Sloppy Joe sandwiches. Pork and beans. Tinfoil-wrapped trout steamed over white-hot coals smouldering in the backyard hibachi.
These were the humble, hearty, kitchen-table staples of my childhood. They evoke happy memories of simpler times, when the sound of tires crunching up the gravel driveway at the end of the day made innocent hearts pound with joy, and a gentle kiss goodnight sent all the little worries away.
But to be quite honest, this is the last type of fare I ever expected to find at a hot Gastown restaurant recently opened by a hip, fedora-wearing New Cocktailian and a talented fine-dining chef who trained under Marcus Wareing and Gordon Ramsay.
The Pourhouse, as it happens, is a font of pleasant surprises.
Others must agree. Friday and Saturday night are completely sold out. We head over on Sunday, hoping the place won't be dead, only to be greeted by a near-full house of customers swaying along to a jazz trio playing Great American Songbook standards.
Well, well, well - a live-music licence. That's a real coup in Vancouver.
The golden era of the cocktail, at the turn of the 20th century, is the inspiration for this old-fashioned saloon in a beamed-ceiling, brick-walled heritage building. The saloon has been laced into the main floor of the Leckie Boot Company's original home as snugly as a well-worn shoe.
A long bar, topped with ancient Douglas fir planks salvaged from a Langley dairy barn, takes pride of place on the lower level. This is a serious bar of character, one that halts the hands of time, encouraging you to pull up a studded-leather stool, relax under the soft glow of retrofitted brass gasoliers and unwind with a stiff drink.
Make mine a Gold Fashioned ($12). As befits a leader in the local craft-cocktail scene, head bartender and proprietor Jay Jones does the classic bourbon-based tipple one better, with sweet slugs of maple syrup and tawny splashes of fortified walnut wine poured over massive chunks of slow-melting ice.
The "true heart" of the bartending program apparently rests in its custom creations. I suppose you have to sit at the bar for personalized service, since our dining-room waitress doesn't talk it up very well.
"This is it?" I say, somewhat flummoxed by the "Theirs" and "Ours" cocktail list, which is only six drinks long.
"Well, we have a whole bar to work with," she shrugs.
The raised dining area, decked in white linen, scuffed hardwood, fancy glassware and red damask wallpaper, has been criticized as being misleadingly formal. I disagree. I think the burnished, yet rustic refinement is a very clever nod to the middle-class gentility of the gilded age, when wealthy businessmen newly risen from humble origins began making a show of dressing for their meat and potatoes.
The whole Art Nouveau styling, aided by West Vancouver's FX40Building Design, is full of comfy antiques and beautiful details. From the gold leaf moulding above the open kitchen to the foot-pedal sinks and cut-glass doorknobs in the bathrooms, it's well pulled together.
Likewise, the back-to-basics menu fits the nostalgia concept to a tee. Welsh rarebit, oyster-stuffed carpetbag steaks, and lobster ragout baked on a bed of parsnips may not be drawn from any particular place or period, but they feel homemade, wholesome and perfectly apropos for these recessionary times. (They also give the restaurant a fresh focus that distinguishes it from all the other "Pacific Northwest" menus around town.)
Executive chef Chris Irving owns the restaurant with Mr. Jones and three other partners (Chuck McIntosh, Jennifer Forster and Nick Rossi). With a high-class pedigree that includes two turns at Vancouver's West Restaurant and two years at London's Michelin-starred Pétrus (where he had the honour of making custard tarts for the Queen), he could be spinning foie gras into caviar spheres. To have opened his first kitchen with such modest restraint shows real maturity - and business savvy.
Which isn't meant to imply that he's holding back on flavour or imagination.
House-made chicken liver paté ($10), plumped up in a bacon wrapper and saturated with bourbon, makes a very fine companion for the Gold Fashioned (but works less successfully with rye and cheese breads, a $4 basket needed to supplement a meagre slice of dry brioche).
Having tasted neon squid ($10) only once before - in a high-end restaurant that battered and fried the life out of it - I'm astonished to discover how tender this massively meaty deep-sea monster can be. Lightly grilled and simply dressed with garlic chips, scallions and chili, the delicate flavour and spongy texture is downright revelatory.
I love that the campfire trout ($18) is served in its tinfoil tent. When the wrap is pulled apart, the steam comes blasting out in a savoury cloud of dill and caramelized onions.
Pork and white beans ($16) are thickly stewed with tomatoes and crowned with a crackling hunk of pork belly, though I find the boudin blanc a bit lean and light. Cold rice pudding ($7), warmed up with sticky figs and hot caramel, brings the meal to a delicious finish.
Of all the restaurants launched this year, I'd have to say the Pourhouse is the most richly conceived and thoughtfully executed. There's nothing poor about it.
The Pourhouse: 162 Water St., Vancouver; 604-568-7022Report Typo/Error