When Michael Robbins auditioned for Season 4 of Food Network’s Top Chef Canada in 2013, he stressed in his audition video that he was an “extremely competitive person”—evidently a promise of what was to come. It must have been all the more painful for him, then, that he was cut first, before even getting the chance to present a complete dish.
Having eaten at Kitsilano’s Oakwood Canadian Bistro—a relaxed neighbourhood room where, at that time, Robbins was producing dishes of high-volume flavours and high-wire technique—I was convinced his early elimination was a loss for both the judges and the show.
I’m even more convinced now, following my visits to his new restaurant, AnnaLena (named for his two grandmothers, should you wonder). Robbins has described his creations here as “modern comfort food,” and this seems to bear out in the playful and welcoming space: a rec-room-chic bar, Lego light fixtures, a Darth Vader alarm clock, casual but attentive service. But cast your eyes upward and note a crucial detail: high on a shelf, as if to say direct reference to them is no longer required, are a copy of the Noma cookbook and all five volumes of the 2,400-page gastrotech mega-tome Modernist Cuisine.
That’s your cue that dinner will likely be more modern than comfort. And while I’m usually inclined in the other direction, Robbins has nailed it. Every dish I had at AnnaLena pushed the boundaries, almost invariably in the right way.
My group started with a selection of small plates. Grilled octopus was first cooked sous-vide, giving each bite a creamy tenderness alongside its background note of char. Served with fingerling potatoes, sauce gribiche, dill fronds, and lobster mayonnaise, it was an umami wow. Buttermilk fried chicken had a similar complexity: perfectly cooked thighs, combining crunch with a sharp sweetness from horseradish-maple aioli, and a fantastic finish from salt-and-vinegar chicken skins. Every time I looked up, it seemed three more orders of it were being whisked from the kitchen pass.
Other small plates evoked that same approachable inventiveness. Cured tuna came with crispy fried sweetbreads, papaya salad, and puffed wild rice, all of it nestled in a lime-coconut broth with cilantro oil. It was a one-stop demonstration of what Robbins’s notion of “modern comfort” can mean.
None of these plates overly genuflected to their localness—an interesting stance at this moment in culinary history—although there was a spot prawn special when I visited. The crustaceans were served whole and peeled, tossed with pickled jalapeño, black garlic, toasted sesame seeds, and nasturtium leaves. It was a neat trick to pull off, overlaying the prawns’ saline ocean flavours with earthy, peppery notes. In short, another great dish.
The larger plates extended these themes. Wagyu short-rib was cooked sous-vide, then seared and served with peppercorn jus over sunchoke purée alongside peas, sunchoke chips, radish and pea shoots, and tiny potatoes carved into tinier mushroom shapes—the latter proving someone is still rocking old-school techniques back there. If there was a climax to the meal, I’d single out the pork belly. Often a gastro cliché, here it’s artful, surprising, and complexly delicious. The grilled belly, marinated for 24 hours in tamari, is served with roasted beets and pickled mustard seeds. And in a nod—unwitting or otherwise—to the similarly personal and innovative spirit of chef David Gunawan at Farmer’s Apprentice, Robbins elects to bind the elements of the dish with oat porridge. What sounds horrifying is instead warmly comforting.
Don’t skip dessert, because it’s pulled off with the same sensibility as the mains. Black pepper/thyme ice cream is superb, given textural multidimensionality with nut crumble and meringue, and a spike of acid from rhubarb compote and rhubarb gel. Salted-caramel ice cream might prove too salty for some (it was for me, at least; my son licked the plate clean), but combined with chocolate custard, sponge toffee, and lemon/bitter chocolate dust, you again get that surprising roundness in every bite.
On an Australian cooking show called My Kitchen Rules, the judges like to comment on whether the dishes served have risen to the standards of a “competition dish.” For a guy who didn’t get his due in front of the cameras, Robbins is knocking out exactly that at AnnaLena, each of his creations vying for the top of the list.