I do not envy Alex Chen, executive chef at the new Boulevard Kitchen and Oyster Bar in the Sutton Place Hotel. The multiple demands on hotel restaurants – accommodating guests with three meals a day while luring local customers, plus attending to room service and private dining – usually mean more time managing the books than cooking.
Mr. Chen returned to Vancouver in 2012, after seven years at the Beverly Hills Hotel, to find a flattened fine-dining landscape.
It's difficult for upscale restaurants to walk the tightrope between classic technique and casual West Coast flair. No wonder Boulevard feels like it's been afflicted with split personality disorder. It's trying to be everything to everyone – unsuccessfully.
Let's start with the design, which is a disaster. The restaurant was built by Andrea Gaglardi and designed by her sister Devonna. There were limitations with what they could do to the old Gerard room lounge and Fleuri restaurant given that the spaces are divided by long load-bearing walls. But did it really need four entrances and three disjointed concepts?
If you enter from the sidewalk, you'll encounter an empty front desk. For whatever reason, this dark, wood-panelled cubbyhole and lounge with vintage chandeliers didn't work and will soon be turned into a private dining room.
The Gerard room is virtually unchanged, with a warm library-like atmosphere, dark leather and dim lighting. A similar old-world design is extended into the private dining area, a warren-like maze of small dark rooms off to the side of the empty entrance.
If, however, you enter the restaurant from the hotel lobby, it's a different feel entirely. Straight ahead is the dining room, which feels like narrow hallway. The tall, voluptuously rounded, tufted white-leather banquettes would be ideal for a discreet rendezvous or private meeting. But if you're seated in the banquettes across, wrapped by pale, pastoral wallpaper and blue-stained panelling, it feels like you've been relegated to the kids' table at grandma's house. Oh, and there's another exit door in this section, just to confuse matters more.
Climb a few steps into the bar area, which contains a cocktail bar, an oyster bar and extra seats for dining. It's shiny and energetic with a posh vibe and lots of polished bronze accents. This is where I chose to sit on my visit, which was, overall, a very good experience.
Steve Edwards, a professional and previous ringmaster for Araxi and Bearfoot Bistro, greeted us at the hotel entrance. We took a seat at the oyster bar, where "Oyster Bob" Skinner (an award-winning shucker who spent 28 years at Joe Fortes) introduced us to delicious Sawmill Bay Double Ds. (Yes, they're named after the brassiere size.)
Our server was excellent. When we couldn't decide on a white wine by the glass, he brought us half glasses of each. He was charming, quick with a lemon finger bowl and extremely attentive to timing.
Wine director Lisa Haley has curated an excellent list with plenty of unusual organic and sustainable quirks. Coming from Montreal, she's had to adapt to local tastes and quirks. California cabernet sauvignon might not be her first recommendation for pairing with oysters. But customers have asked for it, so she now provides it.
Pastry chef Jason Pitschke makes a superb breadbasket with small cornbread cupcakes. (His desserts are so-so. Red velvet cake with layered cream cheese frosting looked like a 10-year-old's birthday cake.) If you go on Friday, be sure to order the lobster bisque, which is delectably rich with large chunks of lobster under a buttery puff pastry dome.
Everyone raves about Mr. Chen's chicken wings, a Vietnamese version marinated for 24 hours in caramel fish sauce. They are very good with crispy skin, tender flesh, sticky sauce and backbone of sour umami. But what does it say when a fine-dining restaurant is best known for its chicken wings?
Uni on puffed rice seems a more fitting snack food for a chef who represented Canada at the Bocuse d'Or competition in France. It's an elaborate, multi-step dish bedecked with tiny micro greens, slivers of radish and glistening globules of salmon roe. The only problem is the uni, which is served too cold. If not given time to relax, the uni appears tightly puckered and the taste is astringent. I initially thought it was off. But after I let it sit for 10 minutes, the flavour opened up.
The evening left me wanting more. So why was the second visit so disappointing? There were three hostesses at the front entrance, yet none offered to take my coat while I waited for my guest. We found each other when she stumbled, disoriented, out of the maze, having entered from the Gerard lounge.
We sat in the kids' section. Our server stumbled the entire night. She couldn't read our cues and was slow to bring our drinks. We would have liked to order wine with our appetizers, but had just started sipping our cocktails when the carpaccio arrived.
As with many dishes, it was fussy and confused with too many flavours. Bitter celery and radicchio overwhelmed the delicate beef, sliced so thin it stuck to the serving platter. Although wagyu beef, the texture was oddly grainy.Unfortunately, we missed our second appetizer. The server forgot to order it. We asked what happened. She checked with the kitchen. Our mains were ready to be served. She asked if we wanted to hold them. Of course not. Bouillabaisse was superb with seafood as the star, all perfectly cooked and prominently propped over a shallow serving of rich broth built layer upon layer of classic fume fish stock.
Duck breast was from a gorgeous magret, dark ruby red and slightly gamey. But the thick layer of fat wasn't rendered out and still chewy.
When the maître d', long-time West alumnus Brian Hopkins, came by to check on our table, we told him about the missing hamachi appetizer. He offered to bring us the dish before dessert and topped up my wine glass, though curiously not my friend's.
I thought he was making up for the mistake, as is custom in most fine-dining restaurants. But no, he charged us for the hamachi (which was disagreeably wet and sour) and the glass of wine.
My girlfriend was aghast. I thought perhaps he charged us because he knows I'm a critic who doesn't accept free meals. When I inquired about it, he did remove the items from our bill. But it was terribly awkward.