Location: Versante Hotel, 8499 Bridgeport Rd., Richmond
Cuisine: Opulent West Coast sharing plates
Prices: Dinner: small plates, $12 to $38; large plates, $28 to $32; platters, $58 to $215; full-board experience, $125 a person (two people minimum). Seafood brunch: $59.
Additional information: Open daily for breakfast, weekday lunch, weekend brunch and dinner. Reservations recommended. No takeout or patio.
At around 9 p.m. on a recent Saturday night, the dinner guests at Bruno burst into spontaneous applause.
They weren’t clapping for executive chef William Lew, even though many of his dishes, presented on driftwood platters and under billows of smoke, are highly theatrical.
Or the suave service from general manager Alessandro De Pieri and head waiter Ricardo Buyayo, who spins around the floor with arm twirls, heel kicks and the confident pizzazz of a Las Vegas showman.
Or even the fact that Bruno, located in the new boutique Versante Hotel, is Richmond’s only upscale Western restaurant of note now that the Origo Club is closed.
The dinner guests were clapping because the blazing overhead lights had finally been dimmed, casting welcome shadows into shiny corners and making the white-lacquered room look a little less like a cafeteria.
Hotel restaurants have the toughest job. Bruno, like others, is trying hard to be many things: fine-dining destination, daytime hangout for locals and accessible eatery for hotel guests (serving breakfast, lunch, weekend brunch and dinner). On top of all this, Bruno faces the challenge of appeasing Chinese customs while also being approachable to a wider clientele.
The lighting issue can be chalked up to cultural differences. Chinese restaurants are often brightly lit because Chinese people enjoy dining in a lively, loud, happy atmosphere. In Cantonese, the word for this is yeet lau, which, roughly translated, means hot festivity.
Bruno, located in the most Chinese city in the world outside of Asia, must accommodate those preferences. And this new hotel, which is adjoined to the International Trade Centre, is owned by the Changzhou-born, Vancouver-based property developer Michael Ching, who probably has many of his own preferences to boot.
That said, traditions are changing and some of the diners applauding that night were actually Chinese.
There are other food issues at Bruno that can’t be so easily explained.
Bruno doesn’t call itself a farm-to-table restaurant. This is probably only because all restaurants are trying to avoid that tired phrase these days. But its marketing materials do prominently reference “the influence of local farms and food artisans that supply its ingredients” and a desire to “showcase the best of British Columbia” in each dish.
And Mr. Lew, who was previously chef de cuisine at Notch 8 in the Fairmont Vancouver Hotel, is definitely trying to make visceral connections from tongue to terroir with his creative plating – some more successfully than others.
Local oysters, farmed near Mr. Ching’s coming hotel developments in the Comox Valley, are presented on a kelp-draped log anchored to the plate with edible sand made from dried nori. (For now, I will gloss over the fact the XO mignonette, which contains neither dried seafood nor Jinhua ham, is really just a chili crisp, not an XO sauce.)
Truffle lavender duck (nicely cooked but slightly tough and puffy, likely because the Fraser Valley duck isn’t organic) is a rich, foie-gras-spackled ode to the glamping domes on Mr. Ching’s Cortes Island lavender farm, served in a picnic basket.
Stanley Park is a nickname for The Iberico Tree, an elaborate display of hand-carved Cinco Jotas Bellota ham, hanging from slender branches planted in candied hazelnut soil with Neufchâtel tartlets tucked in a lofted nest. (This one is trying way too hard.)
So why is a kitchen deeply committed to the local bounty and sense of place offering tasteless green tomatoes (on the otherwise nicely textured fall burrata salad) and white-bellied strawberries (on cakey, pre-cooked Liege waffles served at brunch) in February?
There is no justification for any decent restaurant, no matter what it calls itself, to have those ingredients (most likely sourced from Mexico and California) on plates right now. And Mr. Lew, who is the former Ocean Wise chef for its sustainable seafood program, should know better.
Bruno is trying hard, very hard, to impress with its tableside razzle-dazzle and luxury ingredients. Some of it is wonderful. The kurobuta pork belly, presented under a smoking glass lid, is beautifully marinated in Asian aromatics, deep-fried for a crackling shell and glazed in sticky black garlic while still sizzling. Flakey, pull-apart croissant scrolls, flecked with rosemary and pecorino, are irresistible, especially when paired with a side of brûlée foie-gras butter.
But in its obvious attempt to capture the Instagram generation’s attention, the kitchen misses some of the basics. The risotto, folded with uni, crowned with king crab and bejewelled with ikura, is overcooked and soft.
At the lavish seafood brunch (an exceptional deal at $59 with optional buck-a-shuck-oysters), the English muffins for eggs benedict are cold and untoasted while the salmon-lobster topping is pulverized into a mush that looks like it came out of a can.
There is potential here, but for now it feels superficial. Much like the hotel itself, which features dramatically designed rooms with huge soaker tubs enclosed in their own heated shower rooms, but no sound-proofing, robes, hot water (it took 10 minutes to heat up in the morning) or room service.
I had a much better experience at Cask Whisky Bar, which is very dimly lit and located next door in the trade centre. And I’ll write about that soon.
But there are another three restaurants opening next door. Mr. Lew is overseeing all of them. This isn’t just a hotel, it’s a complex. I’m afraid he might be stretched too thin. I hope he has a lot of help, because I’d hate to see him booed off the stage.
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