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Spicy Tofu Tacos are pictured at Earls Ambleside in West Vancouver, British Columbia on August 13, 2018. (Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail)

BEN NELMS/The Globe and Mail

  • Earls Ambleside Beach
  • Location: 1375 Bellevue Ave., West Vancouver
  • Phone: 604-262-3632
  • Website: earls.ca
  • Cuisine: West Coast premium casual
  • Prices: Appetizers, $10 to $22.50; pizza, burgers and rice bowls, $14 to $25; mains, $22 to $40
  • Additional information: Open daily from 11 a.m. (9 a.m. Saturday and Sunday) to midnight. Reservations not accepted.
  • Ranking system: Casual dining

rating

West Vancouverites must be starving. Not for food, but for fun.

For a fancy beachside social club where they can saunter down from their secluded mansions in the mountains dressed to the nines in flouncy frocks and tan-linen suits.

For a buzzing cocktail lounge where they can squeeze up to the sleek wooden bar and everyone knows their name (or the names of their children, more likely) for a perfectly balanced, classic lime margarita while relishing the hour-long wait for a table. Sixty minutes! In sleepy West Vancouver?

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For an elegant patio where the cushions are plush, the plants are tropical and the sun shines at just the right ocean-reflected angle for weekend brunch. This neighbourhood, with some of the most expensive real estate in Canada, was made for leisurely brunching. There are dozens of places to go. And yet, people are lining up here with dogs and baby strollers before the restaurant even opens.

Earls Ambleside Beach in West Vancouver, B.C.

BEN NELMS/The Globe and Mail

This is the hottest place in town. It’s packed all day and late into the night. This is Earls. Earls Ambleside Beach, to be precise, the first location in the Canadian-owned chain restaurant group with its very own name.

Earls, which pretty much created the premium-casual category for all of North America and (love it or hate it) is still one of Vancouver’s most influential restaurant companies, has been expanding at a rapid pace in the United States. It has opened new-concept restaurants in the upscale suburbs of Boston, Chicago, Denver, Miami and beyond. But here in its home headquarters of B.C., there hasn’t been a new Earls in nearly a decade.

Earls Ambleside Beach adheres to the U.S. model of “unchaining the chain.” The new location was custom-tailored for West Vancouver. The design, the artwork, the expansive reserve wine list, the cold-brew coffee, the kombucha, the turmeric-laced tonics and many of the new food items were spun from a luxurious, West Coast-meets-California beach-vibe theme.

Chorizo mussel pot.

BEN NELMS/The Globe and Mail

The location – in the new Grosvenor Ambleside development, right across from the beach – is certainly to die-for. And the design is stunning. The ceilings soar, but are padded with dropped wooden panels to keep noise levels comfortable.

The waterside walls are three-storey windows and sliding doors, creating a seamless breezeway between patio and dining area. The furniture is sleekly styled modern midcentury. There is terracotta-tiled artwork, punchy paintings and statement chandeliers.

The service is as polished as the room. Nobody fumbles, nobody looks flustered. Everyone understands the menu inside-out and is unfailingly polite.

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So why does Earls Ambleside Beach deserve such a low star rating? Because the new menu is consistently – spectacularly – bad.

It starts off reasonably, in retrospect, with a chorizo mussel pot. Regularly priced at $25.50, you can get it for $30 on Thursday nights with two full glasses of Seven Terraces sauvignon blanc.

It’s a terrific value. Does it matter that the Salt Spring mussels taste a little too fishy? Or that the sweet chorizo has the same soft texture as a hot dog? Or that the broth tastes like cream of tomato soup blended with about five spices too many?

Like many of the new dishes, it’s overwrought. Take the lobster and pancetta pizza as another example. This is not the regular Earls pizza dough, which is usually very good. This is soft and buttery, almost pastry-like, with a thick layer of flour to soak up the greasy underside. The lobster is overcooked and rubbery, the wilted spinach pesto is bitter and the pancetta isn’t even pancetta – it’s some sort of crumbly sausage.

Lobster and pancetta pizza.

BEN NELMS/The Globe and Mail

When the kitchen isn’t trying too hard, it’s not trying hard enough. Spicy tofu tacos, one of the feature items on an expansive plant-based menu, are dull. These tacos would boast no discernible flavour at all if they weren’t served with sriracha – a lazy, garlic-heavy flavour bomb that keeps popping up all over the place.

There is sriracha in the otherwise bland ahi tuna poke bowl. And there is sriracha served on the side of the dim sum dumplings. The dumplings themselves aren’t horrible, but why would anyone consider it a good idea to serve delicate shrimp dumplings with the squeeze-bottle equivalent of spicy ketchup?

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There is also a lot of avocado on this menu. The fresh version is fine. The premade smashed version is grey and funky. It’s not run-of-the-mill oxidation. It’s suffering from sort of overripened, refrigerator chill that makes it taste swampy and murky.

The grey mash is a disaster on avocado toast, which is served on flabby multigrain bread that is toasted on the exterior, yet soft and cold in the centre.

Dim sum plate.

BEN NELMS/The Globe and Mail

The inedible avocado toast is replaced, at no additional charge, with eggs benedict. The hollandaise is orange, the medium eggs are runny, the toast is that same multigrain mush and the roasted potatoes appear to have been steamed because they are as soft as marshmallows.

These are the worst two meals I have ever eaten at an Earls restaurant – and I’ve eaten a lot of meals at Earls. I once followed their menu-development team for a year to write a magazine story. Earls is a chain that built its brand on serving consistently good food. It was one of the first to jump on the fresh, local, seasonal bandwagon. It has hired Iron Chefs, molecularists and farm-to-table enthusiasts.

Does unchaining the chain mean it has lost its mooring?

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