Cuchillo is a good-looking room. I'll grant it that – but not much else.
This pan-Latin restaurant is not one you will likely stumble across unless you are an anti-gentrification protester bused in to picket outside. Located on the east side of Main Street below the York Rooms single-room occupancy hotel, Cuchillo has become a target for militant poverty activists. (The Vancouver Police Department is investigating an act of vandalism that shattered the front glass doors on Aug. 10.)
To call it an "upscale" restaurant, as the protesters do, is a stretch. It is really just a dark, chill cocktail lounge with small plates for sharing.
Long, narrow and flanked by grey brick walls, the industrial space quietly announces itself from the sidewalk with a neon-purple skull glowering above sleek glass doors (which have since been replaced). Faux-distressed Mexican wrestling posters plaster a spacious foyer. Bulbous blown-glass pendants hang from high ceilings over a leggy span of communal benches and high-top tables.
An open kitchen off to one side about three-quarters down the room separates the prominent bar from a much smaller, low-seat dining room in the back. The proportions are telling. Cuchillo would probably make a fun drinking hole for large groups on busy weekends. As a dining destination, well, I don't recommend it.
Co-owner Stu Irving, formerly executive chef at Cobre and Wild Rice, iLLs a local pioneer of fusion cuisine. And there's nothing wrong with fusion cuisine if it's executed well.
That said, certain elements of taste will turn any type of food from dowdy to delicious. Acidity is one of the basics. And at Cuchillo, those tart, tangy, often indecipherable yet unmistakable notes are missing in action all across the menu.
Take pulled-duck tacos, for instance. Duck meat is extremely fatty. It needs a zingy dash of vinegar or framing squeeze of lemon to quench its gummy mouth-feel. Chef Irving's blackberry-habanero jam – while not overly sweet or spicy – does not have enough zest to balance the flaccid duck and heavy corn tortillas. A sharp crackling wafer tucked inside the duck is just dangerously superfluous.
Croquetas de carne is another underwhelming example. I couldn't wait to try this trio of braised beef neck. But the stiff, starchy batter it's enrobed in tastes more like a cheap spring roll than a melting embrace for dull meat stew garnished with decently seasoned, chunky guacamole.
The bison rib-eye broil, another trio of small bites on large plates, is unequivocally disgusting. Bison is exceptionally lean game meat. It needs marinade for tenderizing and bold seasoning for balance. Here, it has been grilled to sinewy rawness and inexplicably matched with sweet Manchego tostadas, insipid green-apple chimichurri and a ripe, crunchy cauliflower smash. Gross.
Wild Mexican sea prawn is the only edible dish that I tried from the larger format mesa side of the menu. Plump, taut and sweet, the tangled prawns are layered over a brown-butter corn biscuit with a crunchy cucumber pipian verde (which could still use more acidity).
The corn bread, topped with cold medallions of chili butter, is also good.
Albacore tuna ceviche is not. It's not even ceviche. Rather than being cooked in a citrus marinade, the thick slabs of fish with telltale brown edges look and taste like they have been grilled. Served in a tower of earthy chili sauce and deep-fried crisps, the underlying causa (chilled whipped potatoes across most of Latin America) is here presented as a roast-potato hash barely flecked with double-smoked bacon.
Bartender Julia Diakow (who also mixes at the Hotel Georgia) recently won the Vancouver Club celebrity bartender challenge. She has great credentials. So why does she dust her Cuchillo cocktails with frosting sugar? On the mint branches of a watery mojito, it leaves a horribly bitter aftertaste. Her Esteban Canal, shaken with pear nectar and thyme-and-cilantro-infused pisco is much better balanced. But it still comes with icing sugar. Huh?
Wine on tap is one of the restaurant's only saving graces. If you go, do try the floral allegro from Unsworth Vineyards on Vancouver Island. This odd white blend, available only here and at Tap & Barrel, has a bit of residual sugar and bracing acidity that this food screams out for.
In Spanish, cuchillo means knife. That's an interesting choice for a name because this joint definitely needs sharpening.