If our city’s fine-dining scene had observed a gangland hit and needed to enter the witness protection program, there’d be worse places to hide out than on Kitsilano’s Yew Street. It’s an area where parking is non-existent and where most diners are more interested in the daily pint special than in an obscure Italian aperitivo that pairs well with a perfectly poached peach. But it’s here—right smack dab in the laid-back salty air—that chef Makoto Ono has opened the elegant Mak N Ming, a 26-seat ode to Michelin-style fine dining.
Ono has always been one of the country’s most talented, if perplexing, chefs. He shot to national acclaim in 2007 by winning Canada’s first Gold Medal Plates and, in true Ono style, he capitalized on his new fame by immediately leaving the country—first for Beijing and then Hong Kong. He returned to Vancouver in 2012 to open Pidgin, but the controversy around its location overshadowed the good work being done and he quietly ended his tenure there a few years back. There were rumours he had pulled a Daniel Day-Lewis and become a fishmonger, but the actual reality is equally as surprising. To call his new restaurant a bold move would be an understatement: a bold move is charging for bread and butter or having a fully natural wine menu. A high-concept tasting menu in the middle of Vancouver’s most casual ’hood is bordering on performance art.
His partners in the Mak N Ming act are Amanda Cheng (in charge of pastry) and the incomperable Roger Maniwa (he was this magazine’s Sommelier of the Year in 2016), who decamped from the cushy environs of Hawksworth to work in a space about the size of that esteemed restaurant’s coatroom. The interiors by Scott and Scott are elegant without looking like they’re trying too hard (clean-looking blond wood, bentwood chairs, honed-marble tables) and as airy as can be in less than 900 square feet. We start with a gratis glass of something creative and seasonal and a menu so spare that it looks like E.E. Cummings wrote it. There are just two options: the four-course $54 demi menu (if you’re in the mood for Humboldt squid, rutabaga, seaweed) or the more expansive $78 seven-course chef’s menu (if it’s an abalone, cucumber, black garlic sort of day). Both are laser focused.
There are no safe-harbour choices—like comforting pasta—sprinkled into the lineup and even a dish that sounds straightforward—like chicken and rice—is in reality a high-wire interpretation of Hainan classic that involves unorthodox techniques, in this case, slow-poaching a chicken breast and then being confident enough to serve it unadorned in all its whiteness with a scant scattering of wild rice and confit of chicken leg dotted like islands in a light broth. If you choose to go with Maniwa’s pairings ($43.50 for the chef’s menu), don’t expect any softballs, either—sake and vermouth play key roles, and his compact list contains gems like a 1999 Chenin Blanc from Savennières (a steal at $142). Cheng’s desserts loosen the reins…a little. A summer peach pie is deconstructed, but the spot-on ingredients (a ripe Okanagan peach poached in cardamom and ginger and served with a pâte brisée crust and cold vanilla cream) can’t help but be an approachable crowd pleaser.
By the time you read this, the menu will no doubt be different—one imagines Ono shuddering at having something as hokey as a “signature dish”—so what could one expect? “Perfection” seems a bit grandiose, but it’s fair to say you’ll find no team in town that, night in and night out, is striving to reach that lofty goal more so than the crew at Mak N Ming.