If there's anything I love more than a great meal, it's a good story. Especially when the yarn involves a talented underdog who's thrown for a loop and comes out on top in the end.
Consider the game of musical chairs that had Julio Gonzalez Perini cooking in circles until he recently returned home to the newly launched and highly recommended LUPO Restaurant + Vinoteca.
When we last caught up with the Argentinean-raised chef, he was killing time at Federico's Supper Club. His superb Italian cuisine may have lifted the fortunes of the Vegas-style dance hall, but the interim gig seemed a shocking step down for the former owner of Villa del Lupo, an upscale restaurant that was widely considered one of Vancouver's best during its heyday in the nineties.
A few weeks after my review of Federico's was published, Mr. Perini announced he would depart for CinCin Ristorante + Bar. In a strange twist, his replacement at Federico's was Romy Prasad, a former long-time CinCin executive chef, who had left in 2004 to open his own restaurant, Savory Coast, which closed about a year ago.
The move to CinCin looked like a much better match, though it didn't sit well with the incumbent chef, François Gagnon, now at the Teahouse in Stanley Park. Alas, the arrangement was short-lived.
Mr. Perini had never given up hope of buying back his old restaurant, which he'd been forced to sell in 2005 after 15 years in the business. The opportunity came just as he was settling into CinCin. So he went, taking with him wine director Michael Mameli as his new partner and co-proprietor.
The new LUPO team feels like a family reunion. Mr. Mameli did his first fine-dining stint at Villa del Lupo in the early nineties. And in the kitchen, Mr. Perini is reunited with chef de cuisine Takeo Hiro. They worked together at Villa del Lupo for six years and briefly, after the restaurant was sold, at the Beach House in West Vancouver.
Yet the new LUPO isn't stuck in the past. The 1800s heritage home, at Hamilton and Smithe, has been slicked with a fresh coat of white paint and the grotto-style, faux-rock walls have been replaced with bright splashes of abstract art. It looks clean, classy and contemporary.
I only had the pleasure of dining at the old Villa del Lupo once, six years ago. Oddly enough, I find myself seated at the same table on this return visit, in the same seat, on the enclosed front porch. This must be a good omen.
The new LUPO is still swanky - the kind of place where couples, like the one sitting across from us with a vase of red roses and gift-wrapped packages on the table, come to celebrate special occasions. But it's casual enough that a woman sitting kitty corner to us feels so comfortable that she kicks off her shoes and taps her stocking feet to the pop-music mix in the background.
The affordable menu is another nod to changing times. Without sacrificing the integrity of his ingredients, Mr. Perini has adapted his classic Italian repertoire to modern tastes and tightened budgets. Entrees average $23. And because the restaurant is located conveniently close to the downtown theatre district and GM Place, it makes sense to feature a three-course, pre-event menu for $37.
The only dish that disappoints is the first, a Caprese salad ($12). Although smartly reconfigured for the winter season with oven-dried tomatoes, pesto and thickly reduced saba syrup, in place of sun-drenched romas, fresh basil and pricey aged balsamic, the buffalo mozzarella is served cold and slightly rubbery.
The next few pasta courses, however, make us forget all about that sorry waste of premium cheese. Raviolo ($9) is a large, tender pocket, stuffed with warm spinach and ricotta. Brushed with a golden layer of hazelnut butter, it gushes a runny river of yellow egg yolk when pierced.
Ricotta gnocchi ($14 for an appetizer, $19 for a main) is soft and pillowy, coddled in dark, savoury porcini gravy and bedecked with gently braised, slightly chewy pork cheeks. Spaghetti nero ($13 or $18) is bold and briny. Tossed with the black ink-squid pasta are the most tender, tiny melt-in-your-mouth morsels of braised calamari, some stuffed with herbed crab meat. The tomatoes used for the garlicky soffritto sauce, while likely canned, are high quality.
Our wonderfully quirky waiter is correct in saying that the lamb osso buco is a steal, and probably one of the best deals in town, for only $20. It's fall-apart tender and served with a snappy lemon-saffron risotto.
Veal scallopini fiulano ($22) is another well-prepared classic. The pounded rounds of meat, capped with creamy fontina and salty prosciutto, are drenched in rich, glossy marsala sauce.
We finish the night with a shared plate of pecan pound cake ($8). Moist and dense, the sweetly caramelized cake is beautifully balanced with a scoop of sour cream sorbet, cassis-poached pears and bitter dark-chocolate leaves. Created by pastry chef Jeff Salzsauler (a Thomas Haas alumni, who also makes delicious raspberry macaroons and quince jellies for the complimentary petit-fours), this is one of very best desserts I've ever inhaled.
It goes down even better with a glass of amarone grappa ($15), plucked from a vast selection of Italian digestifs that Mr. Mameli has compiled on his succinct yet wide-ranging single-page wine list.
This story has a very happy ending, not just for Mr. Perini, who has finally found a permanent place to hang his toque, but also for diners who enjoy fabulous food in the comfort of a new home.
LUPO Restaurant + Vinoteca: 869 Hamilton St.; 604-569-2535