Location: 4298 Fraser St., Vancouver
Prices: Shared plates: small, $10 to $17; medium, $19 to $23; large, $26 to $51; Jesus Take the Wheel, $55 a person.
Cuisine: Italian meets American barbecue
Hours: Wednesday to Sunday, 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Additional information: Reservations recommended. Strict COVID-19 safety compliance. Outdoor patio and food truck open from 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. subject to weather.
In 2020, the awards went dark. Or at least they did for this column. There were no best-of lists or year-end wraps. To do so would have felt not just inappropriate, but almost cruel – a feeble attempt to pretend the hospitality world was carrying on as usual, when clearly it was not.
That said, if I were to nominate a best new restaurant for 2020, Say Mercy! would be the top contender. Hands down. No doubt.
What makes the achievement more remarkable, and relevant, is that I had pretty much made up my mind even before I sat down in the dining room for the first time last week.
With Italian meets American barbecue as its unholy concept, Say Mercy! began garnering curious attention as soon as it opened its doors a year ago.
Sure, the two distant (both broadly regional) cuisines share a loose affinity for homespun hospitality, abundance around the table and making the most from humble ingredients.
You say grits, I say polenta.
But how far can barbecue sauce be stretched as a substitute for tomato paste?
To pull it off, this dastardly fusion would require a deft hand in the kitchen and a passionate team capable of scaling seemingly insurmountable odds.
On a promising note, the Collective Hospitality Group had already done the latter, having turned The Mackenzie Room, located across from the tent-city encampment at Oppenheimer Park, into a cozy destination for field-to-fork fare without ever feeling like a gentrified interloper.
And if anyone could pluck harmony from discordance, executive chef Sean Reeve – who was inspired to make cooking his career after starting in the dish pit at Montana’s BBQ & Bar in Mississauga, and later spent nine months studying at the prestigious Alma culinary arts academy in Colorno, Italy – certainly has the chops.
The Fraserhood eatery was only eight weeks old and barely hitting its stride when the pandemic hit and restaurants were ordered closed. In the midst of all that confusion, Say Mercy! quickly emerged from the din with a simple Band-Aid solution that soon became a lifeline and rallying cry: Staff meals.
Born from an immediate need to feed employees who had to be laid off, the wholesome, family friendly meals packed into 500-millilitre containers for easy reheating at home, included a $2 donation to the Greater Vancouver Food Bank and soon became a local phenomenon. About a dozen other restaurants joined the cause.
Between the two restaurants, the Collective Hospitality Group made up approximately 40 per cent of its revenues, enabling it to stay afloat, keep a few employees on the payroll before government supports came online and raise more than $4,000 for charity.
When the Temporary Expedited Patio Program rolled out in the summer, Say Mercy! was one of the first to hit the pavement – on a closed, tree-shaded section of East 27th abutting a public plaza (for which the restaurant took stewardship). With pastel picnic tables, twinkly fairy lights, an outdoor wine bar and full menu service from the restaurant, Say Mercy!’s B-Side was a fully conceived concept that injected true vitality into the neighbourhood.
In early July, I went with a girlfriend on a Saturday afternoon that slipped into early evening. We drank geeky natural wines, we chatted up a friendly stranger and his adorable puppy and slurped “clams disco” on the half-shell, a fun rendition of American-Italian clams casino topped with corn sabayon and a palate-popping tarragon pistou.
It was the most enjoyable dining experience in a summer that was otherwise harrowing. For a moment, I almost forgot about the whole crisis in our midst, whether restaurants would survive, if I could bear to get out of bed to try to write again next week.
These transcendent moments are what restaurant critics live for. B-Side provided all that and more, wrapped up with a turquoise surfboard on a humble East Van side street.
Come winter, B-Side gave me a similar lift on a rare sunny afternoon just before Christmas. I had just left a store in tears, unable to muster up a false sense of holiday cheer. Then I sat down at one of B-Side’s picnic tables, which had been raised on wooden decking to keep feet out of the muck, and downed a glass of thick, homemade eggnog.
The street was filled with families assembling DIY cedar wreaths and popcorn garlands, sold from a new pink-spangled food truck parked in the middle of the road. By happenstance, I sat down next to two acquaintances who were decorating cookies with runny frosting in plastic pouches. And for a few brief moments, as we bedazzled gingerbread snowmen with red and green sprinkles, the gloom subsided.
Last week, I finally went for dinner at Say Mercy!
The cozy room, wrapped in pale-green wainscoting, dimly lit by art deco light pendants, felt warm and welcoming despite the vast spaces between lonesome tables of two.
The service was attentive and confident, as though they’d been doing this forever.
The wine selection was a little less geeky, but still all biodynamic or natural and pleasantly approachable.
For dinner, we let “Jesus Take the Wheel” – a five-course tasting menu that is meant to be shared, also available for takeout and excellent value at $55 a person.
We started with a refreshing dorado crudo, a popular gulf coast fish also known as mahi-mahi, lightly dressed with Serrano-infused olive oil and a smoky carrot vinaigrette.
Buttermilk sweetbreads were presented as the chef’s ode to fried chicken, although he describes them as McNuggets, which is probably more apt because the meat was quite dense. I’m not sure if cold smoking does these tender glands any favour, but the sweet-and-sour quince agrodolce was an inspired seasonal dip on the side.
BBQ Bolognese surpassed all expectations with its meaty smoked pork butt ragu plumped up with pancetta hoisted over a tall mound of homemade bucatini cooked to the soft (comforting) side of al dente. It was sweet and smoky and utterly addictive, served with buttery Parker House rolls and cakey focaccia sliced thin like white bread.
Glazed pork hock was the pièce de résistance, shorn of its dimply skin but slowly smoked over hickory and apple wood for eight hours so the thick layer of outer fat rendered and crystallized into the soft, crispy texture of roasted chicken skin.
Slipping clean off the bone, the massive hunk of spicy meat was served over “dirty rice,” a hearty combination of farro, mortadella and fried slivers of pig ear.
Gobbling up the leftovers the next day, fork poised over sink, the Southern American meets Italian marriage made perfect sense.
Say Mercy! is food for the soul created by people who were able to pivot with grace under pressure and sow harmony out of hardship.
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