How nice to see the Opus Hotel all grown up again! It was roughly two years ago that the boutique Yaletown hotel closed Elixir, its respected French brasserie. In what looked like a desperate grab for liquor revenues, the hotel owners coursed through a succession of pseudo-underground pop-ups – 100 Days, 100 Nights, et cetera.
The graffiti-scrawled booze cans, although perhaps beneficial for the bottom line, must have alienated at least two serious guests for every bridge-and-tunnel partier they attracted. Even its last incarnation as Cento Notti (100 Nights, in Italian) was merely a half-hearted attempt at a semi-upscale restaurant, replete with cheesy Michelangelo-esque torsos in the windows.
But like many a midlife crisis, the jiggy Opus era has mellowed into a more mature new beginning. In September, the hotel partnered with renowned local chefs Adam Pegg and Lucais Symes, relaunching as La Pentola della Quercia (the saucepan from La Quercia).
The new space is definitely a step up for the hotel. La Pentola is by no means a nightclub. It's a respectable restaurant decked with mosaic-tiled floors and bright bursts of orchids gleaming in the reflection of shiny copper pots hung on creamy white clapboard.
But it's a slight step down for Kitsilano's La Quercia, named by Vancouver magazine as the city's best new restaurant in 2009 and restaurant of the year in 2011.
For a slow-food darling (Mr. Pegg was one of the first Canadians to complete Italcook's Slow Food Master Italian Cooking program), the La Quercia brand has expanded awfully fast. First there was La Ghianda, which opened around the corner from the flagship restaurant as a casual lunchtime deli, but has recently acquired a liquor license and turned into a late-night boite. Then there's L'Officio, an enoteca wine bar adjacent to La Quercia that launched this week. And most significantly, La Pentola.
The demands of a downtown hotel restaurant three times the size of the original 32-seat cubbyhole are obviously quite different. Remarkably, La Quercia (acorn in Italian) has spread its seeds without sacrificing too much integrity.
This menu may be slightly more rigid (changing every couple of months rather than daily) and a little less daring (note that squab has now been replaced with Cornish hen).
But La Quercia's basic philosophies – using high-quality, natural ingredients for food focused on the hearty, northern Italian regional of Trentino-Alto Adige, Piedmont and Abruzzo, where Mr. Pegg studied and staged – remain the same. And its fans will no doubt appreciate not having to wait up to two months for a table, typical at La Quercia, although reservations for La Pentola are still highly recommended, especially on weekends.
Foolishly, I didn't call ahead and ended up sitting at the bar on a recent Friday night. But even when perched around the marble horseshoe where many Jagermeister shooters once spilled, I was pleased to find the service as polished and professional as it has always been at La Quercia.
Befitting a hotel restaurant of ambition, the almost all-Italian wine list is a grandiose tribute to quality with surprisingly low markups. A bottle of 2007 Tenuta Marchese Antinori Chianti Classico Riserva (only $70 here, compared to $56 in a private wine store) went down swell with a briny plate of deep-fried, mortadella-stuffed olives.
The olives were a simple bar snack. (For an appetizer more sophisticated, I'd suggest the sublimely savoury, golden-crusted, twice-baked parmigiano soufflé.) But they were awfully salty. By contrast, a wild mushroom risotto was notably bland. Seasoning is an art, and it's one that appears to be lacking, or at the very least inconsistent, in this kitchen.
Heat is another troubling issue. I tried three pasta dishes over two visits. They included pansotti (a fancy name for ravioli) stuffed with kale and ricotta in a creamy walnut sauce; mafalda all'Amatriciana (long, ribbon-edged pappardelle in a tomato sauce steeped with smoky pork cheek); and agnolitti di Guido (pinched parcels of herbed veal, taught by the two-Michelin-starred master).
The flavours were all incredibly delicious. But the noodles were all served slightly cold. At first, I thought the tepid temperatures could be blamed on early pre-rolling and blanching. Mr. Symes, however, swears that the homemade pastas (malfada not included) are all hand-cut and cooked to order. The problem, he explains, has to do with broken heat lamps and the long distances each dish must travel from the basement kitchen to upstairs dining room.
That's not a good-enough excuse. Especially not when pasta comprises a third of the menu.
I'll accept lukewarm trout, especially when it's been slowly poached, rolled with mousse and served on a creamy carrot purée and tendrils of cured zucchini. And I'll happily devour blood-red lamb chops when the flavour is this lean and clean.
But if the pasta is cold, an Italian restaurant is simply not hot – no matter the lineage or how far it's evolved.
- No stars: Not recommended.
- One star: Good, but won't blow a lot of minds.
- Two stars: Very good, with some standout qualities.
- Three stars: Excellent, with few caveats, if any.
- Four stars: Extraordinary, with near-perfect execution.
- A Cheap Eats pick: Where you can dine well for less than $30 before alcohol, tax and tip.