I've said it before and I'll say it again: The weirdest thing about the Vancouver dining scene is its paucity of Western seafood restaurants. We do have a few good ones, but they are as expensive as they are rare. And there is no shortage of excellent Chinese seafood or Japanese sushi restaurants, which tend to serve the best fish in town.
Still, it's easier to find a Neapolitan pizza in Vancouver than a simply grilled filet of salmon. There is something wrong with this scenario.
Enter WildTale Coastal Grill, a new Yaletown restaurant that adeptly fills the gaping niche.
This is a coming home, of sorts, for co-owners John Crook and Erik Heck, who both cut their teeth in the same location, when it was previously home to Glowbal Grill (relaunching soon at the new Telus Garden). In recent years, they've made a name with their crowd-pleasing Flying Pig restaurants. But it was apparently here, in the old Glowbal kitchen, where they began fleshing out their vision for a California-fresh, easily affordable, simple seafood restaurant.
The redesign isn't overly fancy. They've blown out a few dividing walls to make the dining room more spacious, added some wood trim to make it feel rustic and squeezed in a few more tables on the bare-bones patio. The colour scheme is beige, cream and hunter green. Anyone who has ever been to a fishing lodge on Langara Island will feel right at home.
There is nothing revelatory about the menu – and that's a plus. It's comfort seafood, done well for the most part. The vast majority of the seafood is Ocean Wise-friendly. Fortunately for us locals, the daily catch isn't limited to the Pacific Northwest. Because, let's be honest, as much as we may love halibut, salmon, sablefish and albacore tuna, there are other tantalizing fish in the sea.
Take mussels, for instance. I hope my friends on Saltspring Island don't hate me for saying this, but the novelty of honey mussels has completely worn off. These big, muscular monsters may be a terrific aquaculture product, but they remind me of a stereotypical Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon – flabby, bloated and bland.
WildTale sells tons of honey mussels, steamed in a beautifully round white-wine broth sharpened with handfuls of freshly torn parsley, with buttery garlic bread and excellent golden fries on the side. It's actually one of the best-selling items.
But the restaurant also offers East Coast mussels as a weekly special on Thursdays. They're smaller, denser, saltier and very much welcome to this tired palate.
Thank you, WildTales, for not being parochial, or too fussy. Scallop and shrimp ceviche is the perfect aperitif – clean and refreshing, silky yet snappy. Baked Dungeness crab cakes are big, crispy and plumped with nothing but pure crabmeat.
Juan de Fuca oysters, accompanied by fragrant fennel slaw, are fried in a thin wrapping of panko to the perfect chewy texture. Humboldt squid sticks are marinated in buttermilk to soften the typically spongy texture, lightly battered, fried and spiced with a swift kick of chili.
But when the kitchen strays from the simple, things go wrong quickly. Do not order the blackened snapper. It's neither blackened, nor spicy. The texture is actually quite slimy and the salted seasoning tastes processed. The risotto tastes like sticky oro pasta and the creole butter is more sweet than piquant.
The jewel in the crown is the restaurant's fresh sheet, a vast selection of local and not-so-local fish served simply grilled with a choice of starch (risotto, rice, whipped potatoes, fries, etc.) and vegetable (asparagus, green beans, buttered corn, organic greens).
Ahi tuna from the South Pacific was excellent. I loved that it was invariably served rare. This is the default setting. If you want the fish cooked medium or well, you have to specify. But you shouldn't, because when this dense meat is purple, supple and barely room temperature on the inside, with a thin brown ring on the outside seared with smoky, black grill marks, it is perfect.
So why isn't our local salmon cooked this way? It should always be served rare, med-rare at the most. It should never be cooked medium, by default, as it was the first time I ordered sockeye at WildTale. When you overcook wild salmon, especially lean sockeye, the edges gum up with white flotsam and the kelpish flavour dissipates. It's a total waste.
When cooked medium-rare, as I requested on a second visit, the flesh loosens up and the briny sea slowly exhales from its pores. But when it's cooked truly rare – bright pink, silky and wet on the tongue – there is really nothing better.
Mr. Heck brought me this flawless piece of crispy skinned pan-seared sockeye when he realized that I was happy, but hardly swooning over the medium-rare salmon that was served with otherwise stellar Nicoise salad.
He knows very well that fish tastes best when it's simply prepared and barely cooked. His imported tuna doesn't come any other way. Why compromise our local salmon? There's something wrong with that scenario. It's time to set a new standard.