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the dish

When it comes to dining out in Whistler, there are restaurants for tourists, restaurants for locals and a few rare destinations that manage to charm both.

After a year of planning and two months of renovations, the new Grill & Vine in the Westin Whistler Resort and Spa is striving for that sweet spot in between. Chef Bradley Cumming has done an excellent job of reinventing his casual-upscale farm-fresh menus. But the design falls flat. Although sleeker, the restaurant still feels like a cold, sterile hotel dining room that doesn't appear to be attracting many guests beyond those staying in the upper suites.

This is a shame, because the food is very good. The menu, reasonably priced for Whistler, is bursting with high-quality regional ingredients, simply prepared to allow the natural flavours to shine through. Italian burrata salad, adorned with candy-striped beets and ribboned carrots in verjus vinaigrette, is bright and refreshing. Lightly grilled scallops with beef-marrow risotto in a red-wine jus are a hearty belly buster. Anchovy-stuffed olives rolled in semolina, flash-fried and served with toasted almonds are utterly addictive.

The new kitchen features a Wood Stone hearth oven that blisters thin-crust Neapolitan-style pizzas in 90 seconds. These are without doubt the best pies in the village. I highly recommend the cacciatore, topped with fresh rosemary, mushrooms, pancetta and a free-run fried egg. Take the bubbly edges of the leopard-spotted crust and dip them in the runny yolk. It's dirtily divine.

The flame-fired oven is also used to toast chewy, herbed flatbread served with a rich, perfectly balanced eggplant tapenade (an ode to the Westin's old Aubergine Grill) and finish the meats. The high heat lends a gorgeously blackened peppery crust to the cast-iron-seared AAA rib eye, which is topped with a velvety slab of melting compound butter and served with crisp medley of local vegetables and golden smoked-sea-salt dusted fries.

Crispy quail with buckwheat waffles and maple-syrup grapes is a fun, finger-licking twist on traditional chicken and waffles. Charcuterie and cheese plates come with ambrosial Goldstrike honey from Lillooet.

Wild boar lasagna is the only dish that disappoints. The game is overcooked to stringy blandness while the tomato sauce is stewed down too sweetly.

I have nothing but excellent things to say about the service, which strikes a comfortable balance between casually welcoming and formally attentive. The servers know the menu inside out and are very well versed in the wine list, which features 22 high-end bottles hooked to an Enomatic wine preservation system and available in 2-, 6- and 8-ounce pours.

But here's the problem. The Enomatic system, which keeps bottles fresh for up to 30 days, is a main focal point of the lounge. So why isn't there bar seating beside it? The flashy dispenser floats kind of aimlessly on one side of the room while the high-seated bar is hidden behind an espresso machine in the main dining area.

The designers spent a lot of money on woven-wood room dividers, but they don't divide the room. They've been placed off to the side. The tables have been stripped of linen to make the room feel more casual, but the blond wood tabletops look as if they belong in Howard Johnsons. The dropped roofs haven't been dropped low enough. The lighting is too bright. There should be sofas in the lounge area, not dining tables that attract families with crayon-colouring children. A giant TV screen, which is supposed to be showing extreme snowboard videos to attract the après crowd, isn't turned on.

Even the Starbucks take-out counter is under-stocked. Wouldn't it make sense to offer hotel guests breakfast sandwiches to go instead of having the clerks send them to the coffee shop across the street? The granola-and-yogurt mix is great, but the only sandwiches available before you head to the lifts are roast beef or ham-and-cheese.

Grill & Vine offers excellent food. Yet something went wrong in the design phase. And that's really too bad, because this could be so much more.

Grill & Vine
4090 Whistler Way
Whistler, B.C.

Cuisine: Modern West Coast
Prices: Appetizers, $12 to $16; mains, $16 to $38

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