Welcome to the jungle. Woo-hoo! It's Friday night at the Fairmont Pacific Rim, Vancouver's hottest pick-up spot for suburban baby boomers.
When the luxury hotel opened seven years ago, no one could have predicted that its chic lobby lounge would proliferate with a baffling preponderance of paunch-bellied playboys and blowsy women squeezed into bandage dresses. Yet the raucous weekend scene just keeps growing wilder every year. In the meantime, the hotel's haute-Zen, second-floor flagship restaurant, ORU, never really took root and fell dormant.
The new Botanist, which replaces ORU and burst into bloom last spring, is a (partially) verdant oasis floating above the madding crowd. Keep walking past the wedding-singer cover band, ignore the louche leers and let's see what this garden unfurls.
At the top of the central staircase, we find ourselves in the narrow cocktail bar and "laboratory," one of four distinct zones (including the main dining room, lush solarium and terrace and Champagne lounge), which attempt to layer the sprawling 5,000-square-foot space into an integrated ecosystem.
The industrial cocktail lab – sequestered behind glass windows and filled with band saws, roto-evaporators and centrifuges – is an oddly sterile welcome mat for a restaurant whose whole concept is grounded in earthly abundance. But botany is, after all, a science. And from within their chemist's lair, beverage director Grant Sceney and head bartender David Wolowidnyk (undoubtedly two of the city's best) have hatched several show-stopping signature cocktails that are as theatrical as they are expensive, at $28 each.
Deep Cove, for example, is a refreshingly briny gin slushy that mysteriously doesn't melt. Requiring two hands to hold aloft, the drink is served in a bespoke goldfish beaker, custom-molded onto a driftwood holder, tinted mermaid-goggle-turquoise by algae and garnished with slithery seaweed-like cucumber ribbons. While fun and impressive, your taste buds will likely be just as entranced by some of the more moderately priced elixirs mixed with tingly electric-daisy tinctures, clarified milk and alderwood-smoked tea.
Although the bar was designed as a genteel retreat from the playground below, the music and occasional shriek carry straight up the stairs, making quiet conversation difficult. (The disco-themed champagne lounge might offer more of a buffer.) And the look of the space, raised on a platform, surrounded by glass-and-brass railings and decked in grey, has all the bare-bones ambience of a budget cruise ship.
So tally-ho. Let's move on, down a long corridor (which makes the restaurant feel even more like an ocean liner), past the green, leafy garden room with its vine-draped trellis and twinkling fairy lights (everyone wants to sit here, but there are only so many seats) and straight back to, uh, 1986?
The pretty-in-pink dining room is a puzzler. At lunch, sunlight filters through gauzy sheers, softening the limestone tabletops, brushed-gold accents and peachy leather banquettes into a pleasantly fuzzy daytime soap-opera setting. Come nightfall, when the recently adjusted lighting is still a tad too harsh, the metal-caged Greek taverna columns planted with dentist-office Devil's Ivy look terribly tacky and the wide-open space feels like a cafeteria. The acoustics are uniformly horrible: echoing with conversation from well across the room and all the way into the open kitchen when quiet; escalating in volume when busy and the live jazz trios perform in the evening. Designed by the locally lauded Ste. Marie Art + Design in collaboration with Glasfurd & Walker, it is certainly unlike anything else in Vancouver.
Ah, and now the food. After all that tramping, it's time to sink our teeth into unequivocal deliciousness. And this is exactly what Hector Laguna, the supremely talented executive chef, provides.
Working extensively with the bounty of British Columbia and a good splash of Mediterranean brightness, he starts out fresh and frothy. Beautifully ripe heirloom tomatoes (and a wedge of plum) are paired with deconstructed burrata that has been scooped out of its mozzarella skin and blended into luxuriantly creamy, slowly melting sorbet. White gazpacho, thickened with Marcona almonds yet aerated with tiny champagne bubbles, is freshened with sherry vinaigrette, popped with fresh dill and fleshed out with plump green grapes and sidestripe shrimp.
Don't let all the beautiful fronds, cauliflower snowflakes, dots of colourful oils and dustings of edible soil fool you. When the airy, pale-green foam accompanying a succulently poached lobster tail smacks you across the palate with a wallop of tarragon, you quickly realize that Mr. Laguna's cooking is no gentle tiptoe through the tulips.
The flavours build in progression from golden-crisped sablefish in exceptionally lemony onion nage to chewy charred octopus layered with two types of chorizo – housemade sausage and a spicy vinaigrette.
His pasta is fantastic. Tagliatelle, incredibly dense with egg yolk, is a dark mushroomy trudge through a dank forest floor. A vegetable ragu on hand-rolled cavatelle is so rich it tastes like meat – but not quite. Don't stop here, because meat is this chef's strongest suit.
Haven't we all been waiting for a chef – any chef let alone a hotel chef – who forsakes sous-vide boil-in-a-bag cooking and the predigested-tasting pap that passes for protein in most restaurants these days? Mr. Laguna pan-sears all his meats (and fish) and finishes them in the oven. Thus, his Moroccan-spiced lamb saddle tastes like real meat – charred, juicy and brawny with tensile fibres that require molar action to chew. His custardy green-garlic panisse and caramelized yogurt are the icing on this beefcake of a dish. The kitchen is very well supported by Jill Spoor's terroir-driven wine program. Her distinctive pairings are surprisingly fresh, herbaceous and bursting with minerality.
Desserts are okay. Pastry chef Jeffry Kahle makes wonderful brioche and leaf-shaped fougasse. But his final courses are mostly of the deconstructed variety – swirls of intensely flavoured components (creams, ices, laces and crumbles) that could use a bit more cohesion.
As does the whole restaurant, which, for all its many strong elements, still feels like a young, gangly, consciously designed permaculture garden that has been shoehorned into an awkward space. Perhaps Botanist will sprout new shoots to fill in the sparse edges and muffle the clatter. Maybe its multipurpose functions will grow into a more natural groove. Look at what happened downstairs. Like anything in the wild, you can plan and prune as much as you want, but sometimes restaurants and public spaces take on a life of their own.