- Location: 165 W 2nd Ave., Vancouver
- Website: opheliakitchen.ca
- Phone: 604-800-5253
- Prices: Appetizers, $10 to $21; mains, $15 to $49
- Cuisine: Mexican casual fine-dining
- Hours: Open daily, 4 p.m. to 11 p.m., weekend brunch from noon
- Takeout: Limited menu, doordash.com
- Additional information: Reservations recommended; enclosed patio; 90-minute seating limits; tight COVID-19 safety compliance.
When life goes back to normal and the gang is searching for a festive place to gather, keep Ophelia in mind.
I’m not saying you must wait before visiting this modern Mexican restaurant, which the Flying Pig Group of Restaurants opened in Olympic Village last summer.
With its dark, handsome millwork, dramatic candelabras dripping waterfalls of melted wax, complexly layered salsas and deep selection of sipping mescals and tequila, Ophelia offers the exotic escape many of us are craving right now.
But on two recent visits, the restaurant’s potential felt lamentably unfulfilled.
Lively music rattled around the vast voids between tables, tangibly aching for boisterous shouting, clattering and slamming of shot glasses to inject the large room (regular capacity is 150 seats) with more vitality.
Brightly speckled folk-art sculptures of fantastical creatures, alebrijes, lurked in dark corners waiting for customers to get up and greet them.
Highly strung servers apologetically laid out the rules – including a strict, 90-minute dining limit – when seating us.
And executive chef Francisco Higareda stalked the floor, looking ready to pounce; his typical exuberance, which (in my experience) has always burst through the phone in long streams of animated chatter, obscured by a sombre cloak of worry.
Of course he worries. Everybody’s worried. And the COVID compromises that afflict Ophelia are by no fault its own.
But for Mr. Higareda, who is also a first-time partner, they must be especially hard. This restaurant, named after his mother, was pretty much built around him. And the menu – a hybrid of family recipes, fine-dining technique and fully composed plates for Canadian palates – is a singular expression of his experience, or “taste memory” as he prefers to call it.
Mr. Higareda, who did his culinary training at the prestigious Ambrosia Centro Culinario in Mexico City, has worked at many acclaimed fine-dining restaurants, including Pujol in Mexico City and Spain’s Restaurante Arzak.
He was hired from Mexico, sight unseen, to fill a labour shortage at Flying Pig. And then quickly promoted to helm WildTale, the group’s sister restaurant in Yaletown, after owners John Crook and Erik Heck realized his depth of talent.
When a second WildTale in Olympic Village failed to resonate with the neighbourhood, the owners planned on turning it into a Tex-Mex joint. Mr. Higareda wasn’t really interested in burritos, but asked them to consider something more upscale.
The deal was sealed last winter, after Mr. Higareda collaborated with the Mexican culinary titan Guillermo Gonzalez Beristain at the Dine Out Vancouver Festival World Chef Exchange. I had the pleasure of attending that dinner and was just as impressed as his bosses.
Ophelia was never meant to be a tasting-menu restaurant. But COVID-19 – the restaurant was slated to launch a week after the industry-wide closings last March – forced some adjustments.
Tacos now figure prominently. And they’re fantastic tacos, especially the taco de arracherra, with its dinosaur slab of molten bone marrow, lacy grilled-cheese skirt and tender-pink slices of skirt steak marinated for four days.
Most of the tacos (the special menu on Margarita Mondays offers an even greater variety) are wrapped in wild-corn tortillas, made from scratch and delivered daily by El Chancho Tortilleria.
And they come with excellent red, green and white salsas (the latter is a happy emulsification accident that will eventually be sold by the bottle).
Unless you order takeout, that is. Oddly, there aren’t any salsas in the takeout kit. And I don’t really recommend you order anything from Ophelia for delivery or pickup. This isn’t food that travels well.
The dark house mole, which has been slowly evolving like a spicy, seedy, chocolatey sourdough mother since the chef started it last year, gets thick and sticky when cold.
The creamy, deeply roasted poblano sauce is wasted on dried-out enchiladas.
And the gorgeous plating – boxed up into a multitude of outrageously expensive plastic containers – gets lost in transportation.
The chef plays with textures in interesting ways that are best consumed straight out of the kitchen.
Chicharron de rib-eye, deep-fried nuggets of Cache Creek beef, are served with golden, crunchy, aged-cheddar cheese balls and “rustic” guacamole that has been refined through the Vitamix and a chinois sieve.
Raw ahi tuna is lightly splashed with lime and sesame oil on crisp, fresh tostadas. For the Baja Cali salad, he quickly cures the fish with salt and sugar for a firmer bite.
Corn-crusted octopus in a white mole brightened with mango is a mind-bender. The suctioned tentacles are splayed over the plate, looking forebodingly chewy. But then your teeth sink into a surprisingly creamy centre.
A smaller version of this dish was served at the Dine Out dinner last year and I don’t recall the octopus being quite so soft. I think the chef might be overdoing the sous-vide bath before deep-frying, but it’s also the bestselling item on the menu so it obviously has its fans.
The plating puzzles me. Most of the entrees come with rice or mashed potatoes (do try the fabulous cilantro rice if you can, a recipe of his mother’s that tastes like green risotto with a splash of sour cream) and sautéed kale, carrots or zucchini.
The vegetables are all tasty and perfectly cooked. Mr. Higareda says he’s composing the plates for comfort and Canadian tastes. But they kind of make Ophelia feel a little bit like a Mexican Cactus Club.
That’s not a bad comparison in my books.
The bar program hits very high with its finely crafted cocktails and small-lot organic wines, as many West Coast chains do these days.
The TVs around the bar add a bit of life to the room.
And a little something for everyone on the menu is what makes this restaurant ideal for groups.
But I don’t think chain-emulation was the intention.
Ophelia is meant to be one of a kind and will not be rolled out. Mr. Higareda and his partners are now scouting for a second location to create a more casual, pandemic-friendly concept. And eventually, there might be a third, upscale restaurant.
I look forward to seeing the latter. Perhaps it will come closer to what Ophelia could have been.
Plan your weekend with our Good Taste newsletter, offering wine advice and reviews, recipes, restaurant news and more. Sign up today.