- Boulevard Kitchen & Oyster Bar
- Location: 845 Burrard St., Vancouver
- Phone: 604-642-2900
- Website: boulevardvancouver.ca
- Cuisine: Seafood, West Coast
- Prices: Dinner appetizers, $19 to $26; mains, $28 to $55; tasting menu, $95
- Additional information: Open daily, 6:30 a.m. to 1 a.m.; reservations accepted
- Rating system: Fine dining
I can’t imagine a worse table. In the maze-like collection of cubbyholes that makes up Boulevard Kitchen & Oyster Bar, we are seated in a secondary dining room with doorways opening on every side. Booming laughter and clattering silverware invade from all directions, making us feel nearly as tormented as Westworld’s Dolores caught in a repetitive loop before she goes on a rampage.
It’s been nearly four years since this fine-dining restaurant opened in Vancouver’s Sutton Place Hotel and some things haven’t changed: the interior layout is still a mess that can’t be disguised by any amount of luxe leather booths or topiary trees outside.
Fortunately, the kitchen found a clear way out from its own hobbled start. And the transformation is deserving of the many accolades (including Vancouver Magazine’s Best Upscale Restaurant and Chef of the Year) that have recently been bestowed upon executive chef Alex Chen and his team.
At first glance, the menu hasn’t changed much. For a seafood-focused restaurant, there is still an awful lot of foie gras and wagyu to be ordered between caviar courses and seafood towers. And, as is necessary in an all-purpose hotel restaurant that serves many types of visitors, the options range from lounge-happy chicken wings to a multicourse tasting menu.
But something else has awakened. There is more finesse in the creative flourishes, tighter control over technique and greater elegance in the plating.
Take beef carpaccio, for instance. In the beginning, the meat was micro-shaved into cling-wrap layers that had to be practically peeled off slate platters. I can still hear the grating sound of scraping forks. It was like grafting skin from a chalkboard with sharp fingernails.
Nowadays, the beef is pounded to a thicker, more sumptuous texture that melts in the mouth, not on the plate. The garnish is still anchored by porcini aioli and tuile, but it’s been fleshed out with juicy pickled shiitakes, bright dots of spring-pea emulsion and crunchy almond shards. Oh, and the greens now appear to be freshly snipped from an urban cultivator rather than scooped out of a plastic clamshell.
How about yellowtail sashimi? Back when Boulevard opened, it was drowned in a sour vinegar bath, reminiscent of Nobu in the late 1980s. Then again, I almost didn’t taste that dish in 2014 because the service was so slack they forgot to ring in my full order.
These days, the smooth service is vastly improved and those luscious slices of fish are fanned around the plate with a swirl of puffed nori-rice crackers, little quail eggs set ramen-like with soy gel, shiso two-ways (spicy leaves and creamy bavarois), pickled kohlrabi and tiny hon shimeji mushroom caps. There are at least a dozen turns on this seemingly simple dish and the effort can be tasted if every lockstep counterpoint.
Despite being sat at the worst possible seat in a badly conceived house, I enjoy this return visit immensely. We also have squeaky-seared foie gras showered in several variations of hazelnuts; silk-flaked halibut crusted with buttery bone marrow, fork-tender short rib regally draped in a glossy demi-glace robe with the most amazing peas (fresh-shelled and emulsified with tarragon); and a lamb duo that takes my breath away with its zesty za’atar seasoning and creamy-crispy cakes of roasted-red-pepper panisse.
Desserts? Wow. I remember being utterly underwhelmed by a red-velvet cake layered with cutesy florets of cream-cheese frosting that looked as though it belonged at an eight-year-old’s birthday party. Today, your inner child can still be placated with a tableside “candy store” that rolls up on a trolley laden with gooey marshmallow strings. But the pastry team has seriously improved its game with a decidedly grown-up chocolate soufflé and a salted-sesame praline bar wrapped around mousse so buoyant it could probably walk on water.
So what changed? Everything and nothing. I’d like to think that Alex Chen was chosen chef of the year not just because he emerged victorious at the Canadian Culinary Championship’s Gold Medal Plates, but because he’s a great leader. It was recently announced that he was promoted to executive chef of signature restaurants for future Sutton Place hotels. Chef de cuisine Roger Ma took his place.
Should I have held the review? Some people thought I should because a whole new narrative is about to unfold. But that’s not the case. This menu already has Mr. Ma’s stamp all over it, and has for some time. That’s because Mr. Chen is a consummate professional who knows how to mentor his right hands and guide them up the ladder without letting ego get in the way.
Now it’s time for Mr. Ma to take Boulevard to the next level and he still has his work cut out for him. As much as I enjoyed that first visit, the second was disappointing. I went for the tasting menu. The first course was local sea urchin harvested about three weeks past its prime – dry and smelling of dirty socks.
The second course was a duo of asparagus: a spindly green variety from California that was served a little early; and a mushy white specimen from Europe that was on its last legs.
The main course was duck – a beautiful pressed breast that had been stuffed with slow-cooked leg blended into a farce with foie gras and truffles. It was the exact same duck breast (with new accoutrements) featured on the tasting menu in December.
It doesn’t matter how spectacular this one signature duck breast might be or how long it takes a mammoth hotel operation to jump-start its many creaky moving parts into change. A truly excellent fine-dining restaurant does not feature the same dish for six months running on its showcase menu, or serve fresh vegetables and shellfish out of peak season. Especially not when they’re stuck with such a terrible setting and charging some of the highest prices around.
Boulevard has improved. But if this is at good as it gets – if Boulevard really is the best upscale restaurant in all of Vancouver – then this city is living in a robotic theme park as fictitious as Westworld and our culinary scene is in trouble.