Perhaps the most promising sign was the penchant for reinvention. Among my top 10 picks for the best new restaurants of 2014, eight – yes, eight – are owned by restaurateurs who have expanded, moved or launched new concepts. In many ways it feels like after the huge restaurant expansion leading to 2010, the Olympic bubble has deflated, but not necessarily for the worse. It appears that we're settling down, unbuckling our belts and discovering our true appetites again. We're creating the more relaxed dining spaces where we really want to eat, rather than cooking to impress the rest of the world.
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The Rangeland bison tartare with spelt crackers and truffle aioli. (John Lehmann/For The Globe and Mail)
Blacktail Florist is dead; long live Blacktail. The original Gastown restaurant, which opened early this year, was a modernist victim of these back-to-basic times. Vancouverites have limited patience for the molecular techniques – “pop rocks” on endive or precious mushroom “soils” – beloved by the opening chef, Jimmy Stewart. Geoff Rogers, a Top Chef alumnus from Calgary, usurped the throne last summer and turned things around by concentrating on haute comfort food (hearty pork chops seared in brown butter with pretzel spaetzle), house-made everything (bread, preserves, bacon) and classic techniques (meltingly tender duck breast seared on cast-iron from start to finish and silky bison tartar finely cubed to order). Mr. Rogers does use some modernist tools, but applies them judiciously, always with an eye on flavour over flair. His oysters, slightly plumped with their own brine and horseradish-cucumber mignonette, are the best ocean gems I ate all year.
Can a mom-and-pop hole-in-the-wall qualify as one of Vancouver’s best new restaurants? It certainly does when the kitchen delivers food this delectably fresh, exquisitely balanced and altogether different. Almost every Vietnamese restaurant in the city hails from the south. Mr. Red Café’s owners, chef Hong Nguyen and his charming wife, Rose, are from Hanoi in the north. The flavours are brighter, lighter, more herbaceous. Pho from the south is murky and rich, but theirs is green and fragrant, bobbing with shredded chicken, big shiitake mushroom caps, chives, cilantro and kaffir lime leaf. “Mmm, mmmm, mmmmm!” The moans grow louder with every dish – from sour-and-spicy bun cha noodle soup served with a bundle of fresh herbs on the side, to the velvety made-in-house chicken-pork paté smeared across a warm baguette sprinkled with crispy fried shallots. Don’t forget to order a refreshingly sour coffee yogurt drink.
Boulevard may not be a steadily great restaurant, yet. The service is inconsistent, the food can be hit and miss. The design is a weird maze of dark dining rooms. But there’s no denying that the bar has quickly become the city’s most glamorous hot spot. Order one of Justin Taylor’s gloriously inventive cocktails – the Van Dusen Sour smells exactly like a local cherry blossom-strewn street in spring. Chat up “Oyster Bob” Skinner as he shucks you a dozen. Try the funky, caramelized-fish-sauce-coated chicken wings or the extravagant seafood tower. Chef Alex Chen, a former Canadian Bocuse d’Or contender, spent seven years cooking at the Beverly Hills Hotel. The Oyster Bar, with its white leather, marble countertops and polished bronze accents, captures that luxe. Just look around at the dapper gentlemen in fedoras and well-manicured women wearing killer leopard-patterned Louboutin heels. It feels more like L.A. than Vancouver.
Game fondue cast iron pot, game meats, roots & shoots. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
There aren’t many restaurants in Vancouver where vegans and carnivores can happily break bread together. Exile Bistro might be “wild at heart,” but it offers a safe harbour for all types. The plant-forward menu, which leans heavily on foraged herbs, local produce and ethically sourced game meats (if you choose), makes healthy food taste insanely delicious. Eggs Benedict are so rich and creamy you won’t believe the Hollandaise is not made with butter (they use yogurt instead). The green Caesar cocktails, mixed with algae and house-pickled veggies, taste too good to be cleansing. The flexitarian fondue, served with or without venison and elk, comes with a mushroom broth so ambrosial you’ll want to lift the cast-iron pot to your lips and drink every last drop. Owner Vanessa Bourget, a holistic nutritionist from Quebec, has created a cozy neighbourhood hangout tucked beside the West End’s rainbow-painted crosswalk, with delightful staff and lively DJ nights.
Corned veal tongue. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Chefs Lucais Syme and Gillian Book built their reputations on pasta. The husband-and-wife team have worked together at Parkside, La Buca, La Quercia, La Ghianda and La Pentola at the Opus Hotel (which they still own). So it was awfully brave for them to open a restaurant that only serves pasta as the occasional special. To some this might seem like sacrilege in an Italian restaurant. But Cinara isn’t really Italian. It’s more southern European with a repertoire that trips from salt-cod baccala and polenta crostini to fermented-kamut crepe stuffed with ricotta, braised oxtail and nettles. The fresh ingredients are constantly changing, but the cooking is rigorously classical and often labour intensive (silky brined veal tongue, tender octopus salt-rubbed and poached for hours). This whimsical room, with its mismatched wooden chairs and antique china, is so charming, you won’t miss the pasta.
Anchovies and eggs. (Rafal Gerszak/For The Globe and Mail
I have slavishly followed chef Jean-Christophe Poirier since he left Lumière to open the short-lived Chow. From Campagnolo to Pourhouse and Pizzeria Farina, he has never let me down. He’s Quebecois, but he caresses Italian cuisine with the deftness of a native. That’s because he understands the basic fundamentals of taste. He knows that a touch of chili heat balances the fattiness in duck ragu. He knows that lightly cooking San Marzano tomato sauce to order will better capture its fresh acidity, rather than stewing it in heavy sweetness. He knows better than to blanch his fried cauliflower so it browns up nicely in the deep fryer. Ask For Luigi isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel. The casual, wood-panelled room offers Italian basics – antipasti, salads and hand-made pastas – done well. The wines are always interesting. Even with all its long lineups and tightly squeezed tables, Ask For Luigi is my favourite off-night go-to dining destination.
Steamed egg sponge cake. (Darryl Dych/For The Globe and Mail)
There’s been a sea change in the Richmond dining scene over the last few years. An infusion of affluence from mainland China has triggered an explosion of foie gras, truffles, first-growth Bordeaux wines and $100-plus fried rice plates in ostentatious restaurants. But nobody does luxury better than Chef Tony He, an e-commerce magnate and minor celebrity in China, where he also owns several restaurants. The chef-owner sold Richmond’s Sea Harbour Seafood Restaurant to an employee last year and reinvented himself with this glossy white restaurant, appointed with crystal chandeliers and jumbo TV screens. Why do diners line up out the door every day for his dim sum? Because the chef is a stickler for classic technique. The stuffing in his black truffle, pork and shrimp dumplings is hand cut with such tight precision it melts in the mouth. Pan-fried chicken wings, filled with goose liver and sticky rice, are magnificently deboned without a single sliver. Mushroom pastries are so buttery they leave a glistening sheen on your lips.
Cuisses de grenouilles. (Ben Nelms/for The Globe and Mail)
If Vancouver is a polyglot city, Chambar is the quintessential expression of our diverse flavours. With its mélange of Belgian, Moroccan, French and Asian influences, this restaurant is impossible to define. Yet when chef Nico Schuermans and his wife Karri opened their doors 10 years ago, they certainly created a new gold standard for casual fine dining. Last summer, Chambar reopened in a larger location two doors down with a year-round patio and expanded menu that includes breakfast and lunch. The exposed brick and red-leather décor is still sleek and sophisticated. A few signature dishes – Congolaise moules frites, spiced foie gras terrine, lamb shank tajine – remain on the menu. Yet the restaurant feels new and exciting, full of surprises in every sip and bite. Superb cocktails are now garnished with hand-carved glacial ice. Silky frog legs that slip off tiny bones are gently sautéed in spicy sriracha. The best restaurants never rest on their laurels. Chambar is an exemplar of reinvention.
Fricassée Champignon. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
I hate lining up for a restaurant that doesn’t take reservations. Yet I would happily stand outside in the pelting rain for upwards of an hour (the typical wait time, even on a weekday) for a Moroccan “burger” with caramelized ground beef slid between pita bread spiked with hot house-made harissa paste and fragrantly spiced preserved lemon. Café Medina opened in 2008 as a humble spillover space for Chambar. But then its experimental breakfast service exploded. When the owners of Chambar decided to move last spring, they split up with their Medina partner Robbie Kane, who also chose to change location and move downtown. I don’t think I’ve witnessed a more successful transformation. With chef Jonathan Chovancek – a master of spicing, seasoning and sourcing – at the helm, Café Medina has done the impossible. It’s a brunch joint that has become one of Vancouver’s must-try destinations.
Shrimp & fish ceviche. (Ben Nelms/for The Globe and Mail)
The shimmering exterior covered in 50,000 small, mirrored discs says it all. This pan-Indian restaurant is a singular creation inside and out. If you’re not familiar with Vikram Vij, the new star of CBC’s Dragon’s Den and owner of the world-renowned Vij’s in downtown Vancouver, you should know that his exuberant, down-to-earth yet consummately professional personality is perfectly encapsulated here. Whereas upscale Vij’s offers contemporary Indian rooted in French technique, My Shanti is a semi-upscale eatery that specializes in regional Indian inspired by the chef’s annual sojourns through his home country. From Mumbai, we get incredibly tender squid perfectly balanced with mouth-puckering tamarind, bitter curry leaves and sweet spikes of sugar. From Goa, we’re introduced to oyster pakoras gently fried in chickpea flour so the batter stays soft and the meat still wiggles. Right down to dessert, a luxuriously creamy barfi dusted with pomegranate seeds, every dish is divine.