My Dinner With Andrey

December 31, 2007

Skate pee through their skin, you know." Andrey Durbach is giving me a crash course in some of the finer points of piscine anatomy as he shops in Chinatown for something to put on the menus at his restaurants, Parkside and La Buca. A few minutes later, we're hunkered down over raw beef in Phnom Penh, one of his favourite haunts, putting the culinary world to rights. At 40, Durbach's a powerful presence-he talks long and loud, pushing his hands through a shock of receding curly hair, rubbing eyes that show the evidence of many a late night.

The mention of molecular gastronomy sets him foaming: he hates intellectual food and the avant-garde crockery it's plated on. "Give me Spanish ham. Give me a great piece of fish with salt and pepper, a squeeze of lemon," he all but yells. "Keep your essence of watermelon with tarragon marshmallows." If his traditionalism is unfashionable right now, it's hardly unwelcome. Indeed, at a time when diners in Vancouver can choose among any number of stylish spots, Durbach (along with his business partner Chris Stewart) has quietly cornered the mid-range market, consistently filling his restaurants. As we dine, in October, the third room of the burgeoning empire is on its way: Pied-à-Terre, a 34-seat modern French bistro on Cambie Street. He's in an ebullient mood.

Eight years ago, things were different. Durbach was then shutting up shop on his first operation, Etoile. "I scraped together all my pennies and begged and borrowed the rest and opened in the spot where Rare is now," he recalls. "I was right across the street from Il Giardino and I figured that even if I tanked I could live off the crumbs of their overspill. Now I look back," he adds, shaking his head. "That's the stupidest reason to do anything: if you're banking on someone else's castoffs, you're done before you open."

Etoile lasted three years. The food wasn't the problem: Durbach cooked without compromise and the critics and customers approved. "There was a whole raft of people for whom it was their very favourite restaurant," he shrugs. "Unfortunately, it was nobody's second favourite." His smartest move was knowing when to call it quits: he paid off his debts and took off with his wife for a year in Asia. A few weeks back in Vancouver was enough to convince him he wasn't ready to return. Off they went again-this time to England. A year later, back on home soil, he took a job at Circolo. "Umberto [Menghi] hired me as chef and then nagged me into submission," he says, the memory still rankling. "I had all the responsibility but no authority-he'd phone every day to see what the fish special was. That was a two-weeker. I didn't need that and he, apparently, felt he didn't need me." He asks mischievously: "Circolo-isn't that Goldfish now?" In 2001 he launched the dining room at Lucy Mae Brown, only to leave a year later, fed up with the management. He decided to go out on his own again, and Parkside was born.

"Anthony von Mandl [owner of Mission Hill] was in last night," someone says as we stop in at La Buca. "What wine did he drink?" asks Durbach.

"Something cheap and cheerful."

Everyone laughs. It's 4 p.m. Saturday and the staff are busy getting the tiny Dunbar room shipshape. It seats 34 and tonight 76 are booked in.

"One of the things we have going for us, that other people seem to be struggling with," he says over a glass of wine, "is that we have really fantastic staff that have been with us for a while." He puts this down to a culture of engagement and a willingness to yield control. He cooks far less now, allowing others to come into their own-"and they respect and appreciate that." If he's proud of his management skills, he's also confident of his business acumen. "You must have the courage of your convictions.Then you have to spot gaps in the marketplace and you're lucky if the gaps coincide with what you really want to do."

La Buca was created out of frustration: he and Stewart wanted to eat good Italian food. "We tried every Italian restaurant in Vancouver," explains Durbach. "We enjoyed Cioppino's very much-and beyond that it was pretty slim pickings." So they decided to open a local joint at a keen price point: "We were sure we'd be successful here and we're by far the most popular spot in the neighbourhood." When I point out that there's little competition, he says, "You make a good point. And the lack of competition was part of the attraction."

A similar feeling about the paucity of reasonably priced good French food, combined with an opportunity afforded by the chaos on Cambie Street, led to the creation of Pied-à-Terre. "In Vancouver, all the kitchen talent is concentrated at the high-end," says Durbach. "I think that's really sad. How many occasions are there in your life to spend $250 on lunch or $500 on dinner? On a rainy Wednesday night, you might want to go out, eat something good, drink a bottle of Bergerac, and go home having spent $110 for two."

Pied-à-Terre is named in part for its bijou dimensions, in part for the Michelin two-star London restaurant under Tom Aikens where Durbach ate "the meal of my life." Ten years on, he can still recall eight of the nine courses-garnishes included. "Oh my God," he sighs, salivating at the memory. "The amuse had a crispy candied soft boiled quail's egg-I have no idea how he did that. The man is a genius." Then came a procession of scallops, pork belly, foie gras, and "one of those remarkable cheese carts with 75 cheeses."

Expect no such grandeur on Cambie, he laughs. As we pick our way through the building site that used to be Don Don Noodle Café, he explains the concept: "It will be updated and enlightened classics, with a room that reflects the food. No knick-knacks, no Edith Piaf-it's 2007 in France, too."

While some businesses on Cambie have complained loudly about the negative effect of the construction, Durbach says he isn't worried: "We secured a lengthy lease at a very good rate and a reduced rent. It's a short-term issue that in the long term will bring only good."

I bring up the millions being flung all around on restaurant design these days. The response is vehement. "What's going on is tantamount to product dumping," he says, giving the steering wheel a thwack as we head for Parkside. "There are people who have spent enough cash on their new restaurants to ensure that they'll never recoup their money. Ever." How much has he spent on his latest rooms? "About $125,000 on La Buca, all in. $150,000 on Pied-à-Terre, all in."

A bigger operation, Parkside is a destination for ardent fans who return again and again for the well-priced, bold, unfussy plates. At the bar, a businesswoman from New York offers Durbach a glass from a rather nice bottle of red. She asks where else in Vancouver she should eat.

"La Buca," he says, quick as a flash. Ten minutes later, the bartender is phoning across to get her a reservation for the following night. Durbach grins: "We win them over one customer at a time." 

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