Yew Restaurant and Bar
791 West Georgia St., Vancouver
$170 for dinner for two with wine, tax and tip
Vancouver has no shortage of overwrought seafood restaurants slinging sweet miso-glazed sablefish, oysters baked in wasabi mayonnaise and scallops slathered with foie gras. But why is so hard to find a simple, well-prepared piece of grilled fish in this town?
Ahoy, Yew. After jumping aboard the Four Seasons hotel last summer, executive chef Ned Bell is slowly turning its rebranded seafood restaurant around and steering it smoothly into largely uncharted waters.
His new dinner menu, launched last week, sweeps the deck clear of the Asian-fusion muddle left behind by Yew's outgoing restaurant chef and rights the flagship in a fresh, straightforward direction with dishes clearly categorized under "steamed fish," "grilled fish," "turf + fish," "not fish."
Grilled Arctic char is just that – a beautiful piece of silky pink flesh, brightly colour-blocked on a black cast-iron skillet with crisp green beans and smashed sweet potatoes. Although the faint whiff of gas spoils this filet's near-perfect sear, a discreet kiss of maple-rosemary brown butter sauce licked with vinegar pays respect to its delicate trout-like flavour and teases out a juicy blush.
Lobster poutine, so often overloaded into a creamy mush, is served here as it should always be – with huge hunks of firm claw meat bobbing alongside crisp Kennebec fries in a richly roasted shellfish stock that's lightly thickened to the thin side of bisque, sprinkled with tarragon salt and topped with crumbled fresh cheese.
Paella is luscious, velvety and bursting with seafood, with not a single mussel or sweet flash-frozen spot prawn overcooked.
A large-leafed Caesar salad is lightly dressed and draped with succulent, finger-sized white anchovies that are caught near Portland and locally brined (by Finest at Sea) without all the preservatives and overwhelming saltiness usually packed into cans. Even if you hate anchovies, these beauties are bound to convert you. If you're already a fan, their clean ocean flavour will whisk you off into a reverie of beachside tapas in sunny Spain.
So why haven't we tasted them elsewhere? Is it perhaps because the new Yew – with its clean, simple, elegantly executed seafood – really is in a class of its own?
Let's look at what else is out there. The food at Blue Water Café is elegant, but never simple. C restaurant is hopelessly cluttered and clumsy these days. Coast offers simply grilled fish, but it's more of a nightclub than a restaurant. Goldfish has recently abandoned its Asian-fusion focus, but has yet to prove itself. Go Fish, Fish Café and the Dundarave Fish Market are all extremely casual. The Boathouse? Don't be silly. That leaves Joe Fortes and the Fish House in Stanley Park, dated and dowdy tourist traps, but up until now, the best of the bunch.
Well, that's not exactly true. Vancouver's finest seafood is found in our Chinese and Japanese restaurants. But as cosmopolitan as we like to fancy ourselves, a live fish tank by the front door usually confounds more people than it compels. And sushi, widely adored as it may be, needn't always be the go-to default.
So when Yew rebranded five months ago with the ambitious goal of becoming "the city's premier seafood restaurant," it seemed like a win-win situation for downtown diners in search of a decent fish fry and a luxury hotel restaurant lacking a distinct identity.
Poor Yew. Was it only four years ago that the Four Seasons closed Chartwell's genteel doors and tore down the Garden Terrace to create this two-story showpiece etched in wood, metal and a glass-encased private dining room? Undeniably handsome, the dramatic space has bubbled as a vibrant cocktail lounge and held steady as the pre-eminent spot for weekday power lunches. But the restaurant's revolving roster of corporate-climbing chefs couldn't lure a local following over the ramped driveway, up the escalator and through the lobby. (The restaurant has no street presence whatsoever). And its kitchen-sink menus (boasting both pan-cultural breadth and farm-to-table depth) never really excited out-of-town guests. They just wanted to know where to go for great seafood.
Thus, the sea change. And new executive chef.
Raised in the Okanagan, Mr. Bell experienced a meteoric rise to fame, starting as Lumiere's opening sous chef straight out of school, quickly moving up to the helm of Toronto's Senses Restaurant (where he received rapturous critical praise), celebrity status on Food Network Canada and a partnership in his own restaurant, Kelowna's Cabana Bar & Grille, 12 years later.
But after landing at the Four Seasons last summer, he had to cool his jets. The revamp had already begun and the outgoing restaurant chef was rolling out a predictable Asian-fusion menu, replete with miso-glazed sablefish and a truly dreadful mushroom-coconut-sesame soup redolent of macaroon wrappers dragged over a scorched forest floor.
It took Mr. Bell almost six months to right the ship, but with his own crew in the kitchen and exceptionally talented brigade of servers to lean on, it looks like clear sailing from here. Even in the middle of Vancouver's Dine Out madness, when the new menu had just launched and the restaurant was unexpectedly slammed, dinner was as pitch-perfect as one would expect from the city's new premier seafood restaurant.