Nordstrom creates buzz wherever it opens. Vancouverites were talking about the store for years before the doors were unlocked, and its reputation for fastidious perfection earned it 14th place on Fortune magazine’s latest list of the world’s 50 most admired companies, between Nike and BMW.
With that in mind, and knowing other high-end department stores like Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus have invested heavily in restaurants, you’d expect Nordstrom to keep pace. And their bid to do so comes in the form of Bistro Verde (and executive chef JJ Fraser, who hails from Earls), a 200-seater found in a woody yet airy space on the third floor looking out over the Vancouver Art Gallery, Robson Square, and the Law Courts.
The menu reads “casual fine.” There are pizzas and flatbreads, burgers, salads, pastas, and steaks. The service at first reminded us of experiences had at Joey and Earls: a room swarming with inexperienced servers, none of whom seem responsible for serving you.
But after that first 15-minute wait for water, the food itself came fast on ordering. And the appetizers were excellent. The ahi tuna poke is the best I’ve had since Hawaii. Served with soy, wasabi, and seaweed salad, the piece of tuna and garnish on a fried wonton was crunchy, umami wonderfulness. The roasted mushroom bruschetta likewise offered a complex but rewarding mouthful: rich and earthy, with arugula, balsamic, and Manchego cheese to brighten the dish. The micro-planed lemon zest garnish was the perfect chef’s touch, lightening the mouthful and priming the taste buds for more.
But the last appetizer we ate was the real surprise. Smoked wild salmon with johnnycakes isn’t a dish yet in danger of becoming cliché around here, and I was curious about the marriage of corncake and salmon. Napped with horseradish dill crème fraîche, and given an acid zing with pickled onions and crisp capers, this is a balanced and big-flavoured plate.
Right at the moment we were thinking Bistro Verde truly left the “casual fine” herd far behind, our mains arrived, and here things wobbled. The plates were served onto the table without any of the appetizer dishes being cleared, leaving a chaos of dishes and glasses and cutlery, and two of the three we tried were distinctly lacking. The sake-marinated black cod, with shrimp dumplings, spinach, shiitake mushrooms, and soy broth, had a slightly non-committal, pan-Asian feel to it. But the fish was cooked perfectly, sous-vide soft and lightly browned.
The skirt steak with salsa verde was also cooked perfectly, with well-cooked if slightly predictable garnishes: heirloom potatoes, pattypan squash and asparagus, balsamic onions. The problem here was seasoning. There wasn’t any.
Sure, there’s salt on the table, but if I’m salting your $27 plate, you’re not doing it right.
What I anticipated most, however, was ultimately the biggest disappointment. The short rib grilled cheese, with blackberry jam and white cheddar cheese, sounded fantastic. Cooked correctly, the collagen connective tissue in the rib muscle dissolves into gelatin, separating and coating the muscle fibers, which are themselves still moist from not being overexposed to heat. Cut correctly, which is to say against the meat’s very evident grain, you end up with a truly luxurious mouth feel.
But immediately I could see the execution problems. The tiny meat serving left the sandwich almost pancake-flat when grilled, with little discernible beef flavour. Opened for inspection, it was clear the short rib had been overcooked and cut along the grain, leaving it dry and stringy. For the record, I love this idea: short ribs, jam, and cheese on bread. Bring it. But Bistro Verde needs to rethink this one.
Having said that, the floor manager’s response to the gaffe was Nordstrom-quality. The item came off the bill, and from his response to my comments I’m prepared to bet they kick that sandwich into shape. I intend to personally investigate in a few months’ time.
Having finished with a homey apple cobbler, I left feeling that whether Bistro Verde measured up depended on whom they were compared to. Chef Fraser came from Earls, and in that category Bistro Verde already stands out. Residing within the walls of the 14th most admired company in the world, however, there is room to grow.