- Escobar Restaurant
- Location: 4245 Fraser St., Vancouver
- Phone: 604-873-4477
- Website: escobarvancouver.com
- Cuisine: Pan-Latin fusion
- Prices: Appetizers, $9 to $16; mains, $19 to $56
- Additional information: Open Tuesday to Sunday, 4 p.m. to late. Reservations accepted.
- Rating system: Casual dining
I feel for Wagner Moura, the brilliant Brazilian actor who played Pablo Escobar in the Netflix series Narcos. Not for the ridicule he endured from Colombians, who mocked his hastily acquired Spanish accent, or the internal conflicts that he must have suppressed to make a ruthless mass murderer seem loveable.
No, what I feel after dining at Escobar Restaurant, the new Vancouver bar and eatery named in homage to the notorious cocaine kingpin, is empathy for Mr. Moura’s impressive weight gain – 40 pounds for the first season.
The actor’s swaggering paunch filled out the role even more emphatically than his puppy-dog eyes or handlebar moustache. But it was too much for the actor. His cholesterol skyrocketed. He felt sick. So he went on a vegan diet and used prosthetics for Season 2, which couldn’t help but look slightly deflated what with that fake belly sagging like a lumpy cushion under the actor’s Benetton rugby shirt.
Escobar Restaurant also suffers, at times, from the glamorization of excess. Especially in its flamboyant kitchen, which lards every petal-strewn dish with great lashes of creamy aioli, wagyu fat, honey-soaked apricots or rosewater-whipped goat cheese. It’s too much.
You might have heard about this Fraserhood restaurant, which was picketed by protesters when it opened in May. Owners Alex Kyriazis and Ari Demosten, who previously ran the Eastwood pub in the same location, said they were “surprised” and “shocked” by the attention.
Oh, please. If they weren’t being deliberately provocative, why would the restaurant be described as “fun, fresh and a little bit dangerous” in the news release?
The sales pitch gets awfully convoluted after that, although it’s clear that the name is not “just a play on words,” as the owners also demurred to the press. The duality of the late drug lord, “a great man to some and a villain to others … is threaded throughout the restaurant, from the dishes to the décor to the atmosphere.”
Great man or villain, Mr. Escobar was certainly not handsome in any conventional sense. This restaurant, however, is extraordinarily good-looking. The whole room shimmers like a sultry smoky cat’s eye in glossy black tile, clean-edged white marble, supple purple leather and brushed brass.
The various seating areas are all so inviting, it’s hard to choose. There is a long stretch of connected tables down the centre of the room, which is perfect for large groups, and a cozy tufted-leather bench along the far wall. Outside, there is a wooden curbside patio, which is part of the city’s pilot parklet program, but not licensed and underused.
The liquor restriction seems odd since you can imbibe at the sidewalk seats in the front windows, which roll up to the ceiling. There is a bar running down the middle and stools on either side. It’s a fabulous al fresco perch that feels oh-so South American, especially on humid summer nights.
But perhaps the extra capacity is too much for the floor staff to handle. Our waiter, while attentive in the beginning, forgot to bring us sharing plates or cutlery, was slow to replenish drinks and disappeared frequently as the evening wore on.
There is an extensive gin-and-tonic list, with more than 20 types of gin. You pick your own Fever Tree tonic and are provided with a bowl of aromatics that include pink peppercorns, hibiscus flowers and ribbons of dried angelica root. Again, it’s a bit overwhelming, but fun. The original cocktails are dazzling, well-balanced confections.
The elaborate presentations are but a prelude to Sarah Kashani’s stunningly plated dishes that fuse the flavours of Latin America with her own Persian heritage. They are works of art sculpted into bird’s nests and towers, studded with vibrant pomegranate seeds, rose petals and cedar branches, then infused with intoxicating bouquets of lavender, orange, lemon and grapefruit.
The first bites are pleasant. Empanadas are luscious parcels of puff pastry stuffed with unctuous chorizo, egg and black olives, draped in creamy salsa verde electrified with tangy lemon balm. I love that she serves her tenderly braised baby octopus fully intact so that they look like little aliens floating in a buttery broth that is also rich with chorizo and olives.
But then the full-bodied flavours start feeling a little weighty. We have to unbuckle our belts to finish off something as seemingly light as grilled corn. Already sweet on their own, the cobs are plumped with crumbled feta and a luxuriant robe of lemon-dill-caper aioli.
The plates get even busier. Confit tuna is drowned in beefy, tongue-coating wagyu fat. It’s served with lemon-lavender toast that is as solid as soda bread and smeared with greasy oven-roasted tomatoes. Braised rabbit drizzled with honey is moored in a huge moat of soupy, puréed beets, which makes for an eye-catching Instagram frame, but is pointless on the palate.
Roasted quail is ridiculously overdone. Never mind that the meat is as dry as a wad of tissue paper and the spicy mole sauce is gravelly. The wild grains underneath are a saccharine fruit bomb loaded with rosewater, honey-soaked apricots, cedar cherries and salted walnuts.
By the time we dig into churro balls, as heavy as hockey pucks, we are totally spent. We can’t even appreciate the intricate bird’s nest spun from candy glass under which they are nestled in a pool of salted rosemary caramel.
The glamour has fizzled. The excess of riches has beaten us senseless. We feel tired, defeated and ready to curl up into a corner. It’s all much, much too much.