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I‘ve clocked a lot of time in the restaurants that have come and gone from 751 Denman Street. Café de Paris, its longest-serving tenant, was a big influence on me: while writing my first novel, Stanley Park, I made it a model for the kind of place where my chef-protagonist would have trained. A menu of soupe de poisson, veal kidneys, coq au vin, crispy fries served in a paper cone… In short, seriously old-school.
I loved everything about the place. It was never pretentious, and that was key. As years passed and ownership changed, it just kept doing that French bistro thing it had always done. And it speaks volumes that I kept coming back even after I cracked a molar on a rabbit bone in the lapin à la moutarde maison. Bad outcome, killer dish!
Later, the space meandered a bit under the name Bistro de Paris. Then in 2012, John Blakeley (of Kitsilano’s Bistro Pastis) and his executive chef, Tobias Grignon, named it Le Parisien and took things back to basics, though with a new rustic aspect: smoked tongue, herring salad, duck heart tourtière. It, too, was great, and I got a little rush of memories from the Café de Paris days every time I visited.
When I heard that Blakeley and new executive chef Spencer Watts were reinventing Le Parisien as Left Bank, with the intention of incorporating flavours from the former French colonies, I was dubious. It seemed like the famed restaurateur might have blinked, so to speak, his French convictions wavering in the face of an increasingly trend-conscious dining public. On first read, the menu was perplexing. A tagine alongside steak frites; ling cod with agnolotti, ginger broccolini, and roasted corn nage-these are single plates inspired by multiple cuisines from multiple continents, not all of them obviously tied to the French colonies. I found the outcome impossible to predict.
At Left Bank, I learned that sometimes it’s best to sit back and let chef have his own ideas. In the case of Watts-a silver medal winner for Team Canada at the 2012 Culinary Olympics-that turned out to be a very good decision.
What came out of the kitchen was stupendous. The first thing that struck the group at my table was that these were high-end, white-tablecloth presentations. Although the room itself is laid-back and of a muted palette (save for a splash of red from those old familiar Café de Paris banquettes), the plates explode with colour and refinement: a crab cake rolled in burnt-black coconut cinder, with bright green and white sauces and turned radishes; beef carpaccio with pillows of soft white cream, scattered with fried capers and pea shoots.
Happily, the second thing that struck us was that Watts’s flavour innovations work, each plate a thoughtful combination of tastes and textures. The crab cake’s sauces-pea and lemongrass, respectively-serve to lighten the dish, while a grapefruit emulsion lends acid and potato gives crunch. Pork belly on soba noodles in a warming truffle dashi broth will be great to return to as the season grows colder. From a separate bar-snacks menu, tempura haricots verts (with a firewood honey and grainy mustard dipping sauce) turns out to be a great idea-we ate every last one.
And then came the mains, which didn’t drop a step. A savoury cake made of croissant and raisins didn’t sound particularly good, but a slice of it under perfectly roasted chicken with a Moroccan cream sauce and fried cauliflower was sublime: sweetness and spice, by turns crispy and soft. Ditto the five-spice duck confit tempura served over a du Puy lentil cassoulet, all of the bird’s classically rich flavours bursting out of a golden crust. A forkful of duck, some lentils with the fragrance of orange-bright, unexpected, and I’ll be back for more.
Does Left Bank recall Café de Paris? The room has changed, and the food is a world away. But what will contribute to its success, I think, is its ability to be so different from its predecessors while retaining a crucially similar feel. This is a casual restaurant: mains range from $18 to $22, while appetizers top out at $15 (and are half price from 4:30 to 6 p.m.). The service is unaffected, almost unconcerned-we had to ask questions or we wouldn’t have known what was happening on our plates. But that lack of self-awareness puts Left Bank in the flow of previous 751 Denman Street iterations: familiar rhythms, an unforced elegance, unpretentious excellence. My highest praise.