Beach Bay Café and Patio could be the West End's pot of gold. If you follow the rainbow flags to the end of Davie Street, you will find this sparkling new restaurant at the corner of Denman Street, just steps away from English Bay beach.
The former Raincity Grill has been stripped down and draped in a dazzling coat of all-white paint. The interior is warmly minimalist, with pale wood accents and sepia-toned photographic murals. Precisely positioned mirrors and high-top tables take full advantage of the waterside views. A street-side patio popped with bright teal chairs soaks up the sun from noon until dusk. The makeover is fetching.
Viaggio Hospitality Group – a division of the Niradia development group, which has proved its dining mettle at Uva Wine Bar and Cibo Trattoria – recruited a first-rate team. General manager Andrea Vescovi, who is also overseeing the imminent launch of Ancora Waterfront Dining (formerly C Restaurant), hails from Blue Water Café. Luc Trottier, who leads the day-to-day operations, spent 13 years running Quattro At Whistler.
Scott Korzack, former sous chef at Gastown's award-wining L'Abattoir, is trying hard (although not always successfully) to make a farm-fresh mark with West Coast favourites deconstructed (literally and conceptually) through an haute-healthy Scandinavian lens. Even if you do not like the signature grilled kale salad – I hated it – you must admit that his light menu studded with bold flavours is perfectly paired with the room.
So why is the restaurant always empty? I've visited four times and walk by almost daily. I have never seen more than a handful of customers, mostly all sitting outside.
If I were one of the many tourists crawling all over this busy corner, I would certainly be enticed by lightly torched mackerel artfully nested in a tangle of crispy shallots and fat fava beans on a bed of creamy yet zippy mint dressing.
I would definitely order beef carpaccio (thick cut, richly marbled and locally raised by the restaurant owner), sprinkled with brunoised mushroom marmalade, toasted sunflower seeds and green peas so fresh they squeak.
And I would be thoroughly delighted with the chef's regional niçoise. The classic salad is reinvented with barely smoked steelhead trout, yet true to tradition with crunchy green beans, briny olives and a chopped-herb ravigote so brightly acidic your mouth automatically responds by saying "Yes, please. More wine."
An approachable, clearly formatted wine list also contains lots of local lusciousness to lap up.
Desserts, especially the flourless chocolate cake with forest-fragrant spruce-tip ice cream, satisfy as much as they intrigue.
But then again, there is much preciousness in the plating, which, as a neighbourhood resident – another important customer base in the densely populated West End – I don't exactly crave on a regular weeknight.
The striploin of beef is beautifully tender, served with thick grilled king mushrooms and radicchio-wrapped barley. But then there is an oddly tart jus gras (fat-richened reduced poultry stock) on one side and super-sweet plums on the other. Tasted together, they create a divine harmony of flavours. Tasted separately, they clunk.
As with several other dishes, including the risotto and Dungeness crab crèma with nasally sharp mustard daubed on the edge of the plate, this food requires effort and thought on behalf of the diner. It is more brainy than soulful. It is not what most people want to eat on a Tuesday night or a summer vacation.
Even when you put all the pieces together, some of it just does not add up. The cioppino, for instance, has been too cleanly dissected. The stew is a nice medley of seafood – black cod, salmon, mussels, onion, celery – all cooked separately to retain their flavour and textural integrity, as rarefied seafood dishes usually are.
But none of those flavours are imbued in the tomato broth. It is pure, plain tomato, almost like a canned tomato soup, with no perceptible taste of seafood or even celery to anchor it to the rest of the dish. And those hard, dehydrated garlic croutons? A couple of slices of the kitchen's fluffy, sweet pain au lait to mop up the broth would be far more welcome.
Then, there are the occasional blunders. I do believe a poached egg on the daily pasta is meant to be soft and oozing its yolk, not hard and squirting cooking water.
And is the side grilled kale salad really supposed to be burnt to a black, ash-like cinder? The herb ravigote so pleasantly folded into the niçoise is starkly mouth puckering without any starchy elements to mellow it.
I send the bowl back and tell the manager it is the worst salad I have ever had in my life.
"Really?" he says, before kindly deleting it from the bill. "Everyone loves it."
"Really?" I think to myself. "Well, where is 'everyone?'"
Raincity was a beloved local institution. Even when the restaurant went downhill, it was still packed.
The food at Beach Bay, for all its problems, is still much better than the dreck that was served in Raincity's final days (fried fish and what tasted like frozen chips for more than $20). Yet it is empty. It makes you wonder.
Whatever is turning diners off, something has to give. I imagine the menu will change soon. The chef's efforts are laudable, but they are not working here. And the owner is not going to maintain an empty restaurant on such prime real estate.