It’s Pronounced "HEE-dra"
It all starts with Google Maps getting it wrong. I had punched in the coordinates for Hydra, the new Greek restaurant in the EXchange Hotel, but as I get closer, the voice keeps saying, “Turn left to High-dra…” Clearly, Siri hadn’t received the memo with the pronunciation (it’s Hee-dra) and the superlatives attached to this new high-end spot. It was according to the release that announced its opening in late May, an “Unprecedented Mediterranean Dining & Cafe Destination.” The restaurant’s website trumpeted it as “a dining experience without parallel” The chef, “inspired by the ambrosia that is the Mediterranean…”
Elevated food ascriptions aside, I recently visited the new Estiatorio Milos at the Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas and had been impressed with such high-level Greek dining, so I was feeling excited about the prospect of that niche being filled here in Vancouver. And make no mistake, Hydra is high end, with its menu that rests just below local luminaries Boulevard and Hawksworth in price, which may help explain how we are able to stroll in on a Sunday night at 7 p.m. and get seated immediately. I’m offered a choice between the more casual downstairs, where a dark, moody bar dominates, or the upstairs, via a circular staircase that anchors the space, for an airier vibe. We choose upstairs and, as my hands graze along the beautiful leather-wrapped railing on our ascent, a truly stunning space opens up before us. Under a soaring ceiling punctuated with dramatic chandeliers comprising dozens of ceramic fish, we stroll past another gorgeous bar with a striking tiled backsplash to a table overlooking Pender Street. In a city that celebrates interiors done in a low-fi vernacular, it’s a treat to see a spot that sings with a dash of old-school glamour.Janis Nicolay
So far, so good. As we sit down, I notice a server nearby attending to a tableside filleting of a whole fish baked in salt and get excited. Anticipation builds as I look over a sizable wine list (there’s close to 100 bottles) that, at first blush, rocks a much lower price point than the other aforementioned fine-dining stalwarts. But then, cracks. I spy the L’Ostal Cazes rosé on the list and, while its $50 tariff may not be immediately concerning, it should be when you realize it’s a $16 bottle of wine. No one comes to our table literally for the first five minutes so I have time to examine more bottles: Poplar Grove’s $20 pinot gris is $65, the $19 vermentino from Sardinian fave Argiolas is likewise $65. And while one expects healthy markups in a hotel restaurant, over three times retail is a troubling omen.
Finally, our friendly server arrives to take our drink orders, but I’m having a tough time paying attention because I’m still focused on the other server, who—now six minutes in—is still trying to fillet the fish. Mesmerized, I ask for a glass of the Greek white—a tasty moschofilero—and continue my surveillance. She’s still at it—nine minutes and counting—when our server returns with the wine and explains that the fish—either grilled or baked in salt, is a specialty. I assume she means cooking specialty, not serving. Tonight, there’s bream, sea bass and salmon, all priced by the pound. For the first two, she suggests one to two pounds, the latter two to three pounds, but she never tells us what the price is on any of them. Given the wine markup, I’m afraid to ask. When we ask about the daily selection of market vegetables, we’re told, “Carrots; I think broccolini and…charred lettuce.”Janis Nicolay We start with the grilled flatbread, tomato salad and grilled octopus. They all arrive at the same time, but I can’t tell if it’s the $9 flatbread we ordered or some kind of complimentary bread because it comes pre-cut into little triangles, stacked in a breadbasket lined with a napkin. Either way, it’s terrible: soft and flabby with a weirdly faint chemical note that tastes like they were cooked on a silpat at too high a temperature. All the edges are perfectly circular, which leads me to wonder if they’re not made in-house but rather pre-purchased then ruined in-house. Thankfully the octopus is better… or is it? There are five or six small tentacles and, while the first two are quite nice—moist and meaty—the next two bites are like biting into a bike tire, all rubbery and hard—the telltale sign of being seriously overcooked. The fava bean purée it rests on—more a smear, really—tastes like plain old hummus and adds no complexity and very little flavour to the dish. And it’s $21—a mere $3 less than Boulevard and quite a bit more than Coquille. It gets worse. The tomato salad, all $19 of it, arrives and it’s a triangle of feta atop of large mound of tomatoes so fantastically underripe that they’re closer to white and pink than red, save for the flashes of green where they’ve been lazily trimmed. The feta is like Greek Velveeta: no salinity, taste or texture. But as a bonus, there’s an unadvertised treat in the form of unironic sundried tomatoes at the bottom. The salad tastes like January in Vancouver, not summer in Corfu.
And the misses just keep coming. For dinner, we split the lamb chops and have a side of charred cauliflower, but when they quickly arrive, our mood sinks further. The cauliflower has a vein or two of small surface char marks but, other than that, it looks and tastes like the lily-white, unseasoned wedge of boiled cauliflower that it is. There’s an electric green sauce atop, but it, too, has almost no flavour; we inquire and are told it’s “sort of like a ‘chimichurro,’” which is presumably a version of chimichurri where the flavour has been removed. And the lamb. Three chops at $38 that are so malformed and fatty they look more like mutton… that had been raised outside Chernobyl. And they are coated in what I assume is a balsamic glaze, because if there’s anything lamb needs, it’s more cloying richness. They are doused—and I mean doused—in salt to try to cut said richness, which is doubly bad considering my water glass hasn’t been refilled for the entire meal. There is no more than a small bite or two on each chop (thank Zeus for small miracles), which means it is both the worst and the most expensive meat dish I’ve had in a long time.
It’s a disaster of a meal from start to finish—with two small exceptions: the service, while amateurish, is warm and well-intentioned. A glass of Macedonian red that seemingly comes from a bottle opened before the restaurant broke ground is quickly whisked away and replaced with another, fresher selection. And the side dish for the lamb was listed as “fired roasted vegetables,” but what comes out instead is a sizable ceramic dish full of thinly sliced zucchini, eggplant and squash topped with dollops of cheese. It was the best thing we ate, generous and comforting. With the above dishes (one main, two starters, one vegetable, bread) and three glasses of wine, the total is $195.12 over a span of an hour and 15 minutes.
I’m sure some of you are thinking, “What do you expect from a hotel restaurant?” My answer is that if a hotel restaurant bills itself as “unprecedented” and “without parallel” and then charges prices attendant to such claims, I expect exponentially more.
The following day, I am looking for hydra in the dictionary to nail the proper pronunciation. Most entries list HIGH-dra, but I did find a few that went with the HEE version, too. But going down the Hs, I came across another Greek word that the proprietors might want to look into before they put out their next superlative-ladened missive. Hubris.
It’s pronounced HUE-Bris.