Best New Restaurant 2016: Royal Dinette

Chef David Gunawan is also this year's Chef of the Year

April 13, 2016

By Timothy Taylor / Photo: Andrew Querner

It’s probably safe to say that “business as usual” is not a concept that David Gunawan looks upon favourably. After all, his career has been defined by a seemingly relentless need for change, both in the plates he puts out and the places in which they get served. That sensibility has found its fullest expression at Royal Dinette, where the food that he and head chef Jack Chen are creating is almost defiantly—and always unapologetically—creative.

The products of Gunawan’s unique form of culinary intelligence have always been apparent, but they became impossible to ignore last year. Vancouver Magazine’s Restaurant Awards judges certainly didn’t, given that they named Royal Dinette as 2016’s Best New Restaurant and Gunawan as their chef of the year.

Royal Dinette makes four high-end success stories in four years that Gunawan’s name has been attached to—six if you count stints at Maenam and Ouest that came before Wildebeest. That’s where he spent six months working with James Iranzad and Josh Pape on their  nose-to-tail Gastown project before launching the highly acclaimed Farmer’s Apprentice, and he would go on to add Grapes & Soda next door a year later. Now, it seems, he’s put both of them on the market in order to focus on Royal Dinette, which opened in the summer of 2015. And one just feels certain that something surprising will soon be in the news.

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But that sense of restlessness and constant reinvention should be familiar to diners who know Gunawan’s plates, because all of his ventures since leaving Wildebeest have featured changing menus that embrace innovation and the unexpected. To wit, a menu fixe, drawing on items from all of those rooms:

Sourdough with smoked onion butter.
Egg yolk, potato, onion, and granola.
Squash, peach, pistachio, Thai basil, and colatura anchovy sauce.
And for dessert: turnip, green lime sorbet, yogurt foam, celery.

Each of these is deliciously strange, deliciously innovative. And no wonder: at Pecha Kucha last year, Gunawan described his culinary philosophy in terms of eliminating “predictable outcomes and emotions.”

Where does the impulse come from? A clue lies in his leadership style. “Dave has a lovely, slightly idealistic, hyper-democratic, round table type of kitchen leadership,” says James Iranzad. “He likes to encourage other people’s creativity.”

Maybe another clue is provided by a comment Gunawan made later in his Pecha Kucha speech. Grinning a little sheepishly, the chef told the crowd: “We don’t want you to like everything about us. I find it boring to love all dishes. I’d rather you like one and hate another and find two okay, then have a dessert that’s amazing.” That’s probably the most important thing to know about this chef. His primary objective isn’t to make you feel comfortable. These rooms are about ingredients and invention. And Gunawan himself may be off in a corner, musing on what comes next. “Even on a busy Friday night service, Dave could be working in the prep kitchen,” Iranzad says. “He didn’t need to lead the line every time. He was often happy just developing his ideas.”

A recent photo posted to Gunawan’s Instagram gives a sense of how this looks in practice. A paper menu is marked up with ballpoint and Sharpie scribbles. Items are crossed out and replaced or reordered, and down the right margin is a list of ingredients: kale chip, radish and butter, dehydrated carrot, grilled broccoli, daikon, pickled mushrooms, onion chip. Who knows how those will coalesce into a single dish? But here you see a cluster of culinary imaginations sparking off one another, opening up the possibilities of what the moment can offer.

If Farmer’s Apprentice and Grapes & Soda do sell, and Royal Dinette becomes the only jewel in Gunawan’s crown for the time being, Vancouver diners will still have ample opportunity to encounter the roving, experimental, and inspired ideas of this unique chef. The menu, as of mid-March, featured items such as lamb tartare, caramelized yogurt, sunchoke, pear, egg yolk, and pumpernickel; skate, clams, olive and herb panisse, kale buds, and chicken velouté; and hazelnut ice cream, kabocha squash, dark chocolate, and orange. In every case an unusual ingredient, a unique combination. In short: a surprise.

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