If you’re like most people, the start of your visit to St. Lawrence, the much-hyped new room from chef JC Poirier, will be locating its spartan website (it contains the address, opening hours, phone number and that’s it) and using the reservation button to desperately try to find a dinner slot in the next month that isn’t either 5:30 p.m. or 9:45 p.m. I wish you the best of luck.
In some ways, Poirier has become the perfect microcosm of Vancouver’s dining scene. He comes with impeccable credentials (he trained under Normand Laprise at Montreal’s famed Toqué before heading west, where he was Rob Feenie’s wingman at Lumière), but his experience at his own fine-dining spot, South Granville’s Chow, was long on ambition but a hair short on patrons. But since shuttering that admired room, he’s flourished by moving down-market—the no-frills Pizzeria Farina is consistently full despite dozens of challengers who’ve materialized since it opened six years ago, and his ode to a casual red-sauce joint—Ask for Luigi—won this magazine’s Best New Restaurant award in 2015 and has been packed ever since.
But St. Lawrence is a big step back toward Chow’s level of fine dining: the interiors are a lovely regal blue, there are beautiful monogrammed plates, and the cheap-and-cheerful crowd who devotedly line up a block away at AFL had better be prepared for simply cheerful, as the cheapest entrée is a venison meat pie the size of a small island that clocks in at a “Sacré bleu!”–inducing $32. The cheapest starter—the terrine of the day—a Hawksworthian $17. But before you even wrap your head around paying such prices on Powell Street, a gratis plate of cretons (essentially a homey pork rillette) is placed in front of you with two large pieces of still-warm pain au levain and a housemade mustard—it’s the most substantial amuse-bouche in town and its heft is an appropriate accompaniment for wading through the compact-in-options-but-substantial-in-portion-size menu.
The food is inspired by chef Poirier’s Québécois upbringing, but to the unlearned in all things la belle province (c’est moi) it feels like an ever-so-slightly updated take on a classic French (as in France) brasserie. Many of the usual suspects—steak tartare, mushrooms in puff pastry, rabbit in mustard sauce—show up, but with the kitchen’s attention to detail they’re anything but trite. The tartare ($19) is perfect small chunks of Cache Creek eye of round, their richness cut with capers and lemon and then funked up with a rare appropriate use of truffle paste and some chèvre noir. It’s a standout dish when served with thin waffle-cut fries. At a later date, I opted for the smoked bison tongue ($18), an equally sizable starter that rides the bison’s leanness to flavour nirvana.
The mains are even more substantial. A deeply brined, impossibly moist thick-cut pork chop ($36) is grilled and topped with a huge melted chunk of Oka cheese and dotted in vain with cornichons to cut the richness. It’s a massive dish, like a porterhouse français, that could easily be shared by two. And while the portion of the hanger steak with bone marrow and escargots ($42) is smaller, the dish is a master class in full flavour and is served with a heaping basket of pommes frites that, unavailable as a side, is perhaps the most envy-inducing dish for fellow diners. Less successful was the lyrically named pomme duchesse à la royale ($12) from the Legumes menu, which turns out to be a very large stuffed potato with cheese, which is pleasant enough but unnecessary given the portion size of the mains.
Accompanying all this is a tight, French-only wine list that, while not inexpensive (the cheapest bottle is a rosé at $58), has been crafted with care by Matthew Morgenstern with tough-to-locate gems (a magnum of Bourgueil is a temptation at $138) that match perfectly with the food.
I was nicely cajoled to end with the rice pudding ($18 for 2+), a dish that I have literally never ordered in my life. But here it’s served with a dollop of salted caramel and a dehydrated banana, and the combination of the sweet with the tang of the pudding was revelatory—it has my vote for best dessert in town and is a perfectly deft finish for the substantial mains.
The bill for two of us, with two glasses of wine each, one starter, one vegetable and two mains, was $180 before tip, but it’s possible we could have added a third diner for such an order without anyone going hungry. But even still, that tariff is not insignificant (find me another spot in Canada that charges $42 for a hanger steak and I’ll eat another bowl of rice pudding) and has to be a high-water mark for an eatery east of Main. But it never feels gouging. If you’re expecting a Québécois Ask for Luigi you’ll be sorely disappointed, but if you’re searching for a serious take on regional cuisine and don’t mind paying for it, you’d be hard pressed to find better.