Note: Restaurant critic Alexandra Gill discussed her Top 10 list and the world of food reviewing during a Facebook Live Q&A. Watch the video.
Is it time to begin eulogizing the small, independent, mid-range Vancouver restaurant?
The thought crossed my mind more than once this year as West Coast chains continued their steady march toward world domination (well, some still believe Toronto is the centre of the universe) and two of the city's most canonized chefs – Vikram Vij and David Hawksworth – opened impersonal, factory-style restaurants that might as well be chains for all the wolfish ways in which they sacrifice hospitality on the altar of high-volume table turnover.
Vancouver's ridiculously out-of-reach real estate prices are turning restaurant ownership into a high-rollers' game, while making it increasingly difficult for chefs to take creative risks. If current trends continue, the city's dining landscape will soon cleave into a sharp polarization between mammoth mediocrity and micro food-preneurs.
But all is not lost, not yet. For every talented chef who defected to Browns Socialhouse or Cactus Club Café for decent wages and a more sustainable lifestyle (can't hold that against them), there were others who ventured off the beaten path into neglected genres and underserved neighbourhoods or nearby towns. For every new multinational ramen outpost (I stopped counting six months ago), there were innovative pop-ups that slowly morphed into permanent storefronts.
Here are my picks for 2016's 10 best new restaurants. The aforementioned conditions inspired me to broaden my horizons beyond Vancouver this year. What they all have in common is a sense of originality, tangible passion and, above all, excellent food.
10. Bar Oso
4222 Village Sq., Whistler, 604-962-4540,
Toptable Group, the local hospitality behemoth that will soon open a 600-seat restaurant next to its parent company's Rogers Arena, doesn't usually think small. Yet for all its colossal ambition, Toptable's new ownership regime was inaugurated with a cozy, casual, traditional Spanish tapas bar that quietly beats its own drum within the throbbing heart of hyper-commercialized Whistler Village. Snugly burrowed into a subtly stunning wood-and-stone cave, Bar Oso invites you to escape the crowds, shake off the snow and pull up a stool around an interactive open kitchen. Convivial cooks dole out dainty bites that dazzle with bold flavours: fluffy omelette pintxos skewered through knotted tangles of pickled pimento; creamy potato montaditos jolted by smoky aji chili and salty anchovy; paper-thin slivers of darkly crimson Jamon Iberico de Bellota marbled with buttery veins. Initially gruff bar service has been buffed and polished, allowing the exquisitely crafted drinks (narrowly focused on gin and tonics) to shine. In a mountain town where bigger always boasts of being better, it's refreshing to see such a large company nimbly carve a modest niche.
Read the full review from April: What Bar Oso hits in cuisine, it misses in hospitality
9. The Salted Vine Kitchen + Bar
37991 2nd Ave., Squamish, 604-390-1910,
Cloud-light cheese soufflés drizzled with grainy maple-mustard vinaigrette, creamy yuzu-brightened risotto buried under a snowdrift of Burgundy truffles, buttery Wagyu steak charred to meltingly rare perfection. There aren't many upscale restaurants in downtown Vancouver that could execute these elegant classics with such sure-handed finesse and consistency. To find them on astonishingly affordable family-style sharing plates at a modern-country farmhouse in the (up until now) culinary backwoods of Squamish is even more extraordinary. Co-owned and largely staffed by former veterans of Whistler's Araxi Restaurant, The Salted Vine Kitchen + Bar is a bright beacon of sophistication for the rapidly growing mountain town that has become a burgeoning bedroom community for young families commuting to Vancouver. A highly skilled kitchen, nourished with the garden-fresh bounty of small local farms, burns with passionate intensity. Everything from tangy pickles and fatty ham-hock terrines to chewy sourdough bread and bite-sized mignardises are made in-house. Burnished with sterling service, excellent cocktails and brightly rustic post-and-beam decor, this could soon become a destination for diners commuting in the opposite direction.
Read the full review from December: Salted Vine Kitchen + Bar melds rustic charm and current trends
8. Cacao Progressive Latin
1898 W. 1st Ave., 604-731-5370, cacaovancouver.com
Vancouver-style Spanish cuisine generally implies under-charred paella and stodgy patatas bravas, while Mexican cuisine nearly always defaults to tacos. Not wanting to be pigeonholed by such narrow assumptions, Cacao owners Jefferson Alvarez and Marcela Ramirez enigmatically subtitled their multitasking Kitsilano restaurant "progressive Latin," allowing them to fuse various cultures with modern techniques and local ingredients. The creative kitchen lab has incubated some sensational surprises – lusciously seasoned rice and beans (the best I've ever tasted) topped with crisply dehydrated flank-steak floss, fried cassava as light and airy as croissant, coffee-crusted leg of lamb served with tonka-creamed sweet potato. Granted, the ambiguous concept could still use some tightening. By day, the Spartan café with hard wooden benches specializes in a terrific home-style brunch. (The floating-custard chocolate flan is a deeply satisfying comfort cake.) By night, ambitious tasting menus feature more traditional dishes like fried branzino alongside avant-garde sturgeon-skin chicharron and spinal-marrow mousse. The polarities can sometimes be jarring. The more "progressive" elements will likely gain coherence when the second-floor dining room opens up. In the meantime, this uncommonly innovative restaurant is already defying expectations and breaking delicious, new ground.
Read the full review from November: Vancouver's Cacao defies all expectations, for better or for worse
7. The Mackenzie Room
415 Powell St., 604-253-0705, themackenzieroom.com
Oops. The Mackenzie Room actually opened in the summer of 2014. I was late to review this charming outlier from the wrong side of the tracks – Railtown by way of Toronto (owners Andrew and Katie Jameson are recent imports) – because I only warmed up to it gradually. But when I finally did, I was so thoroughly seduced I wanted to make up for last year's omission from this list. How did the Big M. woo me? I loved the dining room's old-timey warmth, with its distressed walls that have been peeled back to expose layers of brick, paint and wallpaper. I was intoxicated by creative cocktails that champion local craft spirits while catering to both lightweights (low-alcohol session drinks) and bacchanalians (punch bowls!). And I developed a slow-burn attraction to Sean Reeve's gutsy cooking that caresses wallflower ingredients – goat, rabbit, yak, barley and lowly green carrot tops – with robust charring, brightly acidulated buttermilks and fistfuls of fresh herbs. The taste memory of his stout-braised beef tongue piled high on a bone cradle of beef marrow still makes me weak at the knees.
Read the full review from March: The Mackenzie Room is more hit than miss in Railtown
6. Mr. Red Café – Kitsilano
2680 W. Broadway, 604-559-6878
The original North Vietnamese mom-and-pop hole-in-the-wall was one of my picks for the 10 best new restaurants of 2014. This second location in Kitsilano, which features an upgraded kitchen and more expansive menu, is even better. Rose Nguyen presides over the humble dining room, this one more cozily decorated with palm-leaf thatching, and with the same endearing warmth and grace. Her husband, Hong, is still as fastidious in the kitchen as ever. To wit: He personally hand-sorts every last basket of fresh lemon balm, mint and cilantro to ensure not a single stem goes out bruised or wilted. New dishes not offered at the East Van location (where the couple can be found at lunch) include a Sunday night family-style set menu and the superlative cha ca la vong, cleanly seared catfish marinated in turmeric and fermented red yeast rice. Served in a piping-hot skillet under a nest of crunchy dill stems, the fish's finely tuned intensity is simultaneously funky, salty, tangy and tropically aromatic. Amazingly, the chef only began cooking after he moved to Canada and got a start by washing dishes in a sushi restaurant.
Read the full review in May: At Mr. Red Café's new Kitsilano location, each dish has a story
5. Sushi Bar Maumi
1226 Bute St., 604-609-2286
Who says you have to be friendly to run one of the most formidably impressive restaurants in the city? Chef-owner Maumi Ozaki operates his bare-bones omakase bar with a set of rules as long as his daily fresh fish sheet – which typically includes about 30 obscure varieties, imported five times a week from Japan. Reformatted this year, the new dinner service features three seatings a night, accommodating 10 customers at a time. You must reserve by phone, pledge to spend at least $20 and promise to leave your kids at home. Once seated, please do not attempt to take any photos of the master at work. "I am a chef, not a monkey," he will scold. Still, you will gladly submit to all his commands because no matter how modest the tiny plywood-lined open kitchen might appear, Sushi Bar Maumi is one of the few truly authentic, traditional sushi experiences in Vancouver. And the chef's stern integrity is as awe-inspiring as his sure-handed knife work, silent performance, rhythmic progression and ambrosial seasonings that transform raw fish slices into crunchy, slippery, melty, kelpy, sour and sweet soupçons of the sea gods.
Read the full review from April: Maumi Ozaki keeps the fish coming, so long as you dine by his rules
4. Dixie's BBQ
337 E. Hastings St., 778-379-4770, meatatdixies.com
John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail
It's Southern barbecue, not brain surgery. That said, Vancouver's first Central Texas-style smoke shack and one of only two that uses a finicky wood-fired rig, slow-cooks some of the best this city has ever devoured. As in Texas, Dixie's beef brisket rules supreme. Unencumbered by sauces or rubs, and not overwhelmed by smoke, this is pure, naked, jiggly, juicy breast meat edged with crackly blackened bark. Jeff MacIntosh's tender pork ribs, succulent links and crunchy fried chicken are also pretty darn tasty, as are his unpretentious side dishes that include plain glossy mac 'n' cheese and mustard-seed potato salad. Owners Christina Cottell and Shoel Davidson demonstrate a rare generosity of spirit. Placards on the tables explain the different styles of regional barbecue and point out the other purveyors around town. No competition here, ma'am. From the ridiculously fun country music-themed bathrooms to the no-name draft beer and lengthy bourbon list, this pitch-perfect roadhouse that feels right at home on a gritty stretch of Hastings Street has the entire package nailed down.
Read the full review from September: Dixie's works miracles with barbecue
3. Savio Volpe
615 Kingsway, 604-428-0072, saviovolpe.com
John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail
When I reviewed Savio Volpe in May, I chided the owners for masquerading as a neighbourhood restaurant. This upscale osteria, I argued, was actually a hot-ticket destination restaurant. The honestly rustic Canadian-Italian fare, voluptuously drenched in anchovy butter and tickled with unabashed nostalgia (think tinfoil-wrapped garlic bread). The meaty chops grilled and roasted over a crackling wood-fired hearth. The coolly confident beverage list pared down to classic aperitifs and esoteric wines. The polished, hawk-eyed service. The boisterous antipasto bar. The whimsically subversive design – those darkly disturbing paintings of a cloaked Mother Teresa-figure with glowing sconces plugged in her eyes haunt me still. The hungry crowds patiently waiting weeks for reservations. "You are a neighbourhood restaurant only by way of location, in Mount Pleasant's up-and-coming Fraserhood," I wrote. In retrospect, I will admit that I kind of missed the point. What makes Savio Volpe all the more daring is that it could easily have been a wildly successful downtown restaurant – yet isn't. If only every neighbourhood could be so fortunate to have such a wily fox in its den.
Read the full review in May: Mount Pleasant's Savio Volpe is a hot ticket, not a neighbourhood eatery
2. Agrius by Fol Epi
732 Yates St., Victoria, 778-265-6312, folepi.ca
CHAD HIPOLITO/For The Globe and Mail
There are endless farm-to-table restaurants that talk the local, organic, slow-food talk. It is extremely rare, however, to find one that balances the tightrope walk with such exquisite poise and an unfaltering – almost unreasonable – commitment to the highest standards. Cliff Leir, Victoria's beloved artisan baker, didn't cut any corners when expanding into a new downtown location that was initially just intended for pastry – then became a dessert wine bar, which later rolled into a sandwich shop and then organically bloomed into a full-service restaurant in an airy, light-filled, sleekly designed contemporary space. It's probably the only 36-seat restaurant in the province that can boast a full-time butcher on staff and two humidity-controlled walk-in charcuterie chambers More than 90 per cent of the kitchen ingredients – including produce, fruit, dairy, cornstarch, salt and cooking oil – are certified organic; most of it sourced locally from single suppliers. Executive chef Cam Picyk blew me away one night with his deceptively simple lamb tartare and savoy cabbage sautéed in sinfully rich beurre blanc. (Yes, I just used sinful and cabbage in the same sentence.) I wasn't any less disappointed the morning after when I dropped in for a casual coffee and loaf of bread.
Read the full review from February: Agrius by Fol Epi: Succulence of the lamb
1. Kissa Tanto
263 E. Pender St., 778-379-8078,
John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail
Kissa Tanto is such a real cool cat. And I mean that in the most complimentary association with classic cool jazz. Slightly aloof and detached, the restaurant is hidden away behind velvet drapes on a second-storey loft in Chinatown. Dusty-rose banquettes, moody bankers' lamps and gleaming brass exude a subdued mystique. Styled on 1960s Tokyo jazz cafés – kissaten – there are stacks of vinyl behind the bar instead of mirrors. It's the kind of sanctuary where time stands still as you stare deeply into your companion's eyes and linger over a frothy salted-plum sour. Yet, there is nothing stagnant about this unconventional Japanese-Italian cuisine. Parmesan tortellini is audaciously married with dashi broth and slender wisps of seaweed, teasing out surprising harmonies. Tiramisu folded with tofu, and cheesy croquettes studded with ginger take the standards in uninhibited new directions. Deep-fried whole fish is scored and bubbled into dainty little squares for picking and dipping. The eyeball-to-tail presentation is such an obvious fit for Vancouver, yet so frequently shied away from by less confident kitchens. A chilled vegetable platter, treated with the reverence of a tiered seafood tower, could be a signature dish for the city. But nobody else has done it before. So here it can be lauded as progressive individualism. Kissa Tanto avoids playing loud, yet hits all the high notes nonetheless. Vancouver hasn't tasted such groundbreaking innovation since … well, since co-owners Joel Watanabe and Tannis Ling opened Bao Bei only a few blocks away six years ago. Now they've done it again. This was the best Vancouver restaurant, by far, to open in 2016.
Read the full review from July: At Kissa Tanto, Italy and Japan coalesce with Vancouver
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