If you go to Latab, you must try the snails. These are not just any old escargots. They are basil-fed snails, raised by Mary "The Snail Lady" Stewart, a snail wrangler in Southern California whose highly sought-after mollusks are served in some of North America's best restaurants, including Daniel and the French Laundry.
Foraged from orchards in the Central Valley and raised on Ms. Stewart's snail ranch (in a mobile-home park in Bakersfield, Calif.), the gastropod herd is fed a strict diet of basil and other secret herbs, blanched by hand, carefully cleaned and packed in basil water for shipping.
Compared to the French canned variety, Ms. Stewart's snails are exceptionally tender and free of grit, with a musky aroma, earthy flavour and hint of basil – probably more from the packing water than the diet, some experts have speculated.
At Latab, the supple snails taste like licorice, having been warmed in an herbaceous liquid heavily infused with sweet cicely.
Chef-owner Kris Barnholden serves a half-dozen on sour black bread (made with activated charcoal powder and hand-milled grains) with runny ricotta (also made in-house).
He ladles the pale-green braising water over top with a sprinkling of crushed hazelnuts, which are locally grown in Agassiz and bursting with fresh flavour.
He then crowns the dish with bright green lily pads of pressed kale and delicate yellow kale flowers grown in planters outside the front door.
Latab was one of the most ambitious restaurants to open in Vancouver last year. But it is so small (only 20 seats) and unassuming (in a former coffee shop tucked beside the Sheraton Vancouver Wall Centre Hotel), you might not have heard about it. Word is slowly spreading, especially among health-conscious locavores, experimental foodies and natural wine lovers.
After closing Mis Trucos, a popular West End tapas restaurant, in 2011, Mr. Barnholden cooked at Dan Barber's acclaimed Blue Hill at Stone Barns (number 49 on the S. Pellegrino list of the World's 50 Best Restaurants) and was (briefly) a partner at Olo in Victoria.
At Latab, the Chinook word for table, he works closely with local foragers and small farmers to showcase the wild and often obscure bounty of the Pacific Northwest – sometimes delving further south, as evidenced by the snails.
Crunchy green fiddleheads, with their grainy ferns thoughtfully removed, are now being paired with tender shimeji mushrooms and earthy porcini granola.
When you stir it all up with the hefty dollop of garlic crème fraîche at the bottom of the bowl, it's a divinely silky expression of the damp spring forest floor.
As at Mis Trucos, Latab's tiny kitchen has no exhaust ventilation, thus no grilling or searing. But rather than viewing the technical limitations as restrictions, Mr. Barnholden embraces them for creative inspiration. He ferments, pickles and cures as much as possible, in addition to pressing his own oils, making his own vinegars and baking his own breads with hand-milled flours.
Some of the dishes are revelatory. Tangy sea urchin "bottarga" is salt-cured for six weeks and grated over a dehydrated vegetable-and-flax-seed crisp, topped with smoky butter and crisp radish. Coffee-cured trout really tastes like coffee, yet remains slippery and fishy. Humboldt squid, cooked sous-vide, has the meaty texture of chicken.
Other dishes can be a bit funky or off-balance. Thinly shaved pork tongue, for example, is obliterated by garlicky pickles and the soapy flavour of fresh shiso. Preserved tuna with dried chicken skin and anchovy is overwhelmingly salty. Sunflower tahini on flatbread is gummy and bland.
The small plates are the stars. The larger dishes often go astray with too many competing flavours and mismatched components.
Take morcilla, for instance. The softly baked blood sausage has the beautiful texture of a moist chocolate cake and the warm spiced aroma of Christmas cookies. It pairs beautifully with creamed parsnips. But then the chef adds the summery freshness of sidestripe shrimps, grapefruit segments, citrus cream and dill. Why? They are two completely different dishes on one plate.
Lamb cannelloni with licorice puree and hedgehog-mushroom ragu is another confused dish with too many ill-fitting flavours.
"The chef needs to follow Coco Chanel's advice for dressing," my friend suggested. "Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take at least one thing off."
The great thing about Latab, however, is that you don't have to spend a lot of money to experiment, unless you go for the "whole shebang" (the entire menu) at $49 a person.
The small plates are perfect for grazing and pairing with all the commensurably obscure wines. Curated by co-owner Eryn Dorman, the list features orange, natural, biodynamic and low-intervention wines from British Columbia and around the world.
You may not want to order a whole bottle of the murky, unfiltered F. Cornelissen rose – grown wild on the top of Mount Etna. But a three-ounce pour is a nice way to try this curiously quenching grape juice.
Latab is not a restaurant for everyone. Food and wine geeks will love it. Yet it's approachable enough that even the meat-and-potato crowd will find something enticing if they're feeling a little kinky.