Perhaps nothing can fully compare to the experience of dining in the City of Lights, but Kitsilano’s Au Comptoir comes as close as any room in Vancouver
By the time you read this, famed Montreal-born author Mavis Gallant will have been gone for a year. She died in Paris, at age 92, on February 18, 2014. She had lived there virtually all of her adult life, but she’ll always be Canada’s greatest writer to me. She was also a great dinner companion. I ate with her once at the legendary Le Dôme, in her neighbourhood of Montparnasse; I was served turbot on quinoa, plated with an ivory swirl of wine reduction and bright sprigs of greenery. Very fancy. But she also liked a humbler place around the corner in Rue de la Grande-Chaumière called Wadja: a classic Parisian bistro with tightly packed tables and chairs, a tiled floor, and roiling conversation and laughter. When we arrived there, the owner came out to greet Mavis and seated us like we were minor royalty. “What’s pavé de biche?” I remember asking her while puzzling over the menu. “Oh,” she replied, “that’s Bambi.” Later she told me I reminded her of a jazz pianist from Winnipeg named Johnny, who also happened to be her long-gone husband. I’m not sure what she meant by that, but I’ll always treasure it. Mavis never made it to Vancouver, as far as I’m aware, but I know the restaurant where I’d take her to dine here if I could. Opened last October, Au Comptoir isn’t like a Parisian bistro; it is one, channelling the spirit I encountered at Wadja quite unlike any other restaurant I know of in this city. What I like best about the vibe here is its café-style friendliness: “Welcome.” “Can I get you a drink?” “We have some specials.” I love service that gets right to it without pausing to admire itself. No fancy stemware, just paper napkins on the bar, remnants of a tile mosaic on the bare concrete near the front door, a chanson soundtrack -- check, check, check. And topping it off, the pleasant chaos of chatter, just like I remember from Wadja. The food perfectly matches the ambiance. These are refined plates, but very approachable. I ate at Au Comptoir twice in busy December. The first time, on a rainy evening, the pavement outside slick black and neon-stained, I felt pretty cozy at the bar tucking into a gorgeous beef shank special -- rich and cooked to fork-tender, underlaid with a creamy pomme purée and caramelized Brussels sprouts. It was preceded by oeufs meurette, a bistro classic of poached eggs with slow-cooked onions and wine reduction, made smoky with the addition of bacon. It arrived in a little skillet that was tantalizingly strewn with paper-thin discs of black truffle, although this ended up being the only negative of my visit. Truffles are menu click bait, I suppose, but you might as well skip them if they’re without aroma or flavour, as these ones were. (Perhaps too long in transit from Périgord?) A second meal, this time with a group, allowed me to sample more widely. The highlights were a leek tart with superbly crispy pastry, garnished with frisée and lightly sour buttermilk ricotta. A smoked-salmon appetizer came with shavings of endive and fennel, chervil, and dill fronds. Main-course standouts included herb-crusted ling cod served with a smear of eggplant purée and a fresh, lively sauce vierge, while grilled lamb sirloin with a white-bean ragout played different notes -- earthy and comforting. These are dishes that present their flavours robustly but always artfully. Meanwhile, all around us, the room rang with conviviality, and second bottles of wine could be seen making their way from the cellar to the tables. With Au Comptoir (whose owners, Maxime Bettili and Julien Aubin, met in France at the start of their culinary training), we now have in Vancouver a taste of Paris at its best -- which can be hard to find in Paris itself if you don’t have a local guide. A year on from when we lost her, I’d like to think it would be Mavis’s hangout, were she here. I can practically see her holding forth at a table along the wall, cracking jokes and remembering Johnny.
AU COMPTOIR 2278 W. Fourth Ave., 604-569-2278
8am-10pm daily (closed Tuesdays); weekend brunch 10am-5pm
All dinner mains under $30