When it comes to patios, some people insist on majestic ocean views. Others are content with a little sun, a gentle breeze, cold drinks and good barbecue. If you're in the latter category and don't mind dining in an asphalt parking lot, have I got the gastropub for you.
You might know the location, at the corner of Robson and Beatty streets, across from B.C. Place's Terry Fox Plaza. Over the years, this curiously squat building (possibly the only one-storey structure left in the neighbourhood) has been home to a string of forgettable sports bars, including Courtnall's, The Dog Pound and Atlantic Trap & Gill.
Purchased in November, 2011, by Kevin Vollan (the Alberta-based pub-preneur who turned Edmonton's Average Joe's into the go-to destination for weekend warriors escaping the oil sands), the restaurant was last year renovated and launched as Back Forty Saloon. To Mr. Vollan's reported dismay, Vancouverites are not quite as thirsty as his customers in Alberta. But thanks to a talented young chef, Matthew Phillip, Back Forty now serves some of the best suds grub in the city.
Why is the food here better than all the rest? (Yes, I'm talking to you, Donnelly Group.) The first clue is the giant, 72-square-foot Johnson Smoker in the corner of the parking lot. To me it looks like an old-fashioned caboose. But this is actually a serious wood-burning rig, imported all the way from Texas, which is fired up on summer game nights for street-side sales of brisket and pulled-pork sandwiches.
Ambrosial as these tailgate specials might sound, regular diners are treated to similar caveman 'cue every day of the week. Mr. Phillip has a Cookshack smoker in the kitchen and a convenient supply of cherry– and applewood chips provided by a close friend who happens to be an arborist. How convenient.
The restaurant (outfitted in studded leather high tops) and patio (modestly appointed with wooden picnic tables and functional herb planters) smell like a Scandinavian sauna. Sedin brothers, take note for next season.
Back Forty's smokehouse favourites include the ultimate brunch item: Hangover Helper (for only $6), which consists of a cold can of Hell's Gate lager with a side of bacon – but not just any bacon. This thickly sliced double-smoked pork belly is crusted with a fat slathering of roughly ground peppercorns and packs high heat. I didn't sport a hangover the day I dined there, but I can tell that the bacon was absolutely crave-worthy as a $2 addition to the smoked scrambled eggs tacos in soft flour tortillas, plumped with a gorgeously light avocado "mousse" (pure avocado simply whipped with lime and salt).
Beef brisket was another solid smoked dish on the brunch menu. Meltingly tender and softly broken down, the underside flat cut was served between two butter-griddled slices of fresh sourdough with runny fried eggs and a rich sluice of lemony Hollandaise.
The pulled-pork po' boy was not the best I've ever had. The collagen in the pork butt was slightly blown out, giving the meat a puffy cardboard texture that sucked up all the fat and flavour. A bit more sauce could have saved it. But let's remember that this is pub food. And any chef who bothers making his own gluten-free granola for the sports crowd earns an automatic fan wave from me.
This is Mr. Phillip's first turn as an executive chef, but he has good pedigree. After graduating from Vancouver Community College, he did a five-year stint at the Fairmont Waterfront hotel, a year at Sooke Harbour House, another year at Cibo Trattoria (where he nurtured the restaurant's natural sourdough starter, which is still used and now more than four years old) and almost five years at the Jericho Tennis Club.
He's one of those chefs who will talk your ear off about the pristine tanginess of edible marigolds (which he grows on the patio's garden wall) and the functionality of frozen French fries (not worth chipping by hand when you have 500 covers on a game night).
Mr. Phillip's food is sensible, yet sensuous. Take the buttermilk-fried chicken bucket, for instance. He uses only dark-meat thighs with the skin on. But it's deboned for consistency. Crusty and juicy, the thick-battered tenders come with a ramekin of "liquid gold", an irresistibly addictive sauce made from demi-glace and herbed jus blended with maple-syrup-infused butter thickened with rice flour. Talk about a talking point. The chef also uses this golden gravy on poutine, making it one of the few gluten-free poutines in town.
There's a lot to enjoy here. The healthy options include a handmade quinoa-cashew vegan burger and the no-bun (iceburg lettuce-wrapped) beef burger. The not-so-healthy options include fastidiously layered nachos with house-smoked chicken or 35-cent chicken wings (on Thursday nights) drunk in a rich bourbon-barbecue sauce.
Though the cocktails strive to be innovative, they are not the most perfectly balanced around. But the beer here is cold. The service is exceptionally friendly. The prices are decent. And the view is what you make it. If Back Forty was relocated to Kitsilano Beach, it would be a grand slam home run.
No stars: Not recommended.
* Good, but won't blow a lot of minds
** Very good, with some standout qualities
*** Excellent, well above average with few caveats, if any.
**** Extraordinary, memorable, original, with near-perfect execution