Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

September 26, 2021
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At the plate

Take a swing at Vancouver's powerhouse restaurant scene

To unravel the strands of Vancouver's contemporary DNA, which might now comprise the most exciting gene pool in the world, you need look no farther than to its restaurants. Across the city, the hybridized local cuisine neatly reflects more than 150 cultures quietly converging. Once-exotic ingredients — miso, ponzu, nori, shiso — effortlessly weave their way through nightly menus and combine with the myriad local seafoods, cheeses, wines, vegetables and game. The flavours are as muscular and fresh as the mountains that surround the city, but as fluid as the Pacific — they announce that you are eating here, and here alone.

Just ask the waves of food and wine journalists pouring into Vancouver who arrive unknowing and leave disbelieving. Like its attractive citizens, each night at dinner what was once fused is now merged, and Vancouver has become the most exciting dining city on the west coast of the continent.

The Economist magazine recently named Vancouver as one of the planet's most livable cities. Many think that livability has much to do with the city's accessibility, how easy it is to get to the things you need. Or perhaps it's about how well its people — some with cheekbones as sheer as German airports, others as rounded as the newest Gehry construction —— simply accept each other. Or maybe the real reason is that Vancouverites are just so busy eating. For in Vancouver restaurants, it's much better to bring a sense of taste than one of occasion.

Phnom Penh
244 East Georgia Street; tel: (604) 682-5777
On the eastern fringe of Old Chinatown is Phnom Penh, a Cambodian/ Vietnamese restaurant distinctly different from the pho shops strung across the town. The decor is basic, the service familial and the larger round tables ideal for groups. Hot-and-sour soup with fresh prawns is floral and deep with lemongrass, cilantro and chilies and the Chinese greens are suavely sauced. They may be the best leafy vegetable you'll ever eat.

Phnom Penh was one of the first ethnic restaurants in Vancouver to be lauded by The New York Times, which raved over the signature spicy garlic squid. Cross-hatched baby squid tubes are dry-marinated overnight and then deep-fried in a gossamer-thin coat of rice flour — they scream of sea-licked umami, that elusive fifth taste, and will ensure that you'll never settle for wedding-ring calamari again. Regulars also order the butter beef — tissue-thin slices, barely seared, marinated in cilantro, lime and fish sauce, then spread on a plate like the petals of a flower and sprinkled with crunchy deep-fried garlic. It's a lovely dish, delicate enough to be Japanese, but sensual enough to ignite even the most far-fetched romance.

2563 West Broadway; tel: (604) 739-7115
Celebrated chef Rob Feenie made his mark with the vaunted Lumière but has now extended his brand into a casual Canadian brasserie. He and his talented brigade of sous chefs have deconstructed classics and put them back together again, bigger and brassier than ever.

Their shepherd's pie promotes duck confit with mushroom duxelles and truffled mashed potatoes. You'll find cleanly wrought soups (duck broth with duck wontons; a silken, lusty onion gratinée), a charcuterie board numbering up to seven of the Oyama Sausage Co.'s remarkable products and a dish that speaks to the genealogy of Vancouver dining: braised beef short-ribs with sautéed bok choy and edamame in a ginger and lime reduction. But wait, there's less: a fabulous hamburger and even a smoked hot dog, served with sauerkraut and lardons.

The room is red with blonde wood tables and other exciting features (like a yellow chandelier sprouting hair). Why, there are even flat-screen TVs for those who take their poutine with doses of hockey as well as plenty of draft beers and a clever wine list. And you'll feel rather clever as well, for having eaten so well and for so little.

1480 West 11th Avenue; tel: (604) 736-6664
Vikram Vij's temple to impactful Indian flavours welcomes the devoted nightly. Supplicants start assembling early (the restaurant does not accept reservations, but there's a pleasant back bar with chilly half-litres of India Pale Ales while you wait).

Everything is good, but note the shrimp, scallops and Dungeness crab in coconut-saffron curry with cashews; buffalo in spicy raw-sugar curry with cold pea-and-fennel salad; Punjabi saag and homemade paneer or grilled mutton kebabs with Bengali curry.

The condiments, especially a soothing mint-mango chutney, help hit the reset button. The menu changes frequently but is always delicious, and a must-visit for culinary tourists. Now, the perpetual winner as Best Indian in Vancouver magazine's Critics' Poll continues to expand — thank Krishna — and there is takeout and condiments for sale next door at the newly opened Rangoli.



Bis Moreno
1355 Hornby Street; tel: (604) 669-2812
Here's a concept: a seven-course pasta tasting menu — the anti-Atkins diet for you contrarians — for $45, neatly served in the best new Italian restaurant to open in the city in years. Or you can order at random from the restaurant's many small plates. Either way, Moreno Miotto's cooking is transforming.

Begin with the white asparagus soup, a suave song high-noted with truffle oil. Follow either with translucent pumpkin ravioli with sage butter and amaretti, or the nightly pasta with the signature tomato-basil sauce. Then a hickory-smoked beef short-rib braised in red wine served with Parmesan-spiked risotto. Monkfish arrives wrapped in pancetta, with farmhouse sausage and a rosemary-infused balsamic syrup. To finish, a small portion of pillowy gnocchi with wild boar meat. And the desserts are worthy too.

The intelligently selected wine list is well-aimed at the menu, the service friendly but as crisp as the snowy linen. Expect a sensual sermon in flavour that never preaches, and one that will make you think — of other great meals mainly, but also about getting a room.

Bluewater Café and Raw Bar
1095 Hamilton Street; tel: (604) 688-8078
Rustic in its brick-and-beam decor but polished with smooth service, an extensive, fish-friendly wine list and well-choreographed service, Bluewater offers nuanced, Kyoto-style sushi from master Yoshi Tabo, one of the best cut-men in a city full of them. The raw bar also offers a selection of up to 15 different French and North American oysters, and a multi-storeyed plateau de mer, a terrific beginning for groups.

From the hot line — a long demonstration kitchen that describes the north side of the room — watch chef Frank Pabst (formerly of Lumière and Pastis) lead his brigade in compound, hybrid dishes such as pan-seared sturgeon served on braised salsify with pomme purée and sautéed hedgehog mushrooms. Or miso-crusted British Columbia sablefish bedded on soba noodles with smoked tuna broth, shiitake mushrooms and lotus chips. But there's plenty of land-going protein as well, including well-crafted steak, poultry and game dishes. The bar is popular, especially on hockey nights, and afterwards becomes a popular respite for weary Canucks — and their hoarse fans.

1600 Howe Street; tel: (604) 681-1164
Restauranteur Harry Kambolis' gem gives its waterfront location a watershed restaurant — and what many now consider the best seafood dining in the country. The sleek room leads to a prime patio (with extraordinary Pacific views over False Creek into the setting sun) and the aggressive sourcing of local and long-distance (but always sustainable) raw product is definitive.

Signature Skeena River sockeye terrine, or the house-made gravlax are musts to start. And while executive chef Robert Clark's "tip-to-tail" salmon tasting menu is revelatory, countless other innovative touches include a vertical bento tasting box (including lobster sunumono and ponzu jelly), birch syrup-glazed Pacific sardines or a main of octopus-bacon wrapping diver scallops, with, yes, seared Quebec foie gras. And while many swear by the Clark Harbour halibut, I had one of the best steaks of my life here — hopefully from a sustainable herd. The wonderful, extensive, fish-friendly wine list is orchestrated by sommelier Tom Doughty, a credit to the honourable profession.

2881 Granville Street; tel: (604) 738-8938
Renovated last year to reflect a more relaxed style, with lush music and fresh design elements, the new menu also reflects a laid-back approach to sharing. Although the six-course land-and-sea tasting menus remain, diners can now challenge chef David Hawksworth's selection of smaller plates.

He buys the best local and long-distance ingredients and knows exactly when to get out of their way. The result: West is now one of Canada's very best restaurants; the intensity shows on plates of bison rib-eye with wild mushroom and sweet-pea fricassee, or in a delicately structured, perfectly poached salmon sunumono. Deep complexity without complication describes the Princess Island ling cod with organic olive tapenade and a ragout of Manila clams, peppers and capers. Follow with stellar desserts such as rhubarb soufflé with crème anglaise, or coconut pudding with lemon cream.

At the bar, informed servers work up highballs and pour from a lengthy wine list. Locals drop in for fish and chips — a model of the genre — or a Wagyu beef burger and fries. Now open for brunch; the three-course pre-theatre menu is excellent value at $29.

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