Review: Does Vancouver Finally Have the Perfect Neighbourhood Restaurant?
Main Street's Autostrada is firing on all cylinders.
February 20, 2018
It was in 2010 when I first came across what I now think of as the most amazing wine list in the history of Vancouver. It was at the then two-year-old La Quercia (a restaurant that had just won this magazine’s Best New Restaurant Award), and it was a dense tome on Italian viticulture that, if you were patient, revealed the most sublime deals I’d ever seen in this deal-free province. Like a $25-markup-on-a-$175-bottle-of-Gaja-chardonnay-type deals. I queried co-owner Lucais Syme at the time and he said, “It’s my dream to walk into a restaurant and order this great wine at such a great price.” But, to quote Ponyboy Curtis, “Nothing gold can stay.” The realities of running a restaurant in a city with crazy rents, expensive food costs and a shortage of labour mean that such flights of fancy are no longer compatible for the long-term financial success of a restaurant. The prices crept up (although it’s still a great wine list today) and Syme ultimately ended up leaving La Quercia to open the downtown gem Cinara. The world moved on.
Until a few Fridays ago, when I stopped into Syme’s brand-new place, Autostrada. The casual Italian spot is at the “emerging” end of Main—neighbours include Bunk Beds Canada and Mootha Thayaparan and Co. Chartered Accountants—and it’s just 27 seats cozy. But there, on the simple shelf that for the time being holds the wine, was another bottle of Gaja—this one a 2012 brunello—that, when I checked the compact wine list, was $150—pricey, to be sure, but also a crazily small 1.75-times markup. For comparison, CinCin sells the same wine at a heretofore reasonable $219. And while the rest of the list doesn’t reach such great heights, the mark-ups are uniformly on the low end, and the selections—juicy cannonaus from Sardinia, salty verdicchios from Le Marche—are spot-on for the promised casual, rustic fare.
True, one bottle does not a restaurant make, but it was a very promising start. It’s clear that Syme and partner Dustin Dockendorf are doing their damnedest to keep Autostrada at the accessible end of the price spectrum—there’s no showy bistecca Fiorentina, no whole branzino—and, as a result, try as you might, you won’t spend more than $21 on any one entry on the compact menu of 11 starters and seven pastas.
But the same can be said of Olive Garden. So when our server suggested adding “some focaccia” to our order of vitello tonnato ($16), a gush of wind departed my sails. Focaccia? In 2018? Maybe I am at Olive Garden. But just as I was expecting an offer of a side of sun-dried tomatoes accompanied by a Bananarama song, out come four slabs of perfectly dense, flavourful pieces of what I now assume focaccia was supposed to have tasted like for the past three decades. And they were perfect ballast to go with the beautifully thin slices of veal and creamy tuna sauce. Rich, tart, chewy. Repeat.
Syme and Dockendorf have poached chef Fernando Montaner from the pasta station at Cinara to helm the kitchen, and it’s clear that he’s dialled in to the short list of classics that make up the menu. With cacio e pepe there’s zero room for error—either you can make just cheese, butter and black pepper work with pasta or you can’t. Montaner can, and his version with bucatini (the advertised lumache shells were out that night) was all you could ask for with just the right amount of give to the noodles, just the right amount of cling to the sauce. And it’s $18. The garganelli comes with properly crumbled fennel sausage and is covered in shavings of pecorino and, with the peas, plays three chords as well as the Ramones ever did.
It’s easy to over-fetishize such well-done simplicity—the continued lines outside Ask for Luigi speak to Vancouverites’ desire to do just that when a thoughtful, accessible Italian spot comes on the scene. To be clear, Autostrada is no La Quercia, nor even Cinara: the portions are smaller, the ingredients more basic. But it’s also the sort of place that perfectly channels the same exuberance Syme had all those years ago that caused him to put such an untenable markup on a bottle of wine. In so doing, the restaurant may be something even more elusive in 2018 Vancouver—a true neighbourhood joint.
Best of luck on keeping it that way, fellas.
4811 Main Street