1 Water St., Vancouver
Prices: Brunch, $7 to $17; dinner, $8 to $26
Cuisine: Pacific Northwest small plates
Secret Location is hard to miss. Aglow at the centre of Gastown, the ultra-modern restaurant and retail boutique is wrapped in glass and pulsating with cool blue strobe lights. On these quaint cobblestone, lamppost-lined streets, the futuristic goldfish bowl stands out like a glittery Versace gown on a thrift store sales rack.
But scratch its glossy white surfaces and you'll find the secret: a mystery proprietress who seems almost Sphinx-like in her desire for privacy.
The first time I wandered into the 10,000-square-foot space, it felt like I had been transported to South Beach. On one side, the fashion-forward concept store is a minimalist curation of clear plastic dresses, six-inch wood-heeled gladiator platform sandals, bird-shaped cameras and $100 design magazines. On the other side, the luxuriously spacious café is appointed in shiny steel, white leather, a moulded fireplace burning hot-pink light boxes and a 32-bottle Enomatic wine dispenser.
"Who owns this place?" I asked one of the servers, all nattily attired in black and turquoise ceramic bowties (available for purchase in the store). "She doesn't want her name to be known," he said discreetly.
The next time I visited, her cover had been blown. As reported by several bloggers, the owner is Carey Melnichuk from Surrey, B.C., who studied textiles at the University of the Fraser Valley and obtained a master's degree in fashion design from Istituto Marangoni in Milan. A story in the Vancouver Sun alleged that her business partner is Ron Stevenson, the COO of Ledcor, one of Canada's largest construction companies. Two servers confirmed the partnership, albeit nervously, one explaining that they're "not supposed to talk" about the Ledcor connection.
But when I reached Ms. Melnichuk by phone this week, she said the Vancouver Sun story was incorrect. "I have one partner, who is anonymous. Ledcor only did the construction. I'm quite private. Even my staff doesn't know a lot about me."
Okay. She wants Secret Location to speak for itself. And I guess her reclusiveness only adds to the mystique for all those tourists in fanny packs gawking through the windows. "Too rich for my blood," one woman said to the doorman on a recent Saturday afternoon. "We're actually quite reasonably priced," he shouted back as she kept walking away.
When the restaurant opened seven weeks ago, chef Marcus Bugoy from the Fairmont Hotel Edmonton was at its helm. He's already gone, replaced by Michael De Grazia, who came to Secret Location from Yaletown's Regional Tasting Lounge. "He was very talented," Ms. Melnichuk said of the original chef. "But we were quite blessed because our sous-chef was even more so."
Mr. De Grazia has been busy revamping the menus. And if deep-fried organic eggs are any measure of the chef's talent, his Gastown competitors might want to pay closer attention to the anomaly in their midst. This lush rendition of a Scotch egg is soft boiled, lightly fried in a thin golden batter and draped with lemony Hollandaise. Cracked open, the runny yolks spill out over a crisscross of charred asparagus and crispy house-smoked bacon licked in maple syrup.
Hereford short rib sandwich is another winner. Stacked atop a fluffy cheese omelette in a thick buttermilk biscuit flecked with green garlic scape, the tender slices of fatly ribboned beef lounge over the tongue with the ease of a lazy Sunday morning. But chestnut-flour crepes, dressed with artificially sweetened strawberry mascarpone, have too much chew – making them taste more like a crunchy granola health fix than an Italian delicacy.
Still, the brunch menu (which includes a large selection of excellent pastries and elegant cocktails) feels like a nicely refined fit for upscale shoppers. The dinner menu, on the other hand, looks as awkward as I felt while modelling a strappy leather corset belt in the store's 3-D dressing-room mirror.
Take, for instance, a heaping bowl of lusciously plump Salt Spring Island mussels. This is exactly the sort of dish one would expect to find in any of Gastown's many brick-walled, heritage-room restaurants. But when set next to architecturally sculpted Italian flatware on an incandescent catwalk bar, these mussels seem oddly misplaced. (Especially when the lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves in its white wine broth are too subtle to taste).
The dishes are supposed to be tapas-style small plates. But pan-seared halibut with grilled vegetables and salad is actually a substantially sized entrée. Porcini-crusted beef tenderloin is another hefty dish with thick slices perfectly cooked to the rare side of juicy, yet slightly spoiled by a waft of fake smoke.
I know tapas is meant to be casual, but it would have been nice if these three large dishes had been staggered (not served all at once), and we didn't have to refill our own wineglasses. Casual service just doesn't feel right here.
As a restaurant, Secret Location shows promise. But much like its enigmatic owner, it lacks identity. For now, it's simply a confused showpiece without a soul.