There was no shortage of restaurant openings this year, but it was not by any means a normal year and I have yet to visit many of them.
It doesn’t feel right to resume an annual list of best new restaurants when public-health restrictions are still falling down the chimney like knobby lumps of coal and the very definition of a restaurant continues to evolve.
Some of my most memorable meals in the past 12 months have included fried-chicken takeout, a Holi festival feast from a ghost kitchen via an online grocery shop, a vegetarian pop-up at a modern rendition of an old-fashioned corner store, a temporary patio in a parking lot, curbside café pickup and a hole-in-the-wall that reinvented itself with fine-dining tasting menus.
So, in the spirit of never-ending pivots, my yearly list remains on pause. In its place I offer (in no particular order) the 12 Best Bites of 2021. These are the dishes that, even if fleeting and now unavailable, still swirl through my dreams like sugar plum fairies.
The Douce Coop Fried Chicken Dinner at Douce Diner
1490 Pemberton Ave., North Vancouver, 604-980-2510, doucediner.com
Sometimes all you need is a sandy beach, a cold beer and a bucket of juicy, buttermilk-brined fried chicken. Dawn Doucette’s Douce Coop chicken sustained and astonished me with its staying power – still warm and crunchy more than an hour after being picked up. The family packs, which come with fluffy biscuits, thick country gravy, tangy slaw, hot sauce and pickles, are rarely available in the winter. (Even in the summer, the special was a weekend-only offshoot for the all-day breakfast diner.) But this chicken is so darn finger-lickin’ good, it really should be scaled and rolled out as its own concept.
Sablefish Paturi by the Indian Pantry through Legends Haul
Colour me wowed. To celebrate India’s Holi festival, the folks at Legends Haul (a fabulous pandemic-pivot grocery delivery service) asked the folks at The Indian Pantry (an equally fabulous ghost kitchen turned catering company) to put together a Bengali meal kit. I had previously tried some of Tushar Tondvalkar’s exquisite festival feasts. They were phenomenally flavoured, but (like most takeout) lukewarm on arrival. This five-course package, however, was completely dialled-in and delivered par-cooked with easy-to-execute heating instructions. One dish in particular, the sablefish paturi marinated in mustard paste, coconut and turmeric, stood out. When I unwrapped the seared banana-leaf wrapper, inhaled the ginger-spiked headiness and sank my teeth into the pillowy soft fish, it truly tasted like a gift from the gods.
Poached Albacore Tuna at Phantom Creek Estates
4315 Black Sage Rd., Oliver, B.C., 250-498-8367, phantomcreekestates.com
I was lucky enough to visit this spectacular new South Okanagan winery restaurant in a brief window after the wildfires and before the floods. I strongly encourage you to go whenever you can. Chefs Sarah Fiore and Alessa Valdez are crack shots at showcasing fabulous local ingredients with gorgeous plating, tightly balanced flavours and dimensional pops of texture. I adored every plate, but the poached albacore tuna in a buttery vinaigrette punched up by gingery XO sauce, roasted sweet peppers and pickled shishito shone brightest.
Duck & Waffles at Arike Restaurant
1715 Davie St., Vancouver, 604-336-9774, arikerestaurant.com
I am loath to write about Arike’s latest incarnation as a fine-dining restaurant because they’re only open on weekends and serve five tables a night. But this modern-Nigerian chameleon, which started off doing casual Pacific Northwest renditions of West African standards and then pivoted to the best pandemic takeout in the city, is now specializing in five-course tasting menus paired with local natural wines. I loved it all, but Sam Olayinka’s perfectly rendered sous-vide duck (and I generally despise sous-vide anything) deserves special recognition. The cured fowl is brushed three times with a fermented locust-bean barbecue paste (notched up with brown butter, black garlic, Jamaican allspice and tamarind nectar). The thickly built crust, which makes a boldly fragrant counterpoint to the tender (but not remotely mushy) breast, is a textural marvel.
Sohm Dtam at Baan Lao
100 Bayview St., Richmond, B.C., 778-839-5711, baanlao.ca
I certainly didn’t love all the dishes at this formal, staggeringly expensive, Michelin-star-seeking Thai restaurant on the Steveston waterfront. Perhaps that’s because the rest paled in comparison with this dazzling, diminutive appetizer – more of an amuse bouche, quite frankly. Lilliputian morels of fresh green papaya were carved into cylinders, tossed in zesty lime dressing, adorned with an itsy-bitsy bouquet of edible flowers, cucumber and bird’s eye chili appliquéd with tweezers. It was set on a spoon in a thimble of tomato water that exploded with a pinpoint balance of sweet, salty, spicy and sour notes. It was an unforgettable bite, but a hard act to follow.
Melon by the Acorn Restaurant at Oh Carolina Café & Grocery
The Acorn: 3995 Main St., Vancouver, 604-566-9001, theacornrestaurant.ca
Oh Carolina: 580 East 12th Ave., Vancouver, 604-428-0705, ohcarolina.ca
Who knew there was magic in melon seeds? Devon Latte, executive chef at Vancouver’s venerable vegetarian Acorn Restaurant, has been trying to alchemize their fragrant potential for years. He has now actualized his vision in a caramelized Charentais vegan butter, which he showed off to its full potential at a late summer harvest dinner at the new Oh Carolina Café & Grocery. The creamy agrodolce, which cradled a charred corn salad dressed with smoked-cabbage lardons, momentarily made me rethink my whole relationship with dairy.
Whipped Ricotta Crostini at La Tana Wine Bar
635 Commercial Dr., Vancouver, 604-428-5462, caffelatana.ca
Phil Scarfone is the new culinary director of the Savio Volpe group of restaurants, but chef Vish Mayekar executes his vision and manages the day-to-day operations at Caffe La Tana and Pepino’s Spaghetti House. He is a rising star and it kind of boggles the mind that he came from Cactus Club. I should probably retract everything I’ve ever said about chain restaurants leading young cooks nowhere because Mr. Mayekar (who was also trained in India and is a member of Culinary Team Canada) sent me to seventh heaven on a fluffy focaccia sled topped with whipped ricotta, artisanal truffle honey, freshly shaved black truffles and crunchy sea salt.
Spotted Shrimp with Nootka Rose Honey at Burdock & Co.
2702 Main St., Vancouver, 604-879-0077, burdockandco.com
Very early in Andrea Carlson’s storied career, during a transformational season at Sooke Harbour House, she was taught by the indomitable Sinclair Philip to always refer to “spot prawns” by their correct classification: shrimp. I love that she still does this. What I love even more is how she has created a culinary language all her own, one that is rich in botanicals and respectful of ingredients. This spotted shrimp sashimi from a summer tasting menu was kissed with ambrosial Nootka rose honey vinaigrette and herbaceous garden-daylily ice. It captured the fleeting essence of a wild B.C. summer in every sweet, crisp, natural bite.
Whole Snapper Hot Pot at Landmark Hot Pot
4023 Cambie St., Vancouver, 604-872-2868, landmarkhotpot.com
The whole-fish hot pots at Landmark, one of Vancouver’s oldest and most lauded Cantonese seafood restaurants, never disappoint. They tasted even more delightful last summer when served in a stylishly appointed back-alley parking lot, which was one of the first temporary Chinese patios. We had a fresh snapper elegantly sliced into bite-sized portions for swishing in a silky, house-made broth with delicate tofu puffs and crunchy veggies. The fish bones, deep-fried and tossed in salty garlic, were served on a separate platter. Chicken wings dusted in sour-plum powder were the icing on the cake.
Bunny Burger at Kouign Café
18 East Pender St., Vancouver, 604-633-8333, thekouign.com
Andrew Han is best known for his whimsical Asian pastries, many inspired by his memories of growing up in Chinatown. But it was his electrifying mortadella sandwich, named in homage to the neighbourhood’s enduring Benny’s Market, that tapped my own Italian-heritage nostalgia and jolted it with a minty, lemongrass salsa verde twist. The thinly sliced meat is marinated in black-tea soy dashi, squished between a black sesame sourdough baguette, smeared with kimchi, swiped with Kewpie mayonnaise and finished with a glorious slice of melted Gouda cheese.
The D.I.C.E.D Burger at D.I.C.E.D. Discovery Café
1515 Discovery St., Vancouver, 778-997-8057, dicedculinary.com
Burgers have never gone out of style, but they certainly popped up with a vengeance this year. There were fancy dry-aged burgers (Pourhouse), stealthy smash burgers (Golden Era) and technically impressive panko-crusted burgers stuffed with molten cheese (Dosanko). But at $5.95, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better value burger than this wholesome, no-frills, quarter-pound classic. Lightly seasoned, griddled to a caramelized crisp and swaddled in a squishy potato bun, the D.I.C.E.D burger is topped with Canadian cheddar, crisp lettuce and a Big-Mac inspired vegan mayo sauce. What’s more, this hidden gem of a diner at the Jericho Hostel supports at-risk kids through an online culinary school.
Chorizo Verde Tostada at Alimentaria Mexicana
1596 Johnson St., Granville Island, Vancouver, 236-521-8440, alimentariamexicana.com
It’s actually pretty easy being green – or at least easy to eat your green beans and tomatillos when they’re roasted with chilies, ground with fatty pork and cased in a vibrant emerald sausage. Piled high on a crisp tortilla made from freshly nixtamalized heirloom corn, this stand-out tostada was just one of many great dishes at Granville Island’s new Mexican cantina, which doubles as a marketplace and supports 32 Indigenous communities in Oaxaca. The terrific chorizo is sourced closer to home – from Oyama Sausage Co. in the public market.
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