10 Best New Restaurants, 2008

November 2, 2008

The signage at Ping's was faded and falling apart. The fabric from its steel awning frame was gone, and its windows were covered with opaque frost. Anyone passing by on this stretch of Main would have assumed it was closed. But once inside and beyond a heavy grey curtain, I found a minimalist 35-seat space of zinc tables fronting grey, pleated banquettes. Overhead a hundred cones suspended from an intricately pressed ceiling emitted amber light. Several local aesthetes, colleagues of a young artist and restaurateur named Josh Olson, had contributed to the design, with stunning results.

I was there this past April because my brother, an artist who lives around the corner and is friends with Olson, had called from the opening party the night before. He wanted to know if I'd heard of it. I hadn't. "Yeah, I don't think they're into publicity," he said with a chortle. "They want to keep it quiet." I hung up the phone, baffled by the hubris. With a new restaurant opening just about every week in Vancouver, competition had become especially fierce. So this was weird. Seduced by coyness, I couldn't keep from checking it out.

The contrast between the sleek interior and the drab exterior told of a carefully calculated conceit. Even if the food concept-a salable cross between Japanese home-style yoshoku and irreverent izakaya (no sushi here)-tested our credulity, it delivered something more valuable in today's crowded dining landscape: a sense of being let in on a secret. Within 24 hours of its opening, photographs and first impressions began circulating in the blogosphere, and within a month most of the professional reviewers had taken its temperature in print. The reviews may have been middling, but no matter. The word was out, and it was interesting.

It used to be that restaurants spent thousands on public relations and advertising campaigns to get that kind of attention, but times are tight and Ping's did it with a marketing budget of zero-just one of many ways to cut costs and compete. Everything is more expensive, from rents and advertising rates to ingredients and staff. But consider today's success-versus-failure stats: of the 150-plus restaurants that have opened in Vancouver since 2006, fewer than 10 have gone under. That's a remarkably good record, especially under the economic storm clouds that have darkened during this same period. Streamlining (in a trade that makes horse racing seem predictable) is a no-brainer. The real trick is the how, and I think our new restaurateurs have figured it out.

Instead of opening in expensive downtown locations within easy reach of tourists (who do their concierge's bidding), they have sought out more affordable properties off the beaten track. Neighbourhoods that used to be considered too sketchy now boast some of the best restaurants in the Lower Mainland, mostly opened by neophytes who bank on their talent.

It started with Andrew Wong and Tom Poirier's reimagined and modern Chinese-themed Wild Rice in Crosstown (2001), and continued with Jeff Van Geest's love affair with locality at Aurora Bistro on south Main (2003), Nico and Karri Schuerman's Moroccan- and Belgian-themed Chambar on a gritty block near GM Place (2004), and Sean Heather and Scott Hawthorn's minimalist charcuterie hideaway, Salt Tasting Room, in a filthy Gastown alley (2006).

In the two years since, Gastown and south Main have seen a brace of good restaurants open, with more on the way. Later this month, Tom Doughty, Robert Belcham, and Tim Pittman of the award-winning Fuel on West Fourth will open a 65-seat trat called Campagnolo on one of the least attractive stretches of Main, a couple of doors down from the seedy Ivanhoe Hotel. In a departure from their peers, they bought the building instead of leasing it, and for good reason. Doughty is coy when it comes to purchase price, but he doesn't hesitate to point out the sense: "We'd now be looking at over $4 million in Kits, whereas the mortgage on this 5,000-square-foot building costs us $4,000 less than the lease on Fuel, which is only 2,000 square feet." The concept reads seductively, with well-priced, regional Italian being the anchoring draw. ("Everything will be under $20," Doughty reports.) Several traditional pizzas, pastas, and main courses will be offered in the front room, with local ingredients in full effect. From line-caught lingcod saddled with friggione, garlic, and chives to Sloping Hill Farm pork roasted with house-made cotechino, cipollini onions, and drippings, Campagnolo will be no idle swing at capturing the essence of the entire Italian peninsula. The owners sent chef de cuisine Alvin Pillay-an enthusiastic fixture on the open kitchen line at Fuel-to Italy for six months to gain experience in the cuisines of Piedmont and Emilia-Romagna. "Oh man, it was just incredible," the 26-year-old Pillay said upon his return. At the back of the room (formerly a long-lived Portuguese restaurant called Adega), sommelier Doughty will oversee a 25-seat wine bar, complete with 20 to 25 local and Italian labels available by the glass and the half-litre; a deep selection of Italian and B.C. cheeses; and salumi made in-house under a new brand cleverly dubbed The Cure. But does the location make it all a gamble? With a good PR campaign that leverages the success of Fuel, Campagnolo could open anywhere, and as its daring predecessors have shown, the chic cachet of risk is something Vancouver diners are taking to.

Further evidence of this trend is seen in the 50-seat Les Faux Bourgeois, a brand-new Scott Cohen-designed French bistro from Stephan Gagnon (Jules Bistro) and Andreas Seppelt (Go Fish) located at that epicentre of haut monde, Fraser and Kingsway. With a menu designed by chef Tina Fineza (formerly Bin 941, currently moonlighting at West Fourth's Flying Tiger), it has already been getting top marks for its simplicity and unapologetically Gallic affection for bone marrow, sweetbreads, and real-deal pâté. Witness too the recent midwifing of Two Chefs and a Table, the new restaurant from Karl Gregg (ex-Whineos) and Allan Bosomsworth (ex-Feenie's) in the Railtown netherworld at the corner of Alexander and Gore. It's an airy, old-boned room that drips character, and from the open kitchen comes real passion on the plate. They do a perfect roasted Polderside chicken with brown butter and rosemary that sings of home, no matter how far from home the location makes you feel. (Even Salt's Sean Heather, a serial calculated risk taker, balked at this space.)

Neighbourhoods that were once seen as too sleepy or boring have been getting similar attention. The 1900 block of West Fourth, formerly a staid and tired piece of Kits wallowing in 1980s torpor, welcomed award winners Gastropod and Fuel at the tail end of 2006. They caused a spark that has since brought in a half-dozen other eateries.

La Quercia, a 30-seater that specializes in Northern Italian on Fourth Avenue's western edge, has played to full houses since opening in July. The two young chef/owners, Lucais Syme (formerly of La Buca and Cioppino's) and Adam Pegg (a graduate of Italy's Higher Institute of Gastronomy), couldn't afford to open in pricey beats like Yaletown and Robson, so they turned to an under-served hood after it was repeatedly shown to them that quality, ability, and élan can deliver customers, regardless of where.

The kitchen fits only the two of them and guests must pass through it in order to use the washroom, but this only adds to its charm. The service is airtight, with staff milked from Parkside and Pied-à-Terre, and the food is extraordinary for the price point. (Their $17 Bolognese pasta is one of the best anywhere, its meaty ragù sticking to the ribs as it should.) Both owners are omnipresent and intensely focused on quality control, which has proved magnetic. "We're surprised at the response," admits Pegg. "Just about everyone who pokes their head in the kitchen to say thanks tells us that they live ‘just up the road.' " All in, they spent $250,000 on buying the lease (the space formerly housed Masa à la Carte) and completing the build, a sum they expect to make back in less than two years if they continue putting bums in seats as they are now.

Meanwhile, high in the upper-redoubt restaurant wasteland that is West Vancouver, former Four Seasons chef Wayne Martin last winter opened Fraîche, a fine-dining looker that offers a breathtaking view of the city. Though it's located in the richest postal code in the country, the same principle applies: not everyone wants to cross a bridge or get in a cab to dine, and prohibitively expensive locations are folly when food concept, service, and marketing all play in tune.

This is certainly the case here, where Martin strikes a balance between high-end, seasonal West Coast cuisine and the comfort-food ethos that define his two other restaurants, Crave on Main and Ambleside's Crave Beachside. He does an aromatic organic chicken soup in winter that is as restorative as a solid night's sleep, and if you think crab cakes are passé, fork his Dungeness version, swimming in a fresh corn chowder (a forceful argument for the dish's release from the Prison of Ubiquity). Since opening in March, Fraîche has cut an appealing figure with its expressive dishes, winning the hearts and palates of those who couldn't be bothered to venture down the hill and those who've heard it's worth the climb up.

If scoring a good, out-of-the-way location is in vogue, it certainly isn't enough. At the critically adored Boneta, the entire build and design cost was kept under $100,000 by smart sourcing of reclaimed and recycled materials. The talents of young chef Jeremie Bastien and hands-on service from well-connected, first-time owners Mark Brand (ex-Chambar), Andre MacGillivray (ex-Le Crocodile), and Neil Ingram (ex-Lumière) ensured success. Around the corner at Salt, the owners shaved an estimated $50,000 from their start-up costs by launching without a kitchen, serving only high-quality charcuterie, cheese, and wine. Both rooms are now lauded as being among the most interesting and exciting restaurants to have opened of late.

By contrast, the beautiful Elaine Thorsell-designed behemoth Shore Club on Dunsmuir is rumoured to have cost $8 million, and reviews have been mostly ho-hum. Prices are steep, main-course proteins often exceeding $40 with no accompaniments ($8 for a side of green beans). "For eight million," one chef quipped shortly after it opened, "I would have preferred 80 Bonetas."

That isn't to say the Shore Club didn't teach the new generation any tricks. At the recently opened Trattoria Italian Kitchen (another West Fourth addition), the menu is accessible with main courses selling for well under $20. Pastas, like tasty (if pedestrian) linguine carbonara and penne arrabbiata, weigh in at less than $15. The wild spring salmon, exquisitely cooked and simply dished with citrus butter, is a steal for $15. As at the Shore Club, however, the proteins don't come with sides ($5 to $7). It looks like a deal, but the combined prices are actually those of any other mid-range eatery.

Restaurateurs who are particularly creative build ancillary streams of income to buttress revenues. Emad Yacoub, scion of the Glowbal Group's restaurant empire (Italian Kitchen, Trattoria Italian Kitchen, Glowbal, Coast, Sanafir), added a successful catering division 14 months ago that has since taken in over a million dollars. Vikram Vij (Rangoli, Vij's) hawks his vacuum-sealed curries in tony food stores across the city; Parkside sells its signature terrines to other restaurants; and Fuel and Campagnolo are marketing their house-made charcuterie direct to their competitors. From winemakers hosting tasting dinners to "exclusive" celebratory meals that showcase the changing of the seasons, the new-wave restaurateurs have learned that there are dollars to be made beyond the punters who walk in off the street.

As at Ping's, traditional marketing has gone out the window; the new media environment has become the opportunist's greatest asset. "With blog sites, everyone can be a critic, which has both negative and positive results," says restaurant PR pro Sue Alexander, founder of Alexander Ink, which represents C, Raincity Grill, Nu, Senova, and Le Gavroche. "Coupled with traditional media, it makes our messaging stronger." (I know something about this, having launched The Urban Diner in 2006 to give the restaurant industry a place to build a community through the exchange of information. The majority of active members post about everything from what restaurants are going up for sale and which espresso machines offer the best value to where to source local produce and how to deal with difficult customers.)

Nancy Wong, who represents hip restaurants like Wild Rice and Cobre, points out that blogs set up by the restaurants "can be used to create a personality for the room so that people come to know it in a closer way." These blogs chart the restaurant's progress from the building process to opening day. There have been several of note, but the one that told the story of Cobre was particularly frank, bringing it invaluable loyalty right out of the gate. "It's all about communication and relationships," Wong explains, "so the new technology helps me build that bond between my client and their patrons." Social media platforms like MySpace and Facebook have evolved into effective customer delivery systems, too. A new restaurant on the Granville strip called RedXRed used its Facebook group to promote the launch. In the two months before it opened it enlisted over 600 "fans" to its page. Approximately 700 people showed up on opening night, and it didn't cost a cent.

Chambar on Beatty has over 16,000 email addresses in its database, accrued from customer comment cards and network contacts, and its used them to great effect. This spring, when the Schuermans launched their daytime-only Medina Café next door, its promotion was expertly targeted. The airy, smartly appointed room does brisk business at both breakfast and lunch. The food, which shares the same irreverently Belgian-Moroccan theme as its sibling, has been shockingly good. From the fluffy, immaculate Belgian waffles that rejoice in raspberry caramel and dark chocolate to the skillet of melting short-rib meat and applewood smoked cheddar, topped with two fried eggs, the midday meal has never tasted so good. Here, too, prices hover well below $20; the portions are borderline gargantuan. For restaurateurs, Medina's peripheral address is further evidence that fealty to the old adage "Location, location, location" has become outdated.

The why of its success is even more interesting than the how. In the preceding two-and-a-half years, Karri Schuerman saw a pattern in the data. Over 7,000 of the customers who had taken the time to fill in comment cards at the end of their meals expressed a desire for a private function space-which is exactly what Medina turns into once it closes, at 5 p.m.

"Why have 16,000 people on a list," asks its PR consultant, Shannon Heth, "if you don't plan on doing what they want?" Popular former Chambar server Robbie Kane runs the show, which has made the transition to daytime by Chambar's nighttime clientele virtually painless and proven, again, that a well-known employee is a marketable one.

Cibo and Uva Wine Bar in the new Moda Hotel would not have gotten the remarkable attention they've received if it hadn't been for the early hiring of Sebastien Le Goff, formerly the GM of CinCin and Lumière. With an unknown foreign chef working the pans, having the name Le Goff bandied about in foodie circles was pure currency when it opened in July.

Chef Neil Taylor quickly impressed with his light touch and expertise in Italian cooking, and is achieving a status comparable to that of our best chefs. Within three months of the opening, he was invited by The Chef's Table Society of B.C. to contribute recipes for the new edition of Vancouver Cooks, a cookbook to be released just prior to Christmas 2009 and the Olympics. He may not be as famous as Jamie Oliver (the two are fellow alumni of London's fresh-focused River Café), but the Englishman plates in a similar way. He keeps no freezer in his kitchen, to ensure his ingredients are always fresh, and his propensity for the simplest expressions of the fewest ingredients gels well with West Coast flavours.

What he does with tiny little agnoli is sublime. After stuffing them with Sloping Hill's pork and gently flavouring them with fennel, he decorates them sparingly with spots of aged balsamic and just the right amount of slivered Parmesan. Every note is caught on the tongue. His seasonally inspired risottos are equally free of pretence. His first menu offered a mint-scented fresh pea and wet morel number that was persuasive enough to make acolytes of doubters.

The room rather refreshingly suggests nothing at all of Italy, with its black tabletops, colourfully striped chairs, and caramel banquettes framing two huge portraits punked out in bright green. And its downtown location shares in the otherness of its contemporaries-bringing us full circle. Just off the Yaletown grid on the northwest corner of Seymour and Smithe, the place hadn't been on anyone's radar since its days as The Dufferin, one of the city's most celebrated (and storied) gay clubs. This area, too, was ripe for a new eatery, even though we didn't know it. And as we've seen again and again in the new wave of restaurants that is reshaping the city's culinary landscape, to the savvy go the spoils.

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