our waitress later returned to explain that the chocolate soufflé was being served with chorizo.

Spicy sausage? She meant churro, a sugary Mexican doughnut which she then described, after correcting her pork pas, as something akin to a Beaver Tail. Oh, my.

The highlight of the night was the flash-seared skirt steak ($15), rubbed with a peppercorn marinade.

It was served with a "Tijuana" Caesar salad and chorizo (not churro) hash. Lovely.

I'm sure there are many more delicious items hidden in the menu. But if customers have any hope of discovering them, the front of the house had better learn how to guide them.

The entire Cobre operation needs serious tightening. But as it's becoming all too obvious, the entire city's standards are on a sad downward slide.

Cobre Nuevo Latino Restaurant, 52 Powell St. 604-669-2396

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