Décor is not CinCin's greatest asset. This venerable Robson Street ristorante, part of the Top Table Group recently bought by the Aquilini family, looks like a high-priced Tuscan tourist trap.
The terra-cotta tiles, sponge-painted mustard sandstone walls and renaissance statuary – leaping stags and Roman busts – may have been chic when CinCin opened a quarter-century ago. Today, it just feels sadly dated.
But try to see beyond the gaudy trimmings and schmaltzy music, because the kitchen has a shiny new showpiece. To celebrate its 25th anniversary, CinCin got rid of its cracked, creaky Forno pizza oven and hauled in a massive, aviation-grade stainless steel Grillworks Infierno.
Often described as the "Rolls-Royce of grills," this wood-burning behemoth boasts a central fire station, four modular grilling stations with downward-slanted V-shaped slats to direct run-off fat, a rear-mounted fire cage, a rotisserie capable of spit-roasting a whole lamb and crank wheels to adjust the height of the grill surface over the embers. It's a spectacular, flame-spewing cult favourite coveted by celebrity chefs and restaurateurs far and wide. José Andrés has one, so does Danny Meyer. Tom Colicchio actually has two, one in Miami and one in Las Vegas.
Now CinCin boasts the first commercial Grillworks Infierno in Canada. And with the supremely talented executive chef Andrew Richardson fanning the flames, CinCin has risen from its alder- and apple-wood ashes with fresh (well, predominantly smoky) vitality and a whole new lease on life. If you haven't visited CinCin in years, it may be time to return.
Don't get too close to the grill, mind you. Although the open kitchen counter has been lowered to show off the flames that lick up the black stone backsplash, the floor plan has not been adjusted. If seated directly in front of the kitchen, you'll definitely feel the heat.
The front row was too hot for me to handle. We requested a different table and were promptly moved. Was that because they knew me? It could have been. Top Table has always been a bit too eager to please VIPs at the expense of general diners. But I do genuinely believe that the service here is gracious and professional enough to accommodate most requests from anyone.
Why do I have such faith? Largely because of the wine service. We had just come from a Brunello trade tasting. It's hard to transition from Italy's top-tier wines to anything else without being disappointed or spending a small fortune. But wine director Shane Taylor had the perfect compromise. He recommended a bottle of Ribeo Morellino de Scansano, moderately priced at $58. This young sangiovese blend (the only noble grape variety allowed in Brunello) is aged in concrete vats (never oak) to keep the red-fruit notes fresh and acidity bright. It was delicious. All the other servers nodded in approval. If CinCin didn't care deeply about customer service, they simply would not have this affordable gem in stock and they wouldn't be selling so much of it. They'd be squeezing customers for every last penny and pushing pricey Brunellos.
Now back to the grill. It makes a killer steak, as one would hope. But the fire requires tweaking and talent to use properly. The adjustable grill helps control the heat of the fire, and with the v-slats, you can collect juice for basting. The steaks take on the flavour of the smoke, but aren't overwhelmed, as often happens with a flat grill.
As Mr. Richardson explains, he has to build a good bed of coals in the cage and then rake the crumbled embers into the grill. A hot crackling sear creates the crust and then the meat is finished away from the high heat. Our unseasoned tenderloin had mouth-watering char and a tender bite without getting too soft and buttery, as often happens when our heartier Canadian beef is given a long, slow Argentine-style grilling treatment.
Which brings us to the obvious question: It's a tremendous grill, but is it Italian? Wouldn't it better suited to a Spanish or Argentine restaurant?
"I think fire, generally speaking, is used in every cuisine," the chef replied later by phone. "Italians do a lot of cooking outside. But to be honest, I really don't feel you can be an Italian restaurant outside Italy. You can be true to the Italian ethos of cooking by using the freshest products and treating it simply without too much heavy technique. Italian cuisine is about the letting the natural, local ingredients shine and that's what we try to do."
Hmm. That answer is bound to court controversy. But it's not my place to debate it. Chefs and restaurants should be judged on their intentions. And Mr. Richardson, who has worked in a multitude of respected restaurants (Cioppino's, Sooke Harbour House and French Laundry among others) does indeed choose his ingredients carefully and treat them respect.
More than just steaks come off this grill. Mr. Richardson does whole branzino, land-raised in New Brunswick, with crisp skin and moist meat that slips off the bones – unless the servers debone it tableside. (You can request it.)
He spit-roasts root vegetables for blending into light broths with smoky kick and fresh herbs. He sits whole potatoes on a perforated tray over the fire; the woodsy flavour later bursts through when the spuds are riced and folded into hearty gnocchi. He bakes big onions, skin and all, overnight under ashes, and scorches whole squashes to create robust morsels of flesh that are cubed and mixed with risotto.
As always, the toothsome pasta dough (save spaghetti) is made in house. In winter, Bolognese sauce is made with beef in deference to the colder weather. In summer, you'll find a lighter interpretation built on veal, pork and pancetta.
Even the pastry chef, Lewis Birch, has been cooking with fire, using it to smoke pistachios that add intensely flavoured contrast to his sunshiney, smooth Meyer lemon crema.
The uses for this grill are as about as vast as all the reasons you should rethink this restaurant and try it again. Happy anniversary, CinCin. The years, if not the décor, are looking great on you.