Name: Hydra Estiatorio and Mezze Bar
Location: 825 W. Pender St., Vancouver
Prices: Restaurant dinner appetizers, $10 to $22, mains, $34 to $42+, sharing platters, $48 to $169
Additional information: Restaurant lunch, Monday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner, Tuesday to Sunday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Bar daily from 3 p.m.
Rating system: Casual dining
Hydra Estiatorio is apparently designed to make guests feel as though they’ve escaped to the Mediterranean.
If you really were on holiday, with the salty breeze blowing through your hair and a rosy blush on your cheeks, the bumbling service might actually seem funny. To wit:
Server: Would you like a six- or nine-ounce glass of white wine?
You: Six ounces.
Server: For everyone?
You: Yes, for everyone.
You (later): Uh, I didn’t mean one six-ounce glass to split among all four of us.
As for the unseasoned, grey-fleshed, $89 leg of lamb served lukewarm with a nearly raw side of vegetables that might as well have been poured out of a frozen grocery-store bag.
If it was washed down with a shot of ouzo and you had nothing but lazy beach time on the horizon, you probably wouldn’t care. You’d brush the place off as an overpriced tourist trap and try to choose better the next day.
But Hydra Estiatorio is not in the Greek Isles. It’s an upscale restaurant that opened six months ago on the second floor of Vancouver’s swish new EXchange Hotel.
After poor early reviews, including a thrashing in Vancouver Magazine that labelled it a “dumpster fire of a restaurant,” the general manager says they “took some of the criticism to heart,” but ultimately doubled down on “the interpretation of Greek tradition that the chef likes to follow.”
So now, after giving Hydra the benefit of the doubt and plenty of time to get its act together, you are definitely not amused.
You stand at the restaurant entrance being studiously ignored by several servers. While patiently waiting, you notice an empty raw bar backed by maybe half-a-dozen whole fish on ice. It’s not exactly the extravagant display of “impeccable seafood flown in fresh from the Mediterranean” that you had imagined.
You ignore the claw-foot bathtub set in front of a green wall garden lit up in neon. It’s for Instagram selfies, obviously, although more commonly found in nightclubs. It feels oddly out of place in this otherwise elegant dining room with buttery leather chairs, shimmery sheers and a beautiful showpiece chandelier with hundreds of fine-porcelain fish dangling from a soaring ceiling.
You’re here tonight because the family style platters are 15 per cent off when you order two or more. And those family style platters – the only items that look remotely interesting on a menu “intended to be explored and shared with friends and family” – are not cheap.
A whole seabream (weighing approximately 2.5 pounds) is $69. It’s not large enough for your party of four, the waitress informs, recommending instead the $169 seabass. (The seabass is actually a five-pound fagri flown in from New Zealand, the general manager later explains by e-mail, when you are trying to figure out why a plain old seabass would cost so much.)
You ask the server if she could send over the sommelier or someone who can help you choose a red wine for the lamb, because it’s obviously all Greek to her.
The GM suggests two varietals: one that tastes like merlot and one that tastes like syrah. That’s the extent of his descriptions. You choose the merlot. It tastes like Syrah. While he’s uncorking the red wine, you are still waiting for that one six-ounce glass of white wine that is somehow supposed to be divided among four people.
The food comes out a lot faster, almost as though they hope the velocity will keep you from noticing how horrible it all is.
The chunky melitzana (eggplant dip) has a nice smoky undercurrent. But the spicy xtipiti (feta cheese) tastes similar to spiceless Philadelphia cream cheese. It doesn’t come with enough toasted pita bread. The manager offers you more, but he doesn’t tell you that the refill is $9.
That same manager expertly debones the seabream at your tableside. He tells you that only VIPs get tableside service. This isn’t true. But since the Vancouver Magazine panning of a tableside mangling, everyone who handles the whole fish must now pass a deboning test. The fish is mild, tasting only of the charred lemon that is squeezed overtop.
The lamb is presented on a wooden board while you are still working on the fish. It is a monster of a leg, with a nice crackly exterior, and you are momentarily excited. It is whisked back to the kitchen, where it is chopped into bite-sized pieces that are shockingly bland and greasy.
The vegetables are another flavourless joke: hard broccoli, carrots and whole radishes over a bed of leaf lettuce as soggy as a wet paper towel. Greek potatoes are pale, undercooked fries shaped like tongue depressors.
On Sunday night, the service is a mess. Nobody removes the menus after you have ordered. Not even when you start waving them in the air. After dinner, a timid food runner nervously circles the table. About 10 minutes later, a cook emerges from the kitchen and clears the dirty dishes.
After paying the bill – which the server has forgotten to discount – you place your coat-check ticket on the table. The manager is standing nearby, talking to the cook, who seems to spend more time on the floor than in the kitchen. He ignores the ticket. He doesn’t even look in your direction.
So much for VIP service. You obviously got the cheap holiday package.