It's not just the number and variety of its restaurants but their creativity and quality that have pushed Vancouver to the culinary forefront. The Canadian city's French heritage and passion for food, the abundance of fresh fish and local produce, and trend-conscious multicultural residents eager for a taste of something new have spurred a talented group of local chefs with international sensibilities to attain unexpected heights, report Melissa Clark and Mark Bittman.
THE TASTING BAR AT LUMIERE Robert Feenie is considered the best chef in Vancouver for good reason. His seasonal French- and Asian-influenced cooking is refined but not fussy, classical in technique but based on a lusty love of food. Last year he turned the service bar of his famed restaurant Lumière, in the artsy Kitsilano neighborhood, into The Tasting Bar, offering mainly tapas-sized portions of his regular cuisine—delicacies like red-kuri-squash-and-mascarpone ravioli with truffles, or sablefish marinated in sake and maple syrup. But Feenie tosses in a few more playful offerings as well. His beef-dip sandwich may sound lowbrow, but it isn't: The meat is tender short ribs, thinly sliced and seasoned with star anise, and the gravy is really an elegant reduced jus. The small, spare room, moodily lit and done in glass tiles and dark colors, manages to be clean and contemporary yet inviting. Dinner, $32. At 2551 W. Broadway; 604-739-8185; fax 604-739-8139.
OUEST Unlike the rest of North America, which usually looks to New York and Paris for culinary inspiration, Vancouver looks to London and Asia. This chic new spot takes its cues from all four and is the better for it. Chef David Hawksworth worked with Marco Pierre White and others in London for almost a decade before returning to his native city and opening Ouest, in the fashionable Granville area, a year ago. Here he brings together a hip, young London sensibility, New York energy, a command of French technique, and a subtlety gleaned from Asia. The result is an eclectic, ambitious menu that is nonetheless firmly anchored in the classics. Refreshing interpretations of the French canon, perfectly executed, include terrine of Canadian foie gras with apple gelée, and roast loin of venison with braised chestnuts and chocolate. Ouest also has an extensive wine list; more than 3,000 bottles are stored in temperature-controlled cubbies above the cherrywood bar. An old-fashioned library ladder, reaching two stories up into the airy space, provides both access and a decorative accent. The warm wood tones provide gracious contrast in the sophisticated, marble-lined dining room. Dinner, $70. At 2881 Granville St.; 604-738-8938; fax 604-738-5909.
PASTIS Alain Léger, the new chef at this cozy contemporary French bistro, is in command of both the kitchen and the wine list, since he is also a sommelier. This makes for tasting menus whose wine pairings are as harmonious as the combinations on the plate. Although Pastis has been an upscale neighborhood favorite in Kitsilano since it opened three years ago, Léger's menu propels the restaurant into the destination realm. The decor is simple and homey (cane café chairs, lace curtains, a blazing fireplace) rather than grand, but the service is confident and the menu innovative. Among the chef's seductive dishes is seared Digby Bay scallops and tiger prawns with braised endive and brown butter, well matched with a lush Viognier. Dinner, $50. At 2153 W. Fourth Ave.; 604-731-5020; fax 604-731-5039.
VIJ'S This is easily one of the best-looking Indian restaurants in North America, with dark wood, huge authentic relics of India, a backlit white-onyx bar (installed before such became clichés), and simple but gorgeous cuisine. Owner Vikram Vij trained at Bishops, a highly regarded, nearly classic Vancouver restaurant (which itself is very good), and turns out well-presented pan-Indian but European-influenced food. He doesn't cook; he creates or authenticates dishes with his wife, Meeru. Then he stays at the front of the house so he can make sure that the food and the service meet his standards. Which they usually do: On a recent visit I was knocked out by the exotic grilled lamb "popsicles": individual rib chops scented with fenugreek, curry, and sweet white wine. Dinner, $45. At 1480 W. 11th Ave.; 604-736-6664; fax 604-736-3701.