Anthony Sedlak's surprise resignation from Corner Suite Bistro De Luxe, a scant four days before its grand opening, looked at first glance like the death knell for an overhyped French bistro that had already taken some hard knocks.
I say overhyped not because the food doesn't measure up to the name - its decadently rich bistro fare, now gloriously slathered in foie gras and butter, surpassed my expectations - but because the buzz was pitiably premature.
It all began last summer, when the downtown restaurant was initially set to launch, with a shower of glowing articles that revolved around Mr. Sedlak and his meteoric rise from Grouse Mountain cafeteria busboy to Food Network celebrity (he won its 2006 Superstar Chef Challenge and became the host of Food Network Canada's popular cooking show The Main) and his first executive-chef position at Corner Suite.
Paired with co-owners Andre McGillivray (a CinCin alumnus who has since managed some of Vancouver's top restaurants including Lumière, Chambar, Le Crocodile and Boneta) and Steve Da Cruz (a New York-trained barman who cut his teeth at the York Imperial and Ruby Foo's Times Square), the telegenic dream team seemed ready to roll.
Then a problematic ventilation system choked the opening, time and time again.
Eight long months later, Mr. Sedlak was lured away by one of many "substantial" project offers that had come his way as a result of all the press coverage, offering his resignation on Jan. 30.
Four days later, city officials finally gave the renovated kitchen its stamp of approval, allowing the owners to access it for the first time at around noon on Feb. 3.
Five hours after that, the restaurant precipitously welcomed a surge of eager customers that happened to include two local restaurant critics. (Unaware that Mr. Sedlak had never even crossed the threshold, they published shotgun reviews; one tepid, the other scathing.) Nine days later, the Olympic torch was lit.
In the madness that ensued, sous chef Jason Liezert (now promoted to executive chef) ably rose to the challenge, doing the best he could with someone else's recipes and an untested kitchen. The owners were extremely lucky to have Mr. Liezert on-board, especially considering that he is a proven butcher, baker and restaurant maker, having previously run Victoria's acclaimed Niche Restaurant and having also worked at Victoria's Rosemeade Dining Room, Tofino, B.C.'s Wickaninnish Inn and London's Michelin-starred Lindsay House. (Why he ever played second fiddle to Mr. Sedlak is a very good question.)
Given the opportunity to replenish the pantry with his own vision and supplies, Mr. Liezert has now revamped the entire menu, plumping Mr. Sedlak's focus on lean, Mediterranean-inspired comfort food with luxuriant variations of rustic French dishes that ooze full fat and round flavours.
Should you go, skip the appetizers and order a round of miniature-sized Petits Bijoux, which makes for a splendid tapas-like tasting of the restaurant's signature dishes.
French onion soup ($5), served in a Lilliputian crock-Pot dripping with burnt Gruyere threads, is sinfully packed with double-smoked bacon, six types of onions and a thick float of sweet, buttery brioche. Croque mademoiselle ($6), one of the French versions of a classic grilled-cheese sandwich with ham, is sandwiched between egg-dredged layers of thick soda bread with a (slightly overcooked) quail egg splayed over top.
Cod brandade ($5) and duck rillette ($6) are creamy versions of these dishes served with crisped crostini. The cod is warm and garlicky, with a silky smooth finish, having been double-boiled in a mini-Mason jar and complemented with a tiny tangle of sweetly sautéed cippolini onions. The duck is smooth and buttery, fluffed with sweet-fig compote and balanced by a tartly ribboned fennel salad on the side.
DNEgg ($3) is the only trinket that bombs. We love the thick, smoky bacon jam and truffle-scented toast. But the hard-boiled egg served in its shell is awfully awkward to peel and not very spread-friendly. Why not make it soft-boiled for easier cracking and dipping?
Gougeres, savoury cheese puffs served in a trio as a complimentary amuse-bouche (or by the dozen on the Bijoux menu for $4) are slightly stale. Likewise, the French bread slivers should be cut to order, not left out and air-dried with a tough, chewy glaze. Smoked-paprika-olive-oil butter is another overwrought idea that tastes merely slimy with no hint of spice.
The new chef, mind you, isn't the only partner who occasionally suffers from youthful exuberance. Mr. Da Cruz may be one of the best bartenders in Vancouver, but his 30-page cocktail list - dubbed the "Genuine Article" - feels like an inflated monument to his ego.
The restaurant interior is luxurious and loud, boasting black tufted-leather booths, bright turquoise Louis XV chairs and high ceilings lined with clangy extant pipes. Subtly tinted glass windows are unadorned, catching the headlights of cars pulling up to the crosswalk and fire trucks wailing out of the station across the street.
The racket may annoy some. But the busy, buzzy, big-city vibe is exactly the effect the owners are trying to create. And I can't complain, especially after being offered a much quieter table (in the back, by the bathroom, which I suggest you request if a noisy dining room isn't quite your scene).
Turning back to the food, both main courses amaze. A cassoulet ($25) that's been braised for 48 hours is drizzled with the runny yolk of a softly poached egg, with a silken sludge of foie-gras torchon melting overtop. Steak frites ($28) is a huge hunk of tenderloin topped with a slab of Penicillium-licious blue-cheese butter that has saturated the veal-bone-marrow crust (an option for $3).
The steak's homemade frites are thin, salty and perfectly greasy, though the side watercress salad needs something brighter than those same old sweet cippolini onions to cut through all the richness.
For dessert, we can barely squeeze in an oozing wedge of Pierre Robert triple-cream brie ($5), perfectly paired with brandy-soaked cherries ($2.50). It's hard not to love a cheese menu with 50 selections. But much like the cocktail list, I don't see the point of such opulent excess.
Ultimately, the Corner Suite has probably benefited from the loss of its celebrity chef. But now, the owners may want to consider editing some of its other superfluous trimmings.
Corner Suite Bistro Deluxe: 850 Thurlow St.; 604-569-3415