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I won’t have been alone, upon hearing the news earlier this year, in wondering exactly why Chambar was moving and expanding. The restaurant that Nico and Karri Schuermans opened in 2004, with a modest budget of $400K and in a then-dead-zone neighbourhood, seemed to already have it all: critical praise, a menu unlike any other in the city, and a full reservations list almost every night. But the couple-he the chef, she the director of operations-chose to bid farewell to the 170-seat room that had housed Chambar for a decade and shuttle it two doors south. The new iteration holds 270 and serves breakfast, lunch, and weekend brunch in addition to dinner. Meanwhile, Crosstown has become Vancouver’s version of Williamsburg-a hive of young artistic endeavour and entrepreneurial activity where the city comes to shop, hang, and eat.
Walking in, you’ll notice changes-its sprawling two levels; a south wall of glass opening onto a treed patio-but the red and brown leatherwork from the former location has been retained, and the brick and wood accents are similar. Service remains attentive and unpretentious. It has the feel of a place already in its groove.
Consistency carries over to the menu. There’s still moules frites, still ingredients like harissa and preserved lemon, couscous, and eggplant. Wendy McGuinness’s cocktails are as playful as ever: try the East Van Shrub, with its thyme and spiced-peach infusions; or the Duck Hunter, made with duck-fat-washed rye whiskey, cherry cedar bitters, and a smoked-plum-salt rim (hey, it works). But look elsewhere and you’ll notice new creative flourishes.
In the appetizers we ordered, strong suggestions of Central and South American influences began to reveal themselves. A mixed olive salad was beautifully bright and balanced, its earthy preserved lemon lifted with a swirl of aioli and leaves of cilantro and Italian parsley. Veal-stuffed calamari was a surprise: traditionally an Italian preparation, here the grill brought delicious smoke, while Salsa Lizano (a Costa Rican condiment not unlike HP Sauce) added caramelized notes, and an aioli made with Tajín (a powdered Mexican fruit seasoning of chilies, lime, and salt) brought subtle heat and a citrus kick. It’s a superb dish, especially impressive for how it allows humble bottled ingredients to play a part in something altogether complex.
A dish of tuna prepared three ways (sadly, no longer a part of the seasonally changing menu) spoke a similar Latin patois. The Schuermanses own property in Costa Rica, and Nico says he was inspired both by its regional flavours and the local family practice of making many meals from one fish. Atop a smooth, rich bed of coconut reduction dabbed with black aji, the tuna is presented tataki-style, marinated in lime zest and Tajín; in a brightly acidic ceviche with chilies; and as a crisp square, deep-fried to medium rare (perfectly done, though, revealing a flavour you simply don’t get from cold and raw).
Our mains continued this theme, although incorporating additional intriguing ideas. Venison short loin was, again, perfectly cooked to the flavourful heart of medium rare, then napped in a wine/stock reduction jacked with chipotle, ginger, and jalapeño (a twisted Bordelaise, Schuermans says). But around it was evidence of other culinary adventures, other life experiences: maple-bacon-wrapped prunes, and charred Brussels sprouts over a brilliantly purple puréed “chutney.”
Has chef spent time in India? Africa? England? Yes, indeed, he has. And you’ll read these between the lines in canard aux épices: duck breast rubbed with fragrant cardamom and star anise, texturally contrasted with a goat-cheese spring roll, crispy Belgian endive, and a classic Cumberland sauce with cherries. Flavour, texture, colour-these are the Schuermanses’ values, and these values are articulated in striking ways throughout the menu.
On almost every plate there was a flavour or texture or colour that couldn’t have been anticipated. Not every one of these will resonate with every diner-in a meal that was overall excellent (and which will be repeated), I’m going to call undercooked the “crunchy” Brussels sprouts, and observe that by the time you’ve Bordelaised and beet-chutneyed a plate, you’ve got a whole lot of purple going on even before you garnish it with purple kale.
But that’s really part of the point. Chambar is a Schuermans-driven project, and if one element of a dish evokes no specific memory for a diner, we understand that the entire Chambar undertaking-every dish, every aspect of the room-is a product of the enthusiasms and interests, the travels and adventures, of a chef, his family, and the team that helps bring it to life. That has been the key to Chambar’s success all along.