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Lobster with lobster XO sauce and floss from Cioppino's Mediterranean Grill in Vancouver.Jackie Dives/The Globe and Mail

  • Cioppino’s Mediterranean Grill
  • Location: 1133 Hamilton St., Vancouver
  • Phone: 604-688-7466
  • Website: cioppinosyaletown.com
  • Prices: Appetizers, $18 to $88; mains, $32 to $48; degustation, $125
  • Cuisine: Modern Italian fine dining
  • Takeout: By special order
  • Hours: Lunch, Thursday and Friday, noon to 2 p.m.; dinner, Tuesday to Saturday, 5 p.m. to 10:30 pm
  • Additional information: Reservations recommended, widely spaced tables and several private rooms available, strict COVID-19 safety protocols, patio currently closed.

The changes to Cioppino’s Mediterranean Grill aren’t, at first glance, exactly clear. But there is definitely something fascinating happening here.

Last spring, while the rest of Vancouver was temporarily closed by a state of emergency order, this venerable Yaletown restaurant celebrated its 20th anniversary by carrying out a scheduled two-month, $2-million renovation.

The most dramatic difference is that the dividing wall between the main dining room and the former Enoteca (originally a casual sister restaurant that offered premium sushi) was torn down, opening up the space with a grand archway and central bar fitted with a 50-bottle By The Glass wine dispenser and preservation system. So now customers can treat themselves to a glass of 1995 Gaja Costa Russi Barbaresco, at $250 each.

The central bar is fitted with a 50-bottle By The Glass wine dispenser and preservation system.Jackie Dives/The Globe and Mail

But the overall aesthetic is still very much a warm, familiar blend of traditional Tuscan yellow and terra cotta wrapped up in a cozy, high-ceilinged, wood-and-beam warehouse.

“Modernity can be overrated,” chef Pino Posteraro said later by phone, noting that the backs on the new leather chairs, replacing heavy wooden ones, are already springing holes.

I remember those old chairs well, though not fondly. I wrote about having to lug them around when I worked here as a “critic turns waitress for a week” in 2010.

Since then, the term “waitress” has been deemed sexist, Mr. Posteraro has become a much kinder, gentler person who practises daily meditation and Cioppino’s has racked up numerous international awards, among them: 50 best Italian restaurants outside Italy (50 Top Italy); a rare three-fork designation from Gambero Rosso (the Italian equivalent of the Michelin star); and, for the chef, a Knight of the Order of the Star of Italy (by Italian President Sergio Mattarella).

Cioppino’s has racked up numerous international awards.Jackie Dives/The Globe and Mail

I haven’t been back to review the restaurant, mostly because I felt compromised after spending time behind the scenes. I now feel compelled to write about it, not just because excellent cooking deserves recognition, but because over the past decade, Cioppino’s has been quietly reinventing itself and the COVID-19 pandemic has amplified those changes persuasively.

When I visited last month, for the late seating on a Saturday, I realized that I was probably the only customer in the restaurant over 30.

“Fine dining is the new nightclub,” head sommelier Massimo Piscopo chuckled, noting that Elisa and Blue Water Café down the street are also now filled on weekends with a new, significantly younger clientele.

“They have to spend their money somewhere. We’re all changing with the times.”

This was, of course, before the new restrictions on social gatherings were announced and the restaurant was packed to reduced capacity.

Cioppino's recently celebrated its 20th anniversary.Jackie Dives/The Globe and Mail

How this crazy, rich 20-something clientele found their way to Cioppino’s is subject to debate.

If you ask Giampaolo Posteraro, the chef’s immensely charming son who was serving us that night, he’ll tell you that many of these new clients are his friends, the next generation of Vancouver gourmands, and he has been cultivating their patronage since he moved downtown last year.

And perhaps there’s some truth to this, since he kept disappearing and we found ourselves without cutlery for a couple of courses. (From my time here, I can assure you they take their 30-odd variations on silverware settings more seriously than most.)

“He doesn’t get it!” his father fumed, displaying a spark of that old temper, while dashing off to retrieve gourmet spoons for our seared Hokkaido scallops with fresh Alba truffles and spicy truffle XO sauce.

It’s modern cuisine, very much in keeping with current trends at the top restaurants in Italy, made with exquisite ingredients and adventurous technique: steamed ravioli, for example, filled with a Paradise Farms tomato and pata negra gelatin, which explodes in the mouth like a succulent xiaolongbao soup dumpling; or tender lobster tail with another Italian-inspired XO sauce (made with prosciutto trimmings, balsamic and molasses in place of lap cheong sausage and oyster sauce) and crunchy lobster floss (dehydrated into chips and spun by Thermomix into fragile threads).

Ravioli with calamari XO sauce and fried calamari.Jackie Dives/The Globe and Mail

It isn’t easy to monitor the mingling and mixing, but the safety protocols are rigorously upheld here. Long before masks were mandated indoors, they were giving them out to customers and making them wear them when moving around.

Wherever the new clientele comes from, it appears to have motivated the chef because his cooking is on fire.

I’ve always said that the daily changing degustation menu is the best way to experience Cioppino’s, but it was previously only available by word of mouth. Since reopening in June, it’s been prominently positioned at the centre of the menu, starting at $125 for six courses.

The cost does add up with supplemental caviar and truffles. For $200 each, we feasted like royalty. It began with bluefin tuna that was crimson red, fatty and perfectly seared around the edges, crowned with a fat dollop of buttery osetra caviar from northern Italy (but sourced from a cancelled Air Canada order). There was also fried calamari (with another calamari XO sauce) fried light as air in a gluten-free batter; a terrine of beef cheek with a hand-pressed foie gras torchon (concentrated with its own rendered fat) in an ambrosial dashi broth deepened with pine mushrooms; linguine in a zesty local urchin and onion broth with plump tongues of Hokkaido uni melting overtop; juicy wagyu in cherry jus; and a perfect chocolate soufflé.

In his quest to push boundaries, the chef occasionally goes overboard. The andouille powder accompanying a glazed Iberico ribeye was a little waxy. But that would be my only quibble and a tiny one.

And for those who want traditional, he also does the classics exceptionally well. At another midweek dinner, earlier in the evening when Sinatra was crooning from the speakers and the crowd was slightly older, I enjoyed a delicious plate of veal ragu alla Genovese (a regional specialty that is actually from Southern Italy) and magnificent sausages made from Te Mana lamb (the pasture-raised wagyu of New Zealand).

But the new young crowd is what I found most interesting. It’s great to see a favourite restaurant reinvent itself, COVID be damned. The only problem I foresee is what happens after last call. Where will these well-fed social butterflies go after the last drop of grappa is drained?

When I left, shortly after 10 p.m., there was a long lineup across the street at the private liquor store, which is open for another hour after all those packed restaurants close, leaving an awfully tempting loophole in the public health orders.

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