Don't you just love surprises? DiVino Wine Bar is one of the nicest I've received all year. Thus, I decided to save it - the best of 2009 - for last.
Who would have guessed that in this small, 42-seat restaurant, tucked into a modest corner of Commercial Drive, one could find a mouth-watering belly of nouvelle Chinois Wuxi-style pork smothered in a riot of exotic spices, alongside a jaw-dropping selection of iconic old-world wines?
Not me, that's for sure.
When DiVino opened 18 months ago, I felt sorry for the owners, who had moved their successful gelato shop next door to make room for the new venture, yet appeared to have no clue how to run it.
Though purportedly a wine bar, the beverage list was laughably weak (a mere eight labels by the glass). And shockingly overpriced ($7 for a pour of Firriulo Primula Nero D'Avola, which was then selling for $7.50 a bottle at the BCLDB). As if.
Even after the staff changed hands (a couple of times) and the wine offerings had improved, the menu's simple meat-and-cheese platters hardly seemed worthy of a review. I honestly thought it would quietly fade away or morph into a sports bar for the local Italian stallions.
Then, about two months ago, I began hearing some tantalizing whispers: DiVino had hired a new chef and sommelier, both newly arrived from out of town. Well, let me tell you - these guys haven't just turned the place around; they're shaking it upside down.
Admittedly, branding has not been one of their greatest strengths. The restaurant still plays second fiddle to the adjacent ice cream parlour, which is bizarrely touted above sleekly screened windows with a giant neon sign that screams "GELATERIA DOLCE AMORE" in electric blue and banana yellow.
The garish exterior does give way to a comfortably modish interior, smartly clad in dark wood, slate floors, dim back lighting and bottle-lined walls.
But it isn't until you are seated and start thumbing through the thick, leather-bound, 900-bottle reserve wine list that you suddenly realize something quite different is happening here.
Krug? Chateau Palmer? Sassicaia? Ornellaia? The list includes just about everything superstar wine critic Robert Parker has ever drooled over - many in lengthy vertical collections and several at unbelievable prices, if you happen to be in the market for such extravagant tipples. Think Chateau Latour 1988 for $450.
Owner Ted Grippo is a serious wine collector (thus the transition from gelato to grapes). Last summer, a jovial Austrian sommelier by the name of David Fert arrived in Vancouver and strolled onto DiVino's outdoor patio for a drink. Mr. Fert, who has worked at some very hoity-toity restaurants in Europe, somehow convinced Mr. Grippo to hire him on the spot and open his private cellar to the restaurant.
Mr. Fert, who is as endearingly excitable on the phone as he is consummately professional on the floor, recently launched the DiVino Bordeaux Club, which gathers every second Sunday in the month for a $299, seven-course meal paired with a lip-smacking array of trophy wines: Meursault Les Grands Charrons 1996, Chateau Pavie 1998, Chateau Cheval Blanc 1999 and Château D'Yquem 1991, to namedrop a few. After asking around, I discover that this free-for-all wine club is - or was - one of the hottest insider secrets in town.
The regular wine list, while less spectacular, includes an interesting range of about 20 boutique labels. And although not advertised (though it would be nice if it were), the bar is apparently well stocked with a rotating selection of mid-priced "spec" bottles (which means they're not listed at the BCLDB).
Okay, the wines are fabulous. But so is the food.
We start with a charcuterie platter ($18) that includes grilled focaccia brushed with olive oil, a jar of homemade pickles and four lovely house-cured meats - none of which, unfortunately, our waitress is able to identify.
"I'm only here once a week, so I'm usually flying by the seat of my pants," she apologizes.
Luckily, she has support. Even though the restaurant is going full-tilt with a private party of 20, chef Jefferson Alvarez takes the time to steal away from the kitchen and walk us through the menu. As the night goes on, we watch him personally attend to every table.
He steers us well. Duck on toast ($13) is an ambrosial slice of thick, fluffy brioche that is spread with a molten layer of foie gras mousse, piled high with shredded duck confit and bedecked with wild amarena cherries.
Wuxi-style pork ($14), served with ginger-coconut risotto cake, is the perfect harmony of sweet and sour, crunch and tenderness. The pork is seared, braised and slowly simmered sous vide for 36 hours in a magical alchemy of spices (hickory, ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, star anise, Szechuan pepper and who knows what else). It tastes like something Toronto's Susur Lee might have conjured. And as the chef later explains, it is indeed a slightly modified recreation of Mr. Lee's signature dish.
Mr. Alvarez is an interesting cat. Born in Venezuela, raised in Toronto and schooled in famous kitchens all over the world, he has the restless type of resumé that would make traditional chefs frown.
At 16, he started off as a lowly kitchen grunt working at Centro for two of Toronto's top chefs, Marc Thuet and David Lee. He moved up to Canoe, where Anthony Walsh took him under his wing for a couple of years. Then roamed far and wide, doing short stints and stages all over - Morimoto in Philadelphia, Restaurant Arzak in San Sebastian and back to Toronto at Susur and Senses - soaking up a kaleidoscope of flavours, techniques and inspiration.
Looking for a new frontier where he could make his own mark, the 31-year-old chef, packed up his extensive spice collection and bought a one-way ticket to Vancouver. Once here, he responded to an ad on Craigslist and was hired at DiVino a few months ago.
Mr. Alvarez may fumble occasionally. Vanilla foam on warm chocolate cake ($8) is watery and tasteless. But he is obviously talented.
With only six induction burners and a small convection oven, he creates the most wonderful pan-fried goat cheese gnocchi ($13) - golden parcels of full-bodied gooeyness (with no potato or flour filler added), steamed in a deeply savoury chorizo and red-pepper sauce.
Although the chef professes deep admiration for the local bounty (fish, in particular), his modern fusion cuisine still flits all over the map. Tenderloin tataki ($15) with crispy potato noodles is edged in a nearly blackened, chimi churri crust that yields to buttery soft flesh is hardly the type of food you'd expect to find in an Italian wine bar.
But it certainly is bold, exciting and new for Vancouver. With passionate owners and partners behind him, Mr. Alvarez has great potential. It will be fascinating to watch - and taste - as this unassuming little wine bar develop.
DiVino Wine Bar, 1590 Commercial Dr., 604-258-0005