Good lord, here we go again.
So there I was last weekend at Ask For Luigi, quietly oohing and ahhing over golden crisped arancini when the trio at the next table started trash-talking my takedown of Mamie Taylor's. (No, they didn't recognize me even though two of them, I later discovered, work in the industry.)
"What didn't she like?" one guy asked.
"Everything," his friend replied.
"Seriously? The food there is great."
My eyes bugged out and I bit my tongue, but inside I was seething. "Are you kidding," I wanted to say to Mr. Delusional. "Take another bite of that divine duck ragu pappardelle. Taste the fresh acidity of those San Marzano tomatoes. Can you not tell that this garlicky sauce is perfectly seasoned and lightly cooked to order, not stewed into heavy sweetness as abounds in so much bad Italian food? Do you detect a tickle of chili at the back of your throat and notice how this slight yet integral dash of heat balances the fatty duck meat?
And you sitting across from him – yes you, the snobby one who sneered when I tried to initiate some chitchat earlier. You had the Sicilian meatballs. Did you notice how moist they were? That's because the meat is 100 per cent beef, ground in-house so the chef can cook them medium-rare. Did you taste the earthy creaminess of pine nuts and a kiss of sweetness from blended golden raisins? The raisins, traditional to the south of Italy, lend the meatballs an unexpected twist without becoming overwhelmingly saccharine (as might happen if they were, for example, stuffed with dates as they are at Mamie's).
"This is great food," I wanted to shout. "If you cannot tell the difference, you are culinary Philistines with doormats for taste buds and you might as well stop reading these columns because we are never going to agree about anything."
Of course I didn't say a word. At least not out loud. I save my passive-aggressive tendencies for my writing. I bid the boys a silent farewell as they sauntered off to Mamie's and dove into a sumptuous tangle of hand-made spaghetti sassed up with salty anchovies and the perfect textural crunch of breadcrumbs toasted in nutty brown butter.
Don't cry for Luigi. Given the long lineups out the door – before the restaurant opened that evening, when we arrived at 8 pm and late into the night – he has no shortage of fans that recognize his brilliance. The demand for his food was so popular he was forced to start offering lunch soon after opening last fall.
Owned by executive chef Jean-Christophe Poirier and his business partners at Pourhouse and Pizzeria Farina, this cozy little pasta joint is a casual expression of the serious talent Mr. Poirier acquired while cooking at Montreal's Restaurant Toqué, one of Canada's finest, Lumière in its glorious heyday under Rob Feenie and his short-lived (yet much-missed) Chow restaurant on South Granville.
This is a classically trained chef who understands that there are certain combinations of taste that create balance on a plate. Sure, there are endless variations of flavours in the world, which allows for constant creativity across cuisines. But when this elemental grounding isn't achieved, discerning palates will instinctively cringe, spit and sometimes gag.
Take devilled eggs with anchovies, for instance. The chef at Mamie's makes a similar appetizer. But there, the fish is laid bare in all its salty extremities. A dab of sweet romesco actually heightens the lip-puckering flavour. At Luigi, the boiled hen's egg is topped with salmon roe – which has the same over-the-top tangy effect. There are also droplets of caper-rich salsa verde on the plate, which makes you think, "Oh my god, this is going to give me gout." But it doesn't, because underneath everything is a creamy, yolky, spicy mayonnaise that sublimates all that salt and brings the dish into perfect balance. This is the difference between delicious and dreck.
I've eaten almost every dish at Ask For Luigi (except for the new brunch menu) and can honestly say that this consciousness of cooking is apparent across the board. Mr. Poirier's suppli a telefone (a rectangular version of risotto balls) is showered with lemon zest to leaven its gooey strings of mozzarella. His fried cauliflower – buried under a snowdrift of finely grated Parmesan – isn't blanched so it browns up nicely in the deep fryer. But the fresh chickpeas are soaked and par-cooked (almost overcooked) in vegetable stock so they're creamy on the inside and crunchy on the outside.
For the dinner menu, Mr. Poirier makes all his pasta from scratch – including a gluten-free tagliatelle pounded from corn and rice flour, potato starch and xantham gum. It tastes so fine you would never know the difference. His pappardelle, cut by knife, is a bit sticky and rustic around the edges. But in my mind, that simply adds desirable texture. This isn't fine dining.
The chef's bread isn't the most memorable in town. It's a bit soft and boring. But at least he's making the effort. And the lunch sandwiches need more than a swipe of hot mustard to calibrate all that meat and melted cheese.
But it is a beautiful room – completely changed from its former life as Two Chefs and A Table. (That tiny bathroom with its scandalous past when the now-arrested previous chef hid a camera somewhere in the vicinity will be a talking point for the ages.)
Designer Craig Stanghetta busted out of his delicate whitewashed oeuvre to create a 70's style, teak-panelled, rec-room that is subtly captivating. While general manager/sommelier Matthew Morgenstern (previously of Nicli Antica and Wildebeest) has compiled a highly impressive list of reasonably priced, off-the-beaten track wines. Ask him for pairings before ordering a bottle.
There are so many fantastic restaurants in Vancouver – and lots of duds too. But if you really want to understand my benchmark for a great casual standby, Ask For Luigi. This is a guy I respect.