Let’s play the Travelling Game. Here’s your first clue: A lively party of hot yoga moms with chiselled biceps and shiny blowouts are wreathed around a long table laden with festive gift bags, freshly shucked oysters on ice and heaping boards of charcuterie. It must be someone’s birthday, or perhaps a baby shower.
Leaning against the bar, which is panelled in white subway tiles and a red-stained sliding barn door, two bros sporting trucker beards ogle the women while sipping craft cocktails tightly calibrated with smoky bitters, oversized ice cubes and bourbon-soaked cherries. The guys could be hipsters, but their callused hands and dirty fingernails suggest the flannel shirts are from Mark’s Work Wearhouse, not Roden Gray.
Over in the corner, a silver-haired couple ponders an assortment of sharing plates clustered in front of them. The airy cheese soufflé, charred squid and yogurt-drizzled carrots all look delectable, but their raised brows and resigned sighs say, “How are we supposed to eat this?”
Where are we?
A charming farm-to-table restaurant, Salted Vine Kitchen + Bar, could easily be at home in Mount Pleasant, or New Westminster. The room has the rustic polish of a Brooklynized neighbourhood. And the menu hits all the current trends – with strokes sufficiently broad to assure newly nested parents that they’re not missing out on their former lifestyles, yet edgy enough to puzzle old-timers.
But we’re not in the city or even the up-and-coming suburbs. Tonight, we’re dining in Squamish, the historic logging outpost and railway terminus halfway between Vancouver and Whistler. No longer just a pit stop for travellers on their way to ski-powder heaven, Squamish has become a burgeoning bedroom community for young commuter families drawn by the great outdoors and still relatively affordable housing market.
One of those in-between, city-meets-country municipal districts that cannot be neatly categorized, Squamish boasts the fastest-growing (and youngest) population in the province. Its restaurant scene has, however, lagged the recent mini-explosion of micro distilleries, craft breweries, cideries and cafés. Unless you count the preponderance of sushi, that is: Squamish has five sushi restaurants.
The town was obviously starving for something more sophisticated. Opened in mid-September, Salted Vine has already been named the most romantic date-night restaurant by the local newspaper and is packed on weekends with numerous large parties celebrating special occasions.
The crowds are handled with professional aplomb by a team of seasoned veterans, who all live locally and were thrilled to give up the commute to either Whistler or Vancouver. From exceptionally warm welcomes to encyclopedic knowledge of the menu, the service hits higher than most Vancouver restaurants at the same mid-range level. It’s co-owned by general manager/sommelier Pat Allan and executive chef Jeff Park, who, between them, logged more than 25 years at Araxi, one of Whistler’s finest restaurants.
Bar manager Dave Warren, also an Araxi alumnus, makes excellent cocktails, all named after local climbing routes and bike trails, with handcrafted precision, fresh-squeezed juices and top-shelf spirits. Mr. Allan’s international wine list offers an enticing range of options at all price points, from bargain to extravagant.
The modern-country farmhouse decor suits the setting, in the base of the downtown Hotel Squamish, the city’s oldest standing building, circa 1910. The colourful oil paintings, wooden serving boards and ceramic dishware are all the work of local artists. The cozy country-cottage design, which includes exposed structural beams in a bright lounge abutting the open kitchen, was conceived by Chef Park – a self-confessed home-renovation-reality-show junkie. The only drawback is the noise, which bounces around the recessed seating nooks at intolerable levels when the dining room is full. Some sound baffling is needed.
In the kitchen, Mr. Park is joined by Curtis and Nori Cram, a husband-and-wife sous-chef team, also poached from Araxi. The mass exodus must have hit the ski-resort restaurant hard.
Deceptively casual by nature of the shared plates – old hat for Vancouver, perhaps, yet radical for Squamish – the cooking is executed at a very high level.
All the often-outsourced labour-intensive extras are made in-house. This includes exceptionally chewy, golden-crusted sourdough bread, tender tortellini rolled into plump pies bursting with creamed squash, tangy pickles and mustards, and thick terrines pressed with fatty chunks of ham hock and great lashings of herbs. Even the caramel taffy, almond financiers and candied ground berries for the complimentary petit fours – yes, petit fours in Squamish – are made on site.
The kitchen sources as much as possible from local farms, some too small to serve other restaurants. Brackendale’s Nutrient Dense Farm, for example, provides the sugary beets for a generous plate of burrata cheese, served weepingly soft, with micro greens and candied granola. The farm’s honey-roasted carrots, dusted in Middle Eastern spices and sprinkled with almonds, are so fresh and crunchy they taste like they were dug out of the soil that morning.
The meat is also sourced locally, except for the lusciously rich Alberta-raised Wagyu beef, which is tenderized sous-vide and crisply seared to thickly marbled perfection. The five-ounce portion, finished with crunchy crystals of sea salt and served with wilted kale for only $19, is easily the best steak deal in the entire province.
Other elements of unexpected extravagance include a tall, cloud-like cheese soufflé – the texture more cotton ball cumulus than a light and fragile cirrus due to it being twice baked, but impressive nonetheless. And a dreamily creamy mushroom risotto, lightly hit with citrusy yuzu and buried under Burgundy truffles.
Mr. Park, who is Korean, is slowly introducing some Asian influences. There is a brightly pongy house-made gochujang hot sauce drizzled around the seared neon squid. And the meltingly tender pork belly is served in an exquisitely clean, slightly sweet dashi broth.
The menu may not break new ground, by Vancouver or Whistler standards, but everything is very well done. Located anywhere else, Salted Vine would be an excellent restaurant. For Squamish, it’s extraordinary.
Editor's note: An earlier digital version of this story incorrectly stated the name of Squamish's oldest standing building. It is Hotel Squamish, not Squamish Hotel. This version has been updated.Report Typo/Error