It was an oyster pairing, appropriately enough, that knocked my socks off – a dish so seemingly simple, yet not.
I was at Merchant's Oyster Bar for the Parallel 49 Brewing Co. dinner. Chef David Jackman took a Sawmill Bay Beach Gem and leavened its muscular brininess with a dollop of icy bay-laurel granita and a dusting of grated horseradish. Eaten on its own, the granita was overwhelmingly sweet. But when tasted with a swig of Tricycle Grapefruit Radler, the hop bitterness mellowed the sugar, the citrus notes brightened and the spicy horseradish popped.
I had already been impressed by the chef's wafer-light dehydrated vegetable crackers and silky liver parfait. Now I was positively smitten. Here was a chef who didn't just throw small twists at his regular repertoire for a special tasting dinner, but one who developed unique dishes perfectly suited for each drink because he understands the alchemy of filling in the flavour gaps and elevating each pairing to a sum that is more vibrant than its individual parts. Bravo.
This Commercial Drive room is a funny, adaptable little space. It opened as a humble wine bar named Divino before mutating into an avant-garde incubator under Jefferson Alvarez.
Doug Stephen and Francis Regio, who also own Gastown's Cork and Fin, took over the 36-seat room two years ago. They dusted off the immersion circulator, thermal mixer and other high-tech tools that had lain dormant in an otherwise ridiculously cramped kitchen (replete with home-style stove) since Mr. Alvarez departed, and turned it into forward-thinking oyster bar with a weekly changing special board. They did a decent job of creating a lively ambience and approachable menu with great oysters supplemented by fresh pasta, a bit of homemade charcuterie and local produce sourced from four community gardens. Then Mr. Jackman hopped on board in early winter and transformed the neighbourhood restaurant into a must-try destination.
Mr. Jackson's beef tartare is arguably the best in Vancouver. This isn't just because he chops it to order in perfectly diced cubes that maintain their toothsome texture. It's also the addition of pungent house-made sriracha (fermented for 30 days) and pickled shallots that make his raw steak dance on the tongue with a jubilant kick.
Other Asian influences, inspired by the chef's travels around Vietnam, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, include a house-made kimchi that adds light funk to baked oysters, a creamy bowl of cauliflower and bean-curd yuba noodles dressed up with Dungeness crab, grapefruit and purple mint.
I'm hesitant to recommend anything specific because the small-plate menu changes frequently and will probably rotate even faster this summer when the chef's chosen seedlings – radishes, purple broccoli, wild fennel, tomatoes, red gherkins and mustard greens among them – are daily harvested.
But I don't doubt that the menu (available in short tastings or à la carte) will always include dishes that are as beautifully plated as the pillowy pan-seared gnocchi I tried, which was garnished with flowers, herbs and black-garlic puree. I'm sure they will be as chock-full of freshness as my green garlic vichyssoise poured over pickled ramps and whey-fermented onions.
There may be occasional missteps, such as the overly fatty pork shoulder or an austere spring onion salad. But as with my smoked flank steak, gussied up with lemony buttermilk, minty herb oil and al dente potatoes, you will always find good value. And the desserts – think almond panna cotta in dilled rhubarb syrup with candied lemon peel and fresh lemon balm – will never be an afterthought.
Even if you don't feel like eating, Merchant's is an awesomely unpretentious place to drink. Mr. Stephen has created an excellent beverage program that comprises adventurous wines by the glass, an extensive selection of craft beer and great cocktails
Yes, Merchant's is an oyster bar. But it's so much more. It a fun, inventive, welcoming place that has given the traditional, Manhattan-chowder East Coast model a long-overdue West Coast spin.