On a warm Sunday evening, an old warehouse in Railtown may not be the first place one thinks of going to soak up the setting sun. Think again.
The Settlement Building has gone through many changes over the years, and just keeps getting better. It started out as a steel foundry and maintains its industrial bones with 24-foot ceilings, exposed wooden beams and swing crane arms. For a time, it was the headquarters of a furniture import company, which is how it acquired a stunning stone fireplace and ornate mouldings.
A few years ago, it became home to FreshTap, Canada's first custom keg-packaging operation that put bulk wine on draft. To supplement their commercial business, founders Steve Thorp and Mike Macquisten opened Vancouver Urban Winery on the premises. The bar could sell only one-ounce tasting glasses. Still, with a variety of flights to choose from and a small selection of charcuterie, it was pleasant to visit and became quite busy.
Then the provincial liquor laws changed last year, allowing licensed tasting lounges to serve full glasses and bottles. It suddenly made sense to open a full-fledged restaurant, especially since one of the FreshTap partners was a chef – Reuben Major, the former head of product development for Earls. Belgard Kitchen opened in April.
FreshTap had another key connection up its sleeve. The landlord just happens to be Omer Arbel, the Vancouver-based design guru best known for his Bocci lighting and the 2010 Winter Olympic medals. For the opening of the restaurant, he blew out the walls and crafted accordion-style windows in sky-high folds of wood. The space is now bright, breezy and beautiful. Bring sunglasses.
The restaurant is separated from the production facility by a tall row of empty barrels. The room has been filled in with tufted leather banquettes and reclaimed-wood tables. Sit at a high top if you can. The spring-back stools are the immensely comfortable.
The bar is limited to beverages made or kegged on-site. But with 36 wines on tap, there is plenty of choice. Tasting flights are still available, and sommelier Lisa Cook does a great job of pairing.
Mr. Major has busted out of his chain-restaurant background with boldly flavoured small plates. Full disclosure: I know this chef better than most, having spent 12 months working on a feature story about Earls for Vancouver Magazine. During that time, we spent four days together eating our way through Los Angeles. We had similar reactions to the food we tasted, so I'm not surprised that I enjoy most of his dishes at Belgard.
Without reinventing the wheel, Mr. Major puts some playful spins on crowd-pleasing favourites. Tomato soup fondue, thickly creamy and bursting with fresh basil, is served with buttery grilled-cheese soldiers for dipping. Mushroom pâté is loaded with smoky, house-made lardons in a mason jar.
Radicchio salad doesn't pull its bitter punch, but it's carefully balanced with rich manchego dressing and a soft-boiled egg. Asparagus is tightly wrapped with salty speck and charred to a tasty crunch.
Rather than leaning Asian, like other restaurants in Vancouver, this kitchen explores more Mediterranean flavours. For the most part, it works. Mushroom risotto is densely creamy, brightened with fresh micro greens and served perfectly al dente. Sausage pizzette (a mini pizza) has a chewy golden crust and a strong kick of roasted fennel.
The meatballs could be moister and less burdened with garlic. The tuna confit on an otherwise refreshing watercress salad is a bit tough. The malbec molasses on an Argentine flank steak and the bacon jam served with seared scallops are both a tad too sweet.
But over all, you will find lots here to enjoy. The kitchen also serves lunch, brunch and a happy-hour menu. And with a new on-site craft brewery opening this month, there will be even more reasons to visit.