Location: 1879 Powell St., Vancouver
Cuisine: Eclectic farm-to-table
Prices: Daily changing five-course-plus omakase, $68 (wine pairings, $58); à la carte, $8 to $36.
Additional information: Open Friday to Monday, 5 p.m. to midnight. Omakase reservations ($10 deposit); primarily kitchen-bar seating; can only accommodate groups of up to four people. No patio or takeout.
Now that the Michelin guide has released its first Toronto edition, we have a better idea of how the stars might align in Vancouver on Oct. 27. It is extremely unlikely that any restaurants here will receive two stars; three stars are definitely off the table.
But we could still shine in our own eco-friendly way by scoring some green stars, a new category that recognizes outstanding commitments to sustainability combined with culinary excellence. (Toronto wasn’t awarded any.)
Elephant, a tiny restaurant with a big focus on supporting farmers and spinning food scraps into gold, could be a serious contender.
The 18-seater charmer is located on the industrial margins of Strathcona, in the previously dark, grungy space occupied by the beloved burger joint Trans Am.
The action still revolves around an open-kitchen bar. But the now-minimalist room is barely recognizable. The gold toilet is gone. Cellphones are no longer verboten. And the graffiti has been covered in day-spa shades of grey, soothing satin finishes and one large-format painting of a pink radicchio leaf.
Co-owners Miki Ellis and Stephen Whiteside have been making their mark by taking chances on unusual collaborations in cozy neighbourhood spots.
And now they’ve partnered with the idiosyncratic Justin Lee, who you might know from social media and other reviews as Justin Ell.
The avid body builder and former rugby player once tried to change his name (unsuccessfully) because he was working at three restaurants around the city, had a gym membership in each neighbourhood and hated that his common surname slowed down the sign-ins.
The gym anecdote says a lot, not just about Mr. Lee’s fitness regimen, but also his relentless personal drive and pragmatism. They’ve all informed a distinct cooking style, centred around the creative use of offcuts and a mad-scientist approach to fermentation.
Fortunately, at least for anyone who recently dined at Elephant and had the pleasure of tasting his six-year-aged tuna loin katsuobushi and five-year-old halibut garum extract, he has cultivated patience.
Both ingredients have been incubating since his days at Crowbar, a gastropub on the Kingsway, where his dry-aged and intensely beefy neck and rib-eye cheeseburger attracted a cult following.
Even then, he leaned into dry aging as a way of making food healthier rather than a trendy pursuit of funky flavours. “Dry aging is basically a form of fermentation: The amino acids break down and enzymes are produced so it’s easier to digest,” he later explained by phone, adding that his biggest fear is imitating what others are doing. “If it’s funky, it’s off.”
His food doesn’t taste funky at all. Take, for instance, the five-year-old halibut garum – garum being the ancient Roman version of Thai fish sauce, which is still widely used in southern Italy.
The Elephant menu changes daily and Mr. Lee’s garum has probably now been used in many ways. But when I tried it, the sauce was a subtle bassline in a bright, refreshing garlic rice bowl made with perfectly fluffed aged basmati, dill, lemon, pickled turnips and crumbled peanuts. It was almost like a Caesar salad risotto with the halibut garum gently thumping through the creamy grains, anchoring everything else with an undercurrent of umami.
The katsuobushi, also known as bonito, had been simmered, smoked, fermented and dried into rock-hard slabs after Mr. Lee (back in the day) received an unexpectedly large skipjack order from New Zealand that couldn’t be returned and needed to be repurposed.
Don’t tell the Michelin inspectors, but the tuna is so fossilized it can’t even be shaved into flakes. Mr. Lee says it takes him a week and massive amounts of water to reconstitute the fish, which he pulls into shreds that look like pulled pork and tastes similar.
Mr. Lee has created a new burger that will no doubt earn its own cult following, but it’s only available after 10 p.m. This burger is made from beef heart, which is richly flavoured yet lean and easily digestible so it doesn’t weigh down the gut like a blubbery stone.
Mr. Lee doesn’t even advertise that the burger is made from heart, for fear of scaring off customers. And why should he? The most interesting feature of this burger is its incredibly crunchy crust – achieved, in part, by searing the thick patty in the heart’s visceral fat trim, which is rich on the lips, but clean on the tongue.
By-products, off-cuts, unloved vegetables and all the odd bits are integrated into every course, which can be ordered à la carte or from a very reasonably priced, five-course-plus tasting menu.
I honestly can’t tell you what that menu might include, because it changes so frequently and is often dictated by whatever surplus vegetables Mr. Lee’s farmer friends can’t offload.
It could include salted rabbit livers, salvaged from the whole rabbits previously used for a Thai laab and used in place of fermented shrimp paste on a nam prik sauce. Or an innovative XO sauce made from spot prawn brains and sablefish hearts, cradled in buttery greens.
There might be bitter chicories sweetened with apple in curry leaf vinaigrette, or churned into a semifreddo laced with brown-butter crumble that tastes exactly like Vietnamese iced coffee.
Or wagyu ragu (a burger byproduct, of sorts, from the Trans Am freezer) swaddled around yolky, hand-cut tajarin, followed by a Cantonese-style ginger pudding, set with buttermilk and using the excess egg whites from the pasta.
While this probably isn’t on the Michelin radar, one of the many things I admire about Elephant is that it’s only open Friday to Monday. Granted, I did not love this four-day work week when I was headed there on a Thursday night and only realized, en route, that the place was closed.
But with restaurants across the country falling like dominoes, inflation skyrocketing and labour in short supply, this is probably the restaurant’s most sustainable element and should, if not be rewarded, at least be emulated widely.