Royal Dinette, the newest venture from chef and restaurateur David Gunawan (Farmer’s Apprentice, Grapes and Soda), had people talking long before it opened its doors. In partnering with the Donnelly Group—owner of more than a dozen local bars, pubs, and eateries—some questioned whether the visionary, independent-minded, locavore-focused Gunawan might be compromising his autonomy.
The room, which shares space with Donnelly’s Blackbird Public House and Oyster Bar, reinforces this impression. According to its website, Royal Dinette is meant to evoke “the laidback, informal atmosphere of a bygone diner.” But that would be a diner as only a high-budget restaurant designer could imagine it. I like the open kitchen, with all its culinary geekery on display: blowtorches and Rational ovens, ranks of squeeze bottles and plastic tubs. But with its green leather bar chairs, black and white marble, gilded pillars, and stag’s-head coat hooks, no nighthawk is ever going to order a blue-plate special and a cup of joe in this place.
Which doesn’t matter much, in part because of the killer team Gunawan has assembled: managers Chen-Wei Lee (formerly of Bao Bei, Chambar, Wildebeest) and Jonathan Therrien (Café Medina, Chambar), bar manager Wendy McGuinness (Chambar), and head chef Jack Chen (Bishop’s, Farmer’s Apprentice, L’Abattoir). That’s the SEAL Team Six of the Vancouver resto scene right there. And for the most part, what they delivered to the table when I visited (the offerings change frequently) was impressive in its innovation and technical exactitude.
The appetizers set a striking precedent. Smoked Castelvetrano olives napped with anchovy and lemon (a justifiably famous fixture of the menu at Farmer’s Apprentice) were a welcome offering here. Beef tartare was excellent, bedded on a light-green purée of sorrel and brown butter, and sprinkled with shavings of cured egg yolk plus smoked and dried beef-heart jerky. It might not make sense on paper, but it did on the palate.
Similarly, mains were a procession of revelation. Summer squash and peach are a strange pairing. Pistachio and Thai basil even more so. Colatura anchovy sauce is a flat-out weird accompaniment. But Chen put all of those things together on a single plate and it tasted great. We felt the same apprehension about capellini with duck confit, sauced with eggplant purée and miso butter. We ate it in a kind of curious silence, aware of a creative imagination at play in surprising and effective ways.
Not every combination nailed it, as is bound to be the case with this sort of cooking. A dish billed as Pacific Halibut, Grilled Octopus, Brassica, Smoked Pork, and Seaweed Broth (every dish is referenced on the menu simply as a list of its components) ate more or less as it read. Everything on the plate appeared to have been fastidiously assembled, but we came away thinking the dish might have been prepared by four cooks contributing their respective elements from different kitchens. Caramelized octopus, moist halibut, porky broth—great parts not quite equalling a coherent sum.
Another dish—Tamworth and Berkshire Pork, Grilled Treviso, Sweet Onion—left a similar impression. Nice flavours, its spicy tomatillos playing well with the onion. But the pork itself (oven-roasted, we were told) was distinctly chewy, seemingly having been smoked before roasting. And it wasn’t clear that the elements needed each other. Was it really a “dish,” a comprehensible whole, or a one-off coalescence of ideas you won’t necessarily think about, much less crave again, in future?
Desserts closed the show in the same vein: fine flavours in unexpected combinations. Dark chocolate sorbet was served with poached pear, fresh cheese, sorrel, and pecan. Summer berries came with goat’s-milk jam and sorbet, lime curd, cubeb pepper sablé, and shiso. A lot of what Royal Dinette is about can be understood by considering this last creation. It’s typical of the menu, punctuated with offhand references to items your average dining enthusiast wouldn’t know: bagna cauda, colatura, Treviso, brassicas. A cubeb pepper is an Indonesian tailed peppercorn, used here to impart an almost imperceptible flavouring to a cookie crumble that tops the dessert. It tasted great, but was not so essential that I would have remembered it without taking notes.
And that, in the end, may be the big takeaway from the Royal Dinette experience. This is food from the school of High Eclecticism—a kind of anti-diner aesthetic where every visit is about the element of surprise, not the comfortingly familiar. And while menus built this way—upon ever-changing, improvisational plates—are sure to have sensory impact in the moment, they don’t necessarily linger long in the memory.