I would not usually review a restaurant twice in six months. But Blacktail has changed so dramatically – for the better – it deserves a second chance.
Let's start with the name, which used to be Blacktail Florist. Although ridiculous, it aptly reflected an identity crisis that tried (unsuccessfully) to reconcile nouveau-Scandinavian edible soils with molecular pop rock garnishes and a tiki lounge on the lower level. Tiki? Perhaps "florist" had something to do with leis and luaus. Your guess is as good as mine.
Now simply Blacktail, the restaurant has a new chef, new bartender and a new concept for the lounge, which serves as the test bar for an extremely promising kitchen that sticks to haute comfort food, local ingredients and classic techniques with subtle modernist flourishes.
Executive chef Geoff Rogers, a Top Chef Canada alumnus, comes to Vancouver from Calgary, where he honed his impressive culinary skills (which include whole-animal butchery and preserving his own produce) at such notable restaurants as Muse, River Café and Market.
Unlike many high-flying young chefs, he is well grounded in the basics. His Rangeland bison tartare is exquisitely cut to order so the edges are still satiny and the meat tastes robust. Precut tartare is one of my biggest pet peeves. If not served fresh, the raw meat begins leaching milky protein and becomes mushy. Mr. Rogers understands this. Garnished with a light splash of truffle oil, kale purée and buttery house-made spelt crackers, this bison tartare is one of the best in Vancouver.
Mr. Rogers also knows how to cook meat properly. Most restaurants today par-cook their proteins in sous-vide circulators – ostensibly to tenderize, but more so for convenience. When the meat has been slowly cooking in a sealed bag under tepid water, it does not take as long in the pan or oven. But the texture is sacrificed. It gets a bit gummy.
For the most part, this chef does not bother. His duck breast and pork chops are cooked from start to finish in good old cast iron. The traditional method may take longer, but the meat remains juicy and the fat is seared to melting, crispy tenderness. The bone-on chop is a fun play on a stadium hot dog, served with pretzel spaetzle, cabbage purée and pear mostarda.
When using modernist techniques, Mr. Rogers applies them intelligently. Take his Kusshi oysters, for example. He cooks them ever so slightly in a sous-vide circulator with a cucumber-horseradish marinade. The gentle heat lightly plumps the oysters while infusing the flesh with its own briny liquor. Some customers complained because they didn't like the texture, so he began serving them raw. But the sour cucumber-horseradish mignonette, portioned exactly the same as it was sous-vide, became overwhelming without the cooked brine. He says he has gone back to original recipe, customer complaints be damned, and I applaud him.
Heritage Angus beef short ribs are also given a 72-hour sous-vide bath. I like that he is trying to treat flavourful short ribs like steak rather than braising them into sticky porridge as everyone else does. And because this cut is not very tender to start, the sous-vide makes sense. But even though he sears the meat before and after, the thick cut lacks something. It could use a little Maldon salt for texture or perhaps a harder sear. That said, the dish's scalloped potato pave and Brussels sprouts are pretty amazing.
If dining in the lower lounge, you can try wild rice croquettes, bone marrow puffs, foie gras cinnamon buns and other test dishes that Mr. Rogers and his cooks are still tweaking.
A few of the dishes that have already passed go and moved upstairs to the regular menu could use a little more tweaking. Sourdough crackers in the anchovy romaine salad are thin and precariously sharp on the edges. Brown butter pappardelle with Parmesan cream, mushroom and textures of kale needs acid for brightness. (Kudos to the chef, nonetheless, for making both the bread and pasta from scratch.) Albacore tuna crudo is overwhelmed by smoked pork belly. A few small adjustments would transform all these dishes from very good to great.
And that's my prediction for Blacktail. With an entirely new staff, the service is still shaky. Arthur Wynne, who previously worked at The Union, Cascade Room and UVA Wine & Cocktail Bar, is a master mixologist. But his monosyllabic lounge-level bartender needs to grow a personality. And the room's plywood decor is still blandly unwelcoming.
But that chef is supertalented. I hope he does not go back to Calgary. With a little less second-guessing and a bit more time, he could become one of Vancouver's finest.