Modern fine dining has become a cultural minefield that is almost impossible to navigate. It can be starched and stuffy or austerely casual, and everything in between.
Then along comes Mission and suddenly the path is clear. In so many ways, this is precisely the dining experience that Vancouver craves right now.
Mission is a neighbourhood restaurant (yet is also sure to become a destination) that suddenly sprouted without much warning in a tiny nook where several wannabes quickly withered. If seated in the front bay window, you might notice the surprised looks from curious pedestrians strolling by and peeking in. There’s a restaurant here? Who knew?
The room isn’t fancy, but it’s not bad looking. Red brick walls have been painted bright white, and arched cathedral ceilings give the budget retro fit some interesting architectural structure.
Chef-owner, Curtis Luk is somewhat famous, but hardly a star. On the second season of Top Chef Canada, he played wingman to runner-up Trevor Bird, the owner of nearby Fable restaurant. Mr. Luk was the opening chef-de-cuisine at Fable (where he presumably met his present business partner, sommelier and former general manager Chase McLeod), before moving to the Parker and Bambudda.
Apparently, they’re all still friends. The couple sitting beside us was sent from Fable because it was full. Later on, when Mission reached capacity, we overheard the hostess sending walk-in patrons there. Now, that’s neighbourly.
Like so many others, Mission is a farm-to-table/nose-to-tail/root-to-stem restaurant. Yet, the menu practices more than it preaches. If the highly knowledgeable servers don’t mention it, you probably won’t even notice that the sweetly browned turnips on the roasted duck dish are accompanied by the same vegetable’s lightly sautéed leaves.
Speaking of vegetables, the kitchen pays them much more than lip service. There are two tasting menus: four courses for $45, or six courses for $65. Both are available as a vegetarian option (and can be easily adapted for vegans).
Even if you opt for meat and seafood, there likely will be only one or two courses that didn’t grow from soil. If you’re lucky, it might be the lusciously moist smoked salmon, which is rolled and draped over a small house-made blini, set opposite a quenelle of white crème fraîche dotted with black lumpfish caviar. The perfectly composed plate will be strewn with tiny red specks of salty dried prawn roe. The plating is all very pretty without being precious.
There is some serious technique going on in this kitchen, but it never gets overly geeky. The most avant-garde dish we received was a pea and turnip “tart,” which was really just smashed peas overlaid with wondrously sweet turnip wedges and a flattened, whole grain crackling. There was a bright orange disc of nasturtium gel on one side and a dark scoop on “earthy condiment” on the other. The latter – a darkly yeasty umami bomb – was the only element on the entire menu that eluded our server. “It has a lot of mushrooms and at least 12 other ingredients in it,” he explained.
Other creative vegetable dishes included cauliflower “porridge” studded with crispy mustard greens, onions stuffed with charred onion butter and various textures of potato layered with foraged mushrooms and toasted walnuts. Every mouthful comes with an interesting crunch and countervailing flavour.
If you’re not in the mood for a tasting menu (although it is highly recommended), there is an à la carte lounge menu. This is where all the leftover stems, duck wings and odd bits go. Even the day-old house-made bread is crumbled into a crunchy coating for fried pork croquettes.
While the philosophy behind using every last bit of the animal or vegetable is to be admired, some of the lounge menu items do feel like afterthoughts. Whereas the tasting menu dishes are all so carefully composed, the pork schnitzel with peas and squash beignets is overly starchy without any freshness on the plate to brighten the palate.
If you stick to the tasting menu, do be sure to order the wine pairings. They’re all organic, biodynamic or natural, yet approachable. There wasn’t a single musty or oxidized stinker in the mix. Mr. McLeod, who brings every bottle to each table, is a wizard at matching and explaining. Only one of six courses failed to enhance the flavours of both food and wine.
The cocktails, stirred with fresh sage and grilled-apricot infused vodka, are excellent. The tasting menus include all the little extras – amuse bouche, palate cleanser, choice of cheese course for dessert. The attentiveness of service is remarkable.
The only major kink in the machinery is timing and flow. Some of the courses are slow to come out. But, even then, the servers are quick to apologize.
If Mission has the mandate to become one of the best new restaurants in Vancouver, I would say that it has already accomplished it. Bravo.Report Typo/Error