- Coquille Fine Seafood
- Location: 181 Carrall St., Vancouver
- Phone: 604-559-6009
- Website: coquillefineseafood.com
- Cuisine: Seafood
- Prices: Crudos, salads, sandwiches and small plates, $14 to $24; large plates, $17 to $31; seafood platters, $60 to $175
- Additional info: Open daily from 11:30 a.m. to midnight. Happy hours from 3 to 6 p.m. and from 9 p.m. until “late.” Reservations recommended.
- Rating system: Casual dining
There is nothing boring about Coquille Fine Seafood. The food is creative, the kitchen hums at a high level, the room is stylish, the playlist is awesome, the wines are delicious and the service is as refined as it can be. It is also an utterly baffling, schizophrenic experience that will jolt you in directions you could not possibly predict.
We arrive at the tail end of happy hour, just in time for half-priced oysters on the half shell and scallop ceviche. The latter is lightly dressed in a tangy, blood-orange tigre de leche. It’s all so fresh, summery and exactly what you would expect in such an elegant setting where the plush booths are shaped like Little Mermaid seashell thrones, the mahogany tables are inlaid with brass and the custom fin-like tiling is Spanish porcelain.
’Tis the season for spot prawns, so we obviously order a hot mess. Mmm. The charred tails are exceptionally plump and tossed in lush-green ramp butter, complementing their inherent sweetness with a wild-garlicky tingle. The deep-fried heads are thickly coated in fish-and-chips batter, which offers a thoroughly satiating crunch and pleasant change from delicately laced tempura. It’s familiar yet new, comforting but interesting and a perfect match for the house white – a crisp, mouth-coating sémillon from Lock & Worth. House wine at $12 a glass (only $6 during happy hour) doesn’t get much better.
Oh, what’s this? Albacore tuna “pastrami.” It might as well be canned tuna or even chicken after all that brining, curing and spicing. And what’s with the opalescent green sheen? “It looks like bacon that is about to go off,” says my companion, declaring the dish a “waste.” I agree that the dried-out slices don’t taste anything like fish and will concede that the preparation might be better suited to fatty spring salmon. Still, I admire the intention. Seafood restaurants are so often constrained by the straitjackets of tradition. Here is a rebel trying to kick out the jams. How often do you hear Thin Lizzy and the Clash shuffled into a fancy restaurant playlist?
Speaking of fancy, here comes the petrale sole – lightly pan-fried, stuffed with buttery duxelles and luxuriating in a thick, foamy bath of white chicken blanquette. It’s velvety, rich and classic French (even if the sauce has been slightly modernized by siphon aeration and the mushrooms tarted up with a West Coast splash of vinegar).
The petrale sole is what some might call poisson de L’Abattoir – reminiscent of the flavours at Coquille’s sister restaurant around the corner and a style of cooking that its regular customers probably expect. It’s a natural assumption for a new restaurant that is owned by Lee Cooper (executive chef-owner at L’Abattoir since it opened eight years ago), Nin Rai (an opening partner at L’Abattoir) and Jack Chen (opening sous chef at L’Abattoir and most recently its chef de cuisine).
Coquille, however, is not L’Abattoir. And the brand recognition, combined with all the other confusing elements, is probably more of a burden than a benefit.
This new restaurant was supposed to be fun and casual, which is likely why they’re serving all sorts of retro throwbacks such as creamy crab-and-shrimp rolls, soft-serve ice-cream sundaes and spinach dip in a hollowed out sourdough loaf − à la pumpernickel Knorr from the 1980s, although here using a whole Dungeness crab and priced beyond irony at $48.
The casual intentions somehow got lost in the upscale decor and “fine seafood” branding, which also completely fails to indicate that pungent pan-Asian flavours comprise about half the menu. Mr. Chen is an innovative, highly skilled, boundary-pushing chef with a knack for Asian flavours, and there are many wonderful dishes to be tried: lightly torched mackerel crudo layered with marinades and dressed in spicy tamari with freshly grated bonito; tender smoked sturgeon cooked down in a sticky Thai tamarind, black pepper and lime glaze; charred Brussels sprouts dressed in an excellent house-made XO sauce.
But let’s take the latter as an example of how easily freewheeling creativity can careen into chaos. I could eat that XO sauce with its bracingly salty ham and fishy dried seafood by the cupful. But I do not at all recommend eating it with petrale sole in a winsome chicken blanquette or with grilled asparagus showered in freshly shaved Parmesan. It obliterates everything. It makes no sense.
There are many treasures on this menu, but no map; the dishes are barely described, so diners have no idea what they’re ordering.
There is plenty of personality, but no clear identity. Light, raw and fresh, classic European, bold Asian and kitschy nostalgia offers an awful lot of choice – and chances of messing up by ordering completely incongruous dishes.
It doesn’t help that the plates are all served family style for sharing and staggered seemingly at random. How can a server even help navigate? They can’t and don’t.
I had to laugh when I read somewhere recently that Coquille’s casual-yet-elegant nautical decor is meant to evoke “a 1930s ocean liner meets The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Talk about an albatross around the neck. Any restaurant design that references Samuel Taylor Coleridge is a head trip just waiting to crash into a sea monster. And yet the metaphor is a fairly accurate reflection of Coquille’s overly ambitious inconsistencies. They’re trying to kill way too many birds with one stone and have no idea, yet, where they’re aiming.