Although some people might have trouble locating the Shop, which is hidden among transport trucks and warehouses in a North Shore industrial park, the meat is impossible to miss. It’s right there in your face opposite the front door, hanging on hooks inside a glass-walled dry-aging room—a hulking array of fat-marbled flanks ranging from bright ruby red and still slightly moist to withered and mouldy with purplish-brown crusts.
The raw sides take pride of place because, while technically a restaurant (and a very good one at that) with casual counter service, communal seating and an open wood-fired grill, the Shop is first and foremost a traditional working butchery. Consider it a whole-animal hybrid where you can buy your steak and eat it too.
Opened in October, the gleaming subway-tiled and wood-trimmed meatery is owned by Two Rivers Specialty Meats, a 10-year-old processor and purveyor of top-quality beef, lamb, pork, chicken, turkey and game, all humanely raised and ethically treated (without hormones, antibiotics, chemical-feed additives, yada, yada) on small farms in local pastures. If the Two Rivers name sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve seen it splashed across menus in the best restaurants around town. Until now, the meat was sold only wholesale and not directly accessible to the public. Believe me, I’ve tried several times to get my hands on their delectable rabbit.
Alas, I still can’t. Today’s two fresh Fraser Valley bunnies sold out long before noon, along with 10 quail. Head butcher Pasqual Stufano apologizes profusely. He didn’t think there would be such great demand for the rarities. “How about some of these lovely dry-aged duck breasts?” he offers. Or perhaps a giant pork-and-veal meatball wrapped in lacy caul fat?
Surprisingly young and exceptionally keen, Stufano is one of the friendliest butchers you will ever encounter. He takes us through the meat display. A vast selection of beef (much of it aged 45 to 60 days, and all hand-tooled according to muscle type) is reasonably priced: dry-aged boneless rib-eye, for example, costs $6.45 per 100 grams, or about $23 for a 12-ounce steak. He then walks us over to the deli counter (so much tempting charcuterie) and even offers to ring up our lunch. We can shop before eating and store our purchases in the walk-in cooler. Pay now or later. Just want to eat? No problem! He goes through the same rigamarole with every customer, and we’re all pleasantly baffled. The restaurant staff is equally accommodating. With so many points of service, the whole multifunctional operation could easily descend into chaos. Whoever did the training should be saluted because wow, the experience is astonishingly smooth.
On the other side of the room, we order lunch, take our number (pierced into a desiccated bone) and mosey on over to bar stools beside the grill. It’s a beast of a rig, spitting fire and smoke from burning and smouldering birch that has been barn-dried in Pemberton for 730 days. By the time our drinks are delivered (Left Field cider and Hester Creek pinot gris on tap), we are salivating into our complimentary tallow-cooked popcorn.
The dry-aged cheeseburgers ($13) look so damn good and taste even better. The gently charred patties are built from a freshly ground, whole-shoulder blend of Cache Creek beef. They’re cooked medium-pink in the centre, but that’s just the start. Almost every element on this masterpiece gets licked by fire—a thick slice of cheddar is melted thoroughly overtop, while house-smoked bacon, tomatoes and brioche buns are toasted on the griddle. Add a smear of stocky aioli, a tangy layer of bread-and-butter zucchini pickles and a $5 side of lightly crisped, liberally salted fries (infused with mouth-coating beefy goodness from boiling tallow) and you’re in burger heaven. Deeply flavoured but not too gamey, juicy yet not a slobbery mess, rich and at the same time fresh—this is a seriously strong contender for the best burger in town.
Signature steak tartare ($9) is a generous portion of hand-ground petite tender, which might be even more succulent if it were hand-diced instead. Still, mixed with caper vinaigrette and sharp mustard, and topped with a grating of cured egg yolk (as rich and salty as parmesan), it’s a very tasty dish.
Beet slaw with jalapeno dressing is a little too oily and slick. But come on, can you really expect great vegetables from a butcher shop? Well, the rotisserie cauliflower, with its meaty, golden-edged florets draped in spicy green chermoula, is a standout, perhaps because it’s given the slow-roasted chicken treatment.
For dessert, there are tallow-fried beignets sprinkled with Tiny Tom sugar, and maple-bourbon sundaes if you hit the right day. The specials board always offers meat pie, sausage and steak features, while the kids’ menu includes a smaller burger, all-beef hot dog and lovely charred chicken drumsticks.
But where’s the rabbit, or the offal? Two Rivers is a whole-animal butchery that has a huge stash of obscure meats and off-cuts at its disposal. The Shop offers a unique opportunity to broaden diners’ horizons and give us more edible education about the rarities we could actually buy and cook at home. Why not serve roasted pork trotters and tripe casseroles or just plain elk, boar and bison? On the other hand, maybe I should just shut up right now, because that would only make my beloved bunnies even harder to source.