Vancouverites sure do love their eggs. Although it is rare to find lineups outside dinner restaurants, good brunch spots routinely attract long waits. Café Medina, easily the best egg joint in the city, seems to have the longest waits of all – typically 90 minutes on weekends at its gorgeous new location.
The original Café Medina on Beatty Street catalyzed the upscale all-day breakfast trend when it opened in 2008 as a small Belgian waffle house that doubled as a private dining room for its sister restaurant, Chambar.
The pan-Mediterranean menu – spicy Moroccan meatballs, creamy orzo paella, slow cooked clay-pot tagines and almost everything topped with eggs – exploded in tandem with the restaurant's ever-growing popularity and never failed to please.
But when Chambar owners Nico and Karri Schuermans decided to move house with expanded breakfast and lunch offerings, Café Medina was bought out by their partner Robbie Kane, who moved it to a much larger, more central downtown location.
Opened in August under the boutique L'Hermitage Hotel, the spacious dining room features high ceilings, large street-facing windows, a waffle station, cocktail bar and open kitchen equipped with a blazing hot workhorse of a Forno oven. Film production designer Brian Kane (Robbie's brother) lacquered his set with distressed paint, mosaic tiles, industrial light fixtures, dark wood and mismatched antiques, lending it the warm, slinky patina of a Weimar Republic cabaret café.
Most exciting of all, Jonathan Chovancek has assumed command of the kitchen. The (up until now) undersung chef has worked in many esteemed restaurants, including Vancouver Island's Aerie Resort, Sooke Harbour House and Zambri's, before spending five years as chef de cuisine for Culinary Capers, the catering company. More recently, he and his partner, Lauren Mote, ran their own catering company, Kale & Nori Culinary Arts, which they closed after their other business venture, Bittered Sling Extracts, took off internationally.
This, however, is Mr. Chovancek's first role as an executive restaurant chef. And he has embraced it wholeheartedly, lightly tweaking Café Medina's big, bold classic dishes while colouring the menu with his own distinctive palette of vibrant spicing, restrained swirls of acidity, balanced textural contrasts and an enlightened respect for vegetarians and gluten-free diners.
All your favourites are still here, including the yeast-leavened Liege waffles with their crunchy molten-pearl sugar crust. Yet, discerning palates might notice that the paella is loaded with more vegetables and lime-brightened zest, while lamb meatballs have a lighter tomato stew and a tad more zip.
Harissa Pain Plat, one of the new-menu stars, is a playful variation on a burger. The chef stuffs split pita bread with ground beef spiked with hot-chili house-made harissa paste and preserved lemon and blasts it in the Forno oven until caramelized. He layers the sandwich with fresh, nutty hummus (made with Saskatchewan chickpeas), Lebanese tomato salsa (injected with more of that floral preserved lemon and the holy trinity of Medina spicing – coriander, cumin and fennel seed), a splash of baba ganoush and great greens (peppery arugula, spicy red mizuna, mustardy brassica) from UBC Farm.
Smoked sockeye, cured in Bittered Sling Marrakech bitters, is served with salad dressed with more of that beautiful preserved-lemon vinaigrette (brined for a full month), full-fat sesame yogurt and chopped pistachios that complement the silky salmon with nutty fudge chew.
When the restaurant expands its refrigeration facilities next year, the kitchen will make more charcuterie and bread. For now, they're playing with molasses-and-North African-spiced peameal bacon and a funky sourdough flatbread that combines Mr. Chovancek's own high-note starter with a deeper, earthier aged starter borrowed from one of his cook's fathers. Try it with the immensely addictive mascarpone-honey-and-black-pepper dipping sauce or a feature coca, a Barcelona-style flatbread pizza (the current version, with spicy lamb ragu and garlicy fig jam is utterly addictive).
Paying astute attention to modern eating habits, the chef makes almost all his base sauces and broths vegan-friendly, so dishes can be easily adapted on the fly. His seasonal squash soup, brightened with apple-cider vinegar and deepened with a roasted hazelnut puree, is a thick, rich, stomach-warming example of why meatier need not necessarily be better.
Mushroom fricassée, the chef's vegetarian/gluten-free variation on Medina's all-time bestseller, a braised short-rib fricassee, is another roasty, sherry-sumac-and-juniper spiced case in point.
Café Medina is a fantastic brunch joint, for now. And I can't think of a better venue to spend an afternoon lingering over great food and tonics. Do try Ms. Mote's bergamot and buttermilk cream soda with a shot of rum. (Skip the spiced mimosa—the cooked juice tastes flat).
Yet, I can't wait to see how it evolves with special-event dinners and feature cocktail and/or wine receptions. It's a unique space with special flavours. I'd like to hope those long lineups will ease up, but they probably won't. Just jump in.
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