Name: The Magnet
Location: 309 West Pender St., Vancouver
Cuisine: Beer parlour with elevated pub grub
Additional information: Open daily from 4 p.m. (3 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday) to 11:30 p.m.; closed holidays, no reservations, no phone, counter service.
Rating system: Cheap eats
A summer pudding trail on social media is a strange way of finding your favourite new beer parlour. And yet, it was this obscure British dessert – sliced white bread soaked in fruit juices – that first attracted me to The Magnet.
A couple of weeks ago, the sous chef at St. Lawrence, who makes their sensational pâté en croûte, posted a photo of three summer pudding terrines – a hot-pink tableau of ripe berry lusciousness – he had whipped up for a staff barbecue. Colin Johnson’s Instagram feed promptly erupted in a frenzy of virtual salivation and envious moans. Always a gentleman, he directed his followers to Paul Finlay, a fellow British-born chef, who has been making a similar pudding at the Magnet. And it looked just as drool-worthy.
I was a little surprised that I hadn’t heard of this new venture, launched in April by the pioneering team behind the Alibi Room (Vancouver’s first craft-beer bar) and Brassneck Brewery (one of the city’s first and still most popular tasting lounges). Nigel Springthorpe and Raya Armstrong, who own the Magnet along with Brassneck’s head brewer, Conrad Gmoser, and general contractor Cam Johnson, are like the godparents of the local craft-brewing renaissance.
For serious beer lovers, this is a major opening. For everyone else, the Magnet is a next-level beer parlour with a bright, bubbly personality, diverse beverage selection and delicious pub grub that even non-beer drinkers will love.
The location, kitty corner to Vancouver Community College, is off the beaten craft-beer track, yet close enough to Gastown and convenient for people who work downtown.
Built on the solid architectural bones of a brick heritage-esque building, the long, narrow space – filled with plants, splashed with colour and considerately fitted with sound-absorbing baffling – still feels light and airy. At least up front by the counter-service bar, for which the owners apologize too much.
Counter service is the wave of the future and we, as customers in a city too expensive to pay hospitality workers a living wage, must accept it.
With three bartenders and pay stations, the lineups aren’t long even when the room is busy. You can run a tab. And the food is delivered to the tables (alongside a mix of cozy wooden-slat booths and communal high-tops), which are regularly tended to and kept clean by friendly staff.
If you happen to be one of those craft-beer dilettantes who shied away from the West Coast scene after having your palate stripped by one too many bitter, hop-heavy IPAs (guilty as charged!), you might be surprised to discover how much the local flavours have evolved.
In addition to a long menu filled with all the usual suspects (lagers, pilsners, pale ales, IPA, porters and stouts), the Magnet has a second, equally extensive list of seasonal sour, fruit, saison and Belgian beers – alongside a few ciders and really interesting hybrids.
I enjoyed an elegant raspberry and fennel sour weisse from Field House in Abbotsford, a refreshing perry co-fermented with pinot noir grapes from Dominion Cider in Summerland and a delicately tart farmhouse ale refermented with spent cherries from the cult-favourite (but rarely seen in these parts) Jester King in Austin, Tex.
There were so many tantalizing varieties to choose from – sour ale aged in oak barrels with white figs and lemon peels (Cascade’s Figaro), barrel-aged blonde ale with apricots (Red Racer’s Roseate) – I could have kept drinking all night.
The beer and cider are almost all available in flights of three, five-ounce glasses for a very affordable $11. And if you feel like a trying a special release, you don’t have to order a whole bottle. The bar is equipped with a custom-built resealing device that doses bottles with a small squirt of CO2 (similar to the Coravin wine-preservation system) and keeps them fresh.
Still not sold on beer? Order a cocktail. They do a nice, compact list of classics on tap, served over fat cubes of ice, pre-batched in collaboration with local craft distillers Odd Society and Resurrection. Or a natural wine. Or a Dickie’s ginger beer. There really is something here for everyone.
That includes Mr. Finlay’s kitchen, which puts out an inspired selection of comfort foods, all made from scratch with local twists and farm-fresh ingredients.
The chef, who most recently worked at Gudrun in Steveston, makes a daily hand-held pie with a terrifically sturdy, lard-ilicious hot-water crust.
His runny Scotch eggs are golden-fried in panko with a thick, fudgy filling of smoked salmon, poached-down steelhead and polenta. Pickled fennel and a spicy salsa verde lift it much higher than the average bar snack.
Mr. Finlay makes all his own pickles and sauces, including a creamy clove-kissed ketchup that comes with crispy fries.
Sandwiches include a lightly battered and snappy buttermilk-fried prawn on a squishy white bun with lots of pickled peppers and a bold smoked-sockeye mayo. The Two Rivers grass-fed beef burger looks amazing. And the vegan tofu sandwich with smashed yams and Thousand Island dressing is apparently a fan favourite.
There is actually a very interesting selection for vegans and vegetarians. I had a massive, again nicely fried, potato cake with paneer, butter curry and minted cucumbers. There are lentil balls with zucchini noodles and, coming soon, a Blue Heron cheese plate and a vegan pie.
There are larger plates, including Toulouse sausages, and intriguing terrines.
And last, but not least, that divine summer pudding with its sweet strawberry-saturated bread moulded in mason jars for individual portions. Crowned with berries, oozing tart coulis, set on thick English custard and garnished with fresh cream, it was the cherry on top of a better-than-average bar that hits high at all levels.