Location: 228 Lonsdale Ave., North Vancouver
Cuisine: West Coast, Asian-inspired farm-to-table
Prices: Dinner, shared plates, $6 to $40; five-course chef’s menu, $50 a person
Additional information: Open Wednesday to Sunday, brunch 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., dinner 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Dinner reservations recommended. Pickup and takeout available. Small patio.
Douglas Lee had me at house-made fermented and smoked chili oil: Finally, a young chef who hasn’t mislabelled his fiery condiment as an XO sauce.
Meatier than most of the crunchy chili crisps on the market, this enticing blend of 14 peppercorns smells and tastes a bit like chorizo with a numbing undercurrent of Sichuanese prickly ash.
The $4 ramekin of dark-crimson sludge comes with an understated “not mild at all” warning on the menu. But we were so busy dipping our sweet brioche milk buns while trying to identify the complex flavours, we were completely caught off-guard by the scorching inferno that sneaked up on the slow finish.
This is not a chili oil for the faint of palate. I swear it stripped the papillae right off my tongue and almost ruined the rest of the meal.
But it is bold, intense, totally unexpected and makes you sit up and notice. Much like everything else at this unassuming North Vancouver café, which is serving some of the most adventurous food in the Lower Mainland.
By day, Winston is a café that serves a wide selection of locally roasted coffee and brunch staples with intriguing twists – 99-hour-braised pork cheeks alongside the benny, for instance, or fluffy pandan toast with vanilla butter and Ovaltine condensed milk.
The bright, airy, minimalist space is simply decorated with plants and light pendants dangling from the double-height ceilings, polished cement floors, wooden accents, a cushioned window nook and a long communal table down the centre.
Opened on the cusp of the pandemic, Winston is owned by Andrew Boutilier, who also operates the daytime-only Koffie coffee house in downtown Vancouver. Gracious and soft-spoken, he reminds me of locally famous retired restaurateur John Bishop – a consummate professional who is too old to be called a hipster, but follows the latest trends (the restaurant’s all-natural wine list is his passion) while marching to his own beat and taking risks on a young punk in the kitchen.
Executive chef Douglas Lee, 24, has local experience at many of Vancouver’s best-known restaurants, including Hapa Izakaya, Joeys, Savio Volpe, L’Abattoir and Nightingale. But he probably learned the most while doing stagiaires at several super-influential restaurants in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Kyoto – which he requested remain unidentified because he was working illegally.
He was a total unknown before Winston, but has the making of a star. This includes having enough self-awareness to make his unfiltered Instagram account private, which he did recently.
Mr. Lee draws extensively on his Asian heritage (a mix of many cultures, he explained by phone, but mostly Cantonese) yet his cooking can’t be pigeon-holed. And although his menus are largely plant-forward, his meat dishes were the most memorable.
He’s obviously having a lot of fun with the à la carte dinner menu, for which the portions are huge and the flavours are wild.
Some menu items, such as the billionaire’s cabbage, with a charred, steak-like wedge served over a meaty “animal” ragu and a thick dusting of shaved truffled white cheddar, are successful.
Others, such as the greasy turnip baconator, with its bitter aftertaste, oily residue and “glowing” orange cheddar, not so much. This latter dish felt like a junk-food version of the former and could probably be eliminated.
But the BBQ lion’s mane mushrooms, rehydrated and sautéed to order in a buttery Chinese master oil (fortified and richened over time, like a master stock, from a base of fried shallots and onions) was absolutely delightful. The sweet flavours were anchored with cumin and brightened with fresh dill. The spongy texture of the mushrooms was balanced with the al dente toothiness of brunoised carrots. And the presentation, topped with plate-sized, puffed-rice, cracker-like cap, was an elegant play on the fungus theme. To me, it tasted like mapo tofu through the lens of a French chef.
Mr. Lee’s dry-aged half chicken was the pièce de résistance. Mr. Lee’s variation on a Peking duck is brined, cold-smoked and dried in the fridge for at least four days to safely add a slight whiff of umami funk. I assumed he cooked it in a Rational oven because the dark-mahogany skin had such crispy crackle, but was shocked to discover that it was actually painstakingly pan-roasted because his oven was on the blink.
If you are going to try this restaurant, I would strongly recommend the weekly changing dinner roulette tasting menu. The dishes, mostly adapted from the à la carte menu, are more refined. And at $50 for five courses, it’s one of the best deals in town.
Ours included quick-pickled kohlrabi, nicely selected so it wasn’t too watery, on a garlicky hummus with crispy chickpeas for a more satisfying mouth feel; smoky eggplant softened to plush silkiness on a complexly built parsley remoulade; blistered shishito peppers on a creamy horseradish raifort sauce with red sesame, briny nori and fresh herb oils; and a variation on the billionaire’s cabbage, which was more softly steamed, served with a sesame-and-ginger goma dressing and finished with house-made, barrel-aged soy.
By the time the final course rolled around, I was thoroughly impressed by the effort, creativity and finesse that went into every dish, but my palate was tiring from an overabundance of sesame – more coincidence than design, Mr. Lee says. And I was madly craving meat.
Mr. Lee delivered and ended the night on a high note with a sensationally tender, massively portioned beef shank ssam that had been brined, aged, slowly cooked and roasted to order, with crisp radicchio leaves for wrapping and a medley of tasty pickles and smoked mustard.
All of this was accompanied by exceptionally warm service and a flight of elegant natural wines that was a total steal for $25.
Winston would be right at home on Main Street. But what a nice surprise it is to find it out-of-the-box in the more generally staid environs of North Vancouver. Mr. Lee is a chef to watch. My only worry is that he’s working so hard he might burn himself out before the slow but certain hipster migration across the Burrard Inlet catches up with him.
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