How much do I like Hook Sea Bar? So much I've already made a reservation for next weekend. That's my ringing endorsement. End of column. What more is there to say? Well, I've got a half-page to fill (and a few tiny quibbles) so I guess I should elaborate.
I am returning to this new beachside beauty in English Bay for plenty of reasons: the stunning sunset views; the cozy leather booths in a whimsical, Cape Cod-style dining room bathed with lots of natural light; the chef-driven menu that offers something for everyone without compromising taste, technique or creativity; the inventive cocktails and interesting wine list; the down-to-earth yet immensely professional service; the buck-a-shuck happy hour; the fact that I live only a 10-minute walk away (major bonus).
But primarily I'm going back so soon because a friend from Toronto will be visiting and she wants to go out for shellfish and seafood. Of course she does. Have you ever known a tourist in Vancouver who doesn't want to eat fish? And where do you take them?
Welcome to the great Vancouver dining conundrum. For a city anchored on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, there has long been a bewildering lack of decent (non-Asian) seafood-focused restaurants in the sweet spot between cheap fish and chips and top-tier fancy.
Michael Gayman felt similarly perplexed. As owner of the Blind Sparrow, a wonderfully convivial gastropub on the other end of Denman Street, near Robson, he had throngs of tourists coming in for drinks and looking for a good seafood restaurant. The Boathouse? I know I certainly wouldn't recommend it.
So when the old Milestones near Davie shuttered after 27 years of operation, he jumped on the massive 3,500-square-foot lease, gutted the dark badger's den down to the original floors and pillars, infused it full of sunshine and opened Hook in mid-July.
Erica Colpitts, Mr. Gayman's sister, designed the restaurant. Other than the Blind Sparrow, she usually does residential, which could be why she has managed to make such a large, nautical-themed space feel so homey. From the perfect white paint and grey-washed wood stain to a dreamy whale wallpaper mural (by Paul Morstad) and dangling glass fishing-net-float light fixtures, the bright, warm decor hugs the room like a modern cable-knit sweater. There are lots of little nooks divided by glass and rounded edges, but not a single bad seat in the house. Even the bar stools (the only perch without a waterfront view) are refurbished school chairs that are comfortably worn to snugly curve around the bottom.
Executive chef Kayla Dhaliwall, who also revamped the Blind Sparrow menu last winter, is doing a tremendously good job of catering to the masses without dumbing down her cooking. This is a really tough neighbourhood for a restaurant, especially one as large as Hook, with nearly 200 seats. During the summer, there are hordes of tourists passing through and real estate is extremely expensive (which is why there are so many chain outlets in the area). But when the rainclouds roll in, they must appeal to local residents in order to survive (thus, all the short-lived failures and empty storefronts along Denman).
At first glance, the menu reads a bit like a chain-restaurant grab bag – raw bar, sandwiches, steamers, salads, surf or turf. But once you dive a little deeper, the simple descriptions do entice. Seared scallop with crispy mortadella? Tempura salmon bellies? Cola-brined lamb rack?
The raw bar operates separately from the main kitchen, so there is no guarantee (and the servers warn you up front) that your tuna tartar appetizer will be delivered at the same time as your friend's halibut tacos. Even after talking about it to Ms. Dhaliwall, I still don't understand why they can't synchronize the printers to time the pacing of the orders. It feels a little lazy, but so be it.
Sushi purists might not enjoy some of the fusion-y rolls (scallop ceviche, lobster and grapefruit) or the cool temperature of the rice on the otherwise adequate, not necessarily spanking fresh and slippery nigiri. But there is a lot of care in the dishes. Expertly shucked oysters that come in five varieties are served with inventive house-made mignonettes, like the wonderfully bright ginger-sake and habanero-papaya, in glass-dropper bottles. The tartars and sashimi are garnished with fresh herbs and delicate radish cups filled with ikura. A tower of guacamole plump with handpicked lobster is surrounded by a thick moat of deeply smoky roasted-tomato purée and dotted with spicy crema.
Simple dishes are elevated with special touches. The BLT, for instance, is served on a buttery New England roll (baked fresh daily by a dedicated pastry chef), stuffed with deep-fried soft-shell crab, succulently poached prawns, heirloom tomatoes and fresh artisan greens (also delivered daily by a specialty supplier from Squamish).
Steamed mussels and clams are moored in a thick, meaty swamp of michelada (beer and tomato) broth built from butter, lobster-shell stock and roasted bone-marrow fat. A big slice of said bone sits on the edge of the bowl for dipping and smearing over warm, grilled focaccia. This is a mighty fine dish.
West Coast chowder is made à la minute with a rich lobster-clam base emulsified with whipped potatoes. Sockeye salmon, perfectly pan-seared and quickly finished in the oven to a glossy-centred medium-rare, is served with plump roasted beets, crackling tater tots and bright, boldly flavoured tarragon and crème-fraîche dressings. Fried chicken (because not everyone wants to eat fish) is drizzled with honey and fried golden-brown in a hot, crunchy, shatteringly crisp crust.
Hook isn't the quintessential seafood restaurant for Vancouver. Much of the fish ( ahi tuna from Hawaii, whole branzino from Greece) comes from afar. And when you try to please everyone, you are undoubtedly going to disappoint some. But as a neighbourhood restaurant, it hits very high. And for an all-around destination, you wouldn't be steering tourists wrong. The fact that Hook deftly balances both sides makes it even more impressive.