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Popina Canteen on Granville Island in Vancouver is no ordinary quick-service counter – it’s an innovative collaboration from four of Vancouver’s finest chefs.

BEN NELMS/The Globe and Mail

  • Popina Canteen
  • Location: 1691 Johnston St., Vancouver (Granville Island, next to ferry dock)
  • Phone: 604-428-7518
  • Website: popinacanteen.com
  • Prices: Sandwiches, salads and toast, $12 to $15 (lobster roll, $26); seafood trays, $120 and $180
  • Cuisine: Gourmet fast food
  • Additional information: Open daily, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; open-air counter service; liquor-licensed seating area.
  • Rating system: Casual dining

rating

It’s a gorgeous summer day in Vancouver. The skies are blue, the sun is scorching. I’m chugging across False Creek in an Aquabus ferry destined for Granville Island, feeling like a tourist in my own city. It’s been years since I’ve fought the weekend crowds at the vastly overrated Public Market. But Popina Canteen, located just outside its doors, could be a game-changer. If done right, it might actually become the city’s most essential seafood-dining experience. I’m as excited as a squawky seagull smashing mussel shells.

These are awfully lofty high hopes, I realize, to place on a fast-food counter slinging $12 avocado toast out of pop-art-painted shipping containers stationed in a former parking lot.

But Popina Canteen is no ordinary quick-service counter – it’s an innovative collaboration from four of Vancouver’s finest chefs: Angus An (Maenam, Fat Mao, Longtail Kitchen, Sen Pad Thai, Freebird Chicken Shack); Rob Belcham (Campagnolo, Campagnolo Roma); Hamid Salimian (Culinary Team Canada captain, VCC culinary instructor, formerly Diva at the Met); and Joel Watanabe (Kissa Tanto, Bao Bei).

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Popina Cantina general manager Berenice Balbuena prepares a seafood tray for two with dungeness crab on Aug. 7, 2018.

BEN NELMS/The Globe and Mail

That former parking lot is anchored on the edge of Granville Island, between the market and Bridges Restaurant, with designated seating that boasts panoramic waterfront views in a city where decent seaside dining options are few and far between.

And toast is the just the tip of a tantalizing menu that includes whole steamed crab, wild pink scallops on the shell, peel ‘n’ eat shrimp by the pound, premixed cocktails and half-bottles of sparkling wine. Or at least it sounds tantalizing until you start doing the math on certain dishes.

The name Popina is derived from “popinae,” ancient Roman wine bars that served simple meals and risqué entertainment to the lower classes. In interviews with other media outlets, Mr. Belcham has said that he and his partners want to bring elevated fast food to the masses.

Popina’s seafood trays are obviously an exception – and the first head-shaking letdown. There is nothing plebian about these prices: $120 (allegedly large enough to feed two people) and $180 (for four). This is comparable to the more amply stacked seafood towers at Boulevard and Ancora – fine-dining restaurants that feature walls, ceilings, padded chairs and full service.

The name Popina is derived from 'popinae,' ancient Roman wine bars that served simple meals and risqué entertainment to the lower classes.

BEN NELMS/The Globe and Mail

The smaller tray comes with either a steamed Dungeness crab or an East Coast lobster, four lightly dressed pink scallops (a local wild product with clam-like brininess and chewy texture), a small mason jar of beautifully bouncy pink-shrimp ceviche coated in fine-grated lime zest and another jar of albacore tuna crudo in a darkly tangy ponzu sauce. It’s all high-quality, sustainable seafood prepared with integrity, but there is not a whole lot of it. The tray is fleshed out with four sauces (more than necessary), which include a curiously smooth cocktail ketchup devoid of horseradish (or flavour) and an overpoweringly spicy nam jim.

While I fully understand that good seafood is expensive, these prices are ridiculous. Let’s take the 1.5-pound lobster, for example, which can be ordered on its own for $55 (Popina’s market price last weekend). The current retail price for a 1.5-pound lobster at nearby Lobster Man is $29.99. That’s a $25 markup – probably more, considering restaurants buy at wholesale rates. It’s no wonder Popina sells only two seafood trays, on average, each day and the peel ‘n’ eat shrimp (more accessible at $24/pound) is often sold out.

Although the seafood trays disappoint (big sigh), there is much more here to recommend. The sandwiches are amazing. There is a plump lobster roll stuffed into a buttery bun with about four ounces of creamy meat folded with oodles of crunchy celery and lemony tarragon. The beef burger, an old-fashioned griddled patty stacked with melted American cheese, crisp iceberg lettuce and a thousand-island-type sauce, tastes like the best Big Mac you’ve ever imagined. And the ruggedly crumbed green-chickpea falafel, bursting with zesty mint and tart sumac, is an unexpected showstopper.

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Popina's sandwich selection is where the restaurant really shines. A plump lobster roll, for instance, is stuffed into a buttery bun with about four ounces of creamy meat folded with oodles of crunchy celery and lemony tarragon.

BEN NELMS/The Globe and Mail

The open-faced toasts, towered high on thin, crunchy, sourdough pedestals, make for more elegant nibbles.

The salads really are quite exceptional for premade fast food served in grab-and-go paper bowls.

Unfortunately, the crinkle-cut French fries are horribly mealy. Go for the crispy battered, pencil-thin yam fries instead. And I really don’t understand all the hype over the “all-new Puffcream” – apparently a world’s first. It’s just a twist of relatively dense vanilla soft-serve ice cream served with a sliced puff of stale choux pastry and a sprinkle of tasteless dehydrated blueberries.

The open-faced toasts,such as the Albacore tuna, are towered high on thin, crunchy, sourdough pedestals and make for elegant nibbles.

BEN NELMS/The Globe and Mail

Popina opened just shy of a month ago and it only received its liquor license last week. I usually give new restaurants two to three months to sort out the kinks before I do a review – for good reason.

Service seems simple enough. You order at one side of the glossy shipping container and pick up at the other. So why is it so confusing?

Popina is a new concept, but it’s not rocket science. It needs more staff, better training, more prominent signage and a streamlined method of serving alcoholic drinks. If I’m paying fine-dining prices for a seafood tray, I shouldn’t have to order it from a clueless server, fumble around at the pickup counter, wait 15 minutes for a beverage (which doesn’t come up until after my food has already been served) and burn my bottom on a blazing-hot black metal bench that hasn’t been cleaned and is smeared with smoked-paprika aioli.

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That said, I haven’t given up hope. Popina Canteen could still be great, but it’s not there yet.

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