Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 20, 2017
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Mais Oui!

Vancouver chefs may not be fluent, but they sure can cook like the French

Vancouver is seeing a resurrection in fine dining. Montreal has Toqué!, rightly praised for its contemporary Quebec-French cooking, but the city remains in a bubble with the sort of French that sent us into a swoon in the last century, circa the 1960s. Toronto, at heart an Italian city, never really had a great French restaurant until recent years at Truffles in the Four Seasons. In the meantime, Canada's lotus-land has left the rest of us in its dust: Vancouverites allegedly spend twice as much on dining out as Torontonians. Their city leads the nation in finesse with fish and seafood. These days, Vancouver is rolling out the gastronomic fleur-de-lis with unnerving confidence.

Whether you live in the city, or are planning a trip for a convention or simply to visit family over the holidays, the indulgence, and dent in your credit card, are definitely worthwhile. An evening at any of the following restaurants will leave a fond taste in your mouth for months to come.

Lumière
Vancouver's Gallic roll ranges from the truly luminous Lumière to the sumptuous Fleuri in Sutton Place, but along the way, the inescapable questions nag: what exactly is French these days? Is a Parisian chef working with Pacific salmon and Alaskan black cod really French cuisine?

The answer to these questions is both yes and no, depending on the restaurant. French cuisine is surprisingly fluid at the outset of the 21st century; its once unbending orthodoxy is now more relaxed. While Vancouver chefs have maintained the basis of French cuisine, they've become more creative with their ingredients. The best among them embrace bedrock standards of purity of ingredients, sophistication of technique and fidelity to keenly defined flavours. Lumière's braised sockeye salmon, set, almost raw, on a vinaigrette of chopped Niìoise olives, lemon and roasted red peppers, is French enough for me.

Lumière has been anointed by Vancouver magazine as the city's leading restaurant four years in a row, not an easy throne to keep. The restaurant lives up to its name with flickering candles on a palette of immaculate white linens, sparkling crystal, birch furniture, oversized mirrors and white lilies cascading from a shimmering steel wall sconce.

In the restaurant's fifth year, chef Rob Feenie has realized his dream of dining as adventure. There is no à la carte menu. Instead, he presents four multi-course menus priced from $60 to $100 per person. The most popular is the $70 seafood menu, which for example, could include not only the braised sockeye salmon, but two other amazing signatures: a creamed soup of Chilliwack peaches-and-cream corn, lobster and a drop or two of truffle oil, and a combo of juicily seared Alaskan scallop and green pea ravioli, basking in a broth of summer truffle, and capped with a Parmesan wafer. Ooh-la-la.

The $60-menu courts the usually hapless vegetarian with invention in the order of wild mushroom ragout and Roquefort cheese with Champagne grapes and frisÄe salad. The $100-blowout, 11-course grand tasting menu, possibly the most opulent single meal in Vancouver, sends the gourmand into a sensual spin. With Alaska black cod (recently renamed sablefish) marinated in sake and maple syrup, and drizzled with citrus butter, this is a dish of breathtaking beauty. Another wonder is a pot-au-feu of young chicken, Peking duck and Quebec foie gras, perched in a jus of Chinese five-spice. So much for orthodoxy.

One of two desserts on the slate is expresso crème brûlée. My wife is an addict and a tough marker when it comes to crème brûlée, and Feenie's scored nine out of 10 on her formidable scale. You might consider finishing with a Gehringer ice wine from the Okanagan, one of a select group of BC wines managed by sommelier Neil Ingram, another Toronto talent gone west.

Le Crocodile
A longtime French favourite -- Feenie started out as sous-chef here -- is Le Crocodile, restaurateur Michel Jacob's seamless take on classic Gallic. The room is decorated with armloads of flowers and contemporary art, and servers in Parisian vests and aprons scurry about. Jacob's Alsatian sensibilities take care of the rest: the house kicker is a Crocokir, champagne drizzled with a tart meld of passion fruit and cognac, a refreshing change for those of us tired with kir royale. The stellar starter is certainly foie gras, sensational duck liver from Quebec, the lily gilded with a perfect fat scallop perched on a potato blini and served with nibbles of duck confit in a port wine sauce.

Main courses vary from veal sweetbreads in a Calvados sauce to roast duck with a green olive sauce. Giant Malaysian tiger shrimp, a monumental crustacean afloat in a pool of lemon and butter with a side of crisply fried potato, reinvents fish and chips for the 21st century. Dessert? Feathery banana strudel garnished with the province's legendary raspberries and blueberries would fill the bill even without the accompanying praline ice cream studded with crushed hazelnuts.

Le Gavroche
Le Gavroche has occupied the same Victorian frame-house on the outskirts of Stanley Park for 21 years, an achievement in itself. It also appears to have cornered the market on romance, with one publication naming it the "best place to kiss in the Pacific Northwest."

The second-storey restaurant combines a fine view of the mountains, the charm of a private home and a wine list rightly celebrated for its multiple vintages of great Bordeaux: a Lafite Rothschild 1929 will cost you $650, and a 1863 Latour, $7500. Signatures include cake of Dungeness crab and shrimp with sundried tomato fritter, smoked sablefish with fava beans and rack of lamb in a mustard crust. And why aren't you surprised the dessert is a silky crème brûlée?

 

Provence Mediterranean Grill
Vancouver folk don't need a year in Provence when they have the Provence Mediterranean Grill in Point Grey, not far from UBC and an afternoon on Wreck Beach. The restaurant is the baby of restaurateurs Jean-Francis and Alessandra Quaglia, who hail from restaurant families and together have enough gastronomic DNA to command a sky full of Michelin stars.

The terracotta-hued exterior with masses of potted flowers leads into an ambiance sunny enough to ward off the West Coast monsoon. Go straight to the charcuterie, which invites you to orchestrate a lavish platter of starters including pissaladière piled high with olives, anchovies, onions and herbs; meaty lamb sausage infused with red pepper and fennel in the Moroccan style; and pan-fried goat cheese under a crust of breadcrumbs and herbes de Provence. Equally fine, two beautiful scallops arrive in a black olive and caper sauce, paired with a warm salad of unfettered happiness: a tangle of fresh snow pea sprouts howling with garlic, sundried tomato, fennel and caper vinaigrette.

Among main dishes, Provence's crowd is clearly hooked on seafood linguine, but one of the country's few real bouillabaises, properly served with croutons and surging rouille, delivers the essence of Provence. A Domaine Santa Duc Côtes du Rhône proves you really can make a seamless marriage of fish and red wine. For dessert, try the lemon tart.

Pastis
The most recent addition to Vancouver's French scene is Pastis, in which former Lumière chef Frank Pabst and Diva at the Met maître d' John Blakeley married their formidable talents to come up with instant acclaim (it walked off with Vancouver magazine's best new resto of 1999). Softly lit, with round tables, abundant tropical flowers and a gas fireplace for those long, grey days, Pastis displays the raucous bustle of a booming restaurant.

The five-course, $50 tasting menu is a bargain, and with Blakeley's expertly chosen wines -- a commendable slate of 50 wines by the glass -- for an additional $25, its an outright steal. The moderately priced ê la carte menu is a showcase of Pabst's perfectionist cuisine: goat cheese and oven-dried tomato tart with caramelized onions and tapenade vinaigrette is a whirlwind of intensity. Ling cod in a prawn crust, underpinned by a medley of mushrooms (chanterelles, elm and a new species of mushroom) demonstrates Pabst's fixation with detail and balance. Start with steak tartare with frites, potatoes in the true Bistro tradition, if you like. Many do.

A main course of halibut with vegetable ragout and a splash of pesto is the soul of delicacy, and a Stag's Hollow Chardonnay from the Okanagan takes it clear over the top. Justly popular among regulars is duck breast, roasted as rare as you like, with potato roesti, red and yellow beets and a concentrated Pinot-Noir jus. Juicy lamb sirloin rounds out a menu that otherwise respects the vegetarian with some risotto or ragout bordering on extravaganza. Desserts run from a remarkable crème brûlée drizzled with pastis, to fig cake with buttermilk ice cream.

Fleuri
Hotel dining rooms automatically tilt to France, but deliver a tepid performance. Not so with the CAA/AAA Five-Diamond Sutton Place, whose Fleuri seems better than ever under the helmsmanship of former sous-chef Michael Deutsch. Table 50, set back in an alcove, is the spot to reserve for watching the action (when Arnold Schwarzenegger spent seven months in Sutton Place on location for his last movie, he held court in Fleuri).

Cedar Creek Chardonnay from the Okanagan does justice to such starters as meaty smoked quail confit garnished with designer greens spilling from a crisply fried pastry cup. A foie gras duo of velvet terrine and seared liver, that cocaine of cuisine flown in from Quebec, is predictably fine.

In a reversal of the norm that sees chefs creating with starters while following a conservative line with main courses, it's the mains that sing at Fleuri. Deutsch delights in a carnivore's carnival. His rack of Australian lamb is three massive chops you could mug a quarterback with; their flesh glowingly pink in a citrus crust. If you don't think he means business, he throws in a crepinette of shredded lamb shank every bit as delicious as the rack. His veal chop is topped with two lovely jumbo shrimps in a rich morel sauce. Seafood lovers warm to the signature tea-steamed black cod. If you can handle dessert after this, try the Grand Marnier chocolate crème brûlée, but don't say we didn't warn you.

Bacchus
Street-level access, a real human being at the grand piano and a glamorous informality lend Bacchus in Eleni Skalbania's Wedgewood Hotel the feel of an independent restaurant. It proves a fine theatre for chef Robert Sulatycky's playful pairings. Imagine a menu with such calculated sensual assaults as scallops prepared in two ways, foie gras in three ways and veal in three ways, the latter a mélange of roasted loin, braised shank and crispy sweetbreads.

The scallops are in two crackling phyllo shells, one bedded down with sautéed leeks, dressed with poached lemon peel and star anise, and the other nestled in spinach and sporting a slice of truffle. This could tempt you to order everything in duos or trios, but that wouldn't be fair to the solo acts: the Paul Bocuse d'Or World Cuisine winner is breast of squab dusted in pistachio and stuffed with sliced truffle. Soupe de poissons is the Provence classic given due respect, roaring with fish and seafood, garlic, saffron and fennel, garlicky rouille and croutons, the sort of fish soup that makes you want to rip off your shirt and lick the bowl.

After such a soup, accompanied by a racy Burrowing Owl Pinot Gris, you make do with roast salmon, supple and succulent, with saffron potatoes, and halibut larded with smoked salmon, encrusted with salt and redolent of truffle and thyme. Do they surpass the celestial soup on the pleasure meter? Uh-uh, not a chance. But when did that keep anyone from tucking into another truffle?

Finally, as we're departing Vancouver, we hear excited whispers about something called Café Salade de Fruits, a bistro as simple as they come with just two wines, red and white, and beef or fish and frites the way you ought to find them in Paris, but almost never do. Makes you want to cancel your airline ticket, buy berets and put a bid on a condo.

 

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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