Sigh. This can sometimes be a very tough job. Contrary to popular belief, restaurant critics are not predisposed to hate everything. On the contrary, we dig into each new dish with the highest hopes of being swept off our feet. The reward is even sweeter when a lip-trembling experience comes from out of the blue. If anything, critics want to be the ones who discover all those little gems in the rough.
Such was the hope for Linh Café, a small bistro that came with glowing recommendations. "Best Vietnamese in Vancouver – but not really Vietnamese," confided a new acquaintance over dinner. "Mind blowing," wrote another gushing gourmet I hadn't seen for years. "Like nothing I've had before."
I was intrigued. The concept – a classic French bistro that also serves a few North Vietnamese specialties – certainly seemed interesting. Vietnamese cuisine has been so heavily influenced by French colonialism; it makes sense to combine both on one menu.
Owner chef Tai Nguyen moved to Vancouver from North Vietnam in 2001. He has worked with some of the best French chefs in the city: Jean-Yves Benoit (L'Emotion and Mistral); Alain Rayé (La Régalade) and his son Steeve cct Rayé (Café Régalade); Thierry Busset (Thierry). But when opening his own restaurant, he decided to marry his North Vietnamese heritage with French bistro fare by offering simple classics from both countries.
The Kitsilano restaurant, which looks virtually unchanged since its days as Café Régalade, is cozy and unpretentious. There's a chalkboard menu, glass counter, wooden chairs, red-painted tables, and dishes served in cast-iron skillets and on cutting boards lined with checkered wax paper.
A small beverage list offers a handful of decent French and B.C. wines in the $40-$50 range, one beer, Kronenbourg, and full-bodied Umbria coffee, served in either strong espresso pulls or sweetened with condensed milk, Vietnamese style.
Dinner gets off to a promising start with spicy baguettes smeared with robust chicken-and-pork liver paté, a hearty squeeze of garlicky house-made sriracha (more tangy than the store-bought variety) and fried shallots. This pared-down banh mi without the usual stuffing of herbs and pickled vegetables is common to North Vietnam. But here, the chef has baked his own chewy, crusty mini-baguettes – the size of éclairs – and closed them tight for easy eating.
Lamb chops (two is the minimum order) are another winning appetizer. Grilled to perfection with juicy red flesh and charred smoky fat, they're served in a bed with a creamy, sharply piquant pepper sauce and smattering of crisp, golden, thick-cut fries.
Slowly braised chicken fricassee falls off the fork in its brightly acidic bath of tomato confit and preserved lemon. Served with couscous on the side, it's hearty yet light and perfect for summer.
Bun cha noodle soup, a lighter version of pho based around clear catfish broth, is a rarely found North Vietnamese specialty. Yet, rare as it is, I've had much better (at Mr. Red Café). Here, the broth is served bobbing with chewy grilled meatballs (as opposed to softly boiled), which might be a French influence. Fresh herbs, vermicelli and (slightly greasy) spring rolls come on the side. Add them to the broth to your liking. The broth, however, is overly sweet. It needs nuoc cham, a chili-and-garlic-infused rice vinegar, for seasoning. In most Vietnamese restaurants, the condiment is a staple table setting. At Linh Café, you unfortunately have to ask for it. A tiny spoonful makes all the difference. It really should come with the dish.
The next time I visited was a hot, sticky summer night. I had already tried most of the lighter dishes. The thought of the rest of dishes made my stomach lurch. Cassoulet, braised short ribs, confit duck with mashed potatoes – these are belly warmers better suited for winter.
So what did we do? Ordered the heaviest dish on the menu – poutine slathered with Swiss cheese, ham and a runny poached egg. (You can upgrade with a lobster tail.) Again, the fries were golden perfection. But the heavy-handed pepper sauce was almost palate numbing. I wish we'd ordered it as a main course.
Salad rolls, all lettuce and vermicelli with barely a speck of pork or herbs buried inside, were total duds. Again, we weren't offered any nuoc cham for seasoning.
The main courses came in a flash, obviously because they weren't timed properly and had been wilting under a hot lamp. The market fish special was fried ling cod. The delicate collar, attached to spindly bones, was lusciously translucent and tender. But the lumpen belly was overcooked and flaky. A thick ginger-soy sauce was sweet and sticky.
Rather than a second main course, we ordered two appetizers – Lyonnais salad and crispy veal sweetbreads. The former was limp and drowned in dressing, with congealed poached eggs and thick slices of crispy bacon in place of the usual delicately cubed lardon. The latter was thickly battered and deep-fried with a lemon-pepper sauce on the side. The crisp coating would probably be great on chicken wings, but not so great with fickle thymus glands, which lost all their desired tenderness and tasted rubbery.
All in all, the meal was uncomfortably heavy and lacking finesse. Perhaps my hopes were too high (which, I suppose, can almost be as bad as a negative predisposition).
Maybe I've been ruined by excellent North Vietnamese food and simply empathize with diners who might be blown away by something new. But to me, Linh Café is merely a good neighbourhood restaurant with a somewhat unusual menu. It's not a gem.