Unforgettable Meals of 2008

Alvin Garden

More than any special occasion or event, my most memorable pleasure of the year was finding real Hunan food at a little place in Burnaby called Alvin Garden. In a culinary scene dominated by the subtler flavours of Cantonese and Shanghainese styles, the uncompromising power of authentic Hunan is a welcome blast: bright, fresh, with a finesse grounded in honest home cooking. Lamb with cumin, beef with pickled peppers, house-pickled cabbage—all sang with a spiciness that outshines even Sichuan food. The most important component of any Chinese meal is the company you dine with, and the capsicum-buzzed pleasure softened by icy beers made for the best kind of communal memories.—Lee Man, food writer


La Quercia

At La Quercia, six of us were served family-style, with the chefs choosing our menu and sending out plate after plate of lovingly prepared food. A delicate eggplant timbale was cooked so carefully it had no touch of bitterness. The sliced flatiron steak that followed was served with arugula, pine nuts, balsamic vinegar, and Reggiano; the spiciness of the greens was the perfect complement to the nuttiness of the cheese. The highlight of the night was the best vitello tonnato I have had the pleasure of eating, the tuna sauce so smooth that we fought over the plate’s last drips.—Allison Spurrell, Les Amis du Fromage



One meal stands out above all others: a private lunch last March at Lumière prepared by Daniel Boulud. Everything about the six-course extravaganza was sensational, from the canapés (Meyer-lemon tarts sprinkled with Osetra caviar) to the desserts (milk-chocolate praline napoleons and coconut îles flottantes with ginger ice cream). But the knockouts, for me, were the elegantly decadent Coquilles St-Jacques “Black Tie” (a black-and-white stack of thinly sliced scallop and truffle wrapped in spinach and golden puff pastry, and served with a rich Périgord sauce) and a robustly satisfying quartet of milk-fed Quebec piglet—belly, boudin blanc, jambon, and loin, each served with its own perfectly matched pickled garnish. Boulud himself won’t be cooking here much when Lumière reopens, but if his team can come close to recapturing the magic of that meal, Vancouver diners are going to be swept off their seats.—Alexandra Gill, food writer

Medina Café

Chambar has long been one of my favourite evening haunts, so I was thrilled when Nico Schuermans ventured beyond Belgian waffles to bring his eclectic touch to lunch and brunch at next door’s Medina Café. Between newscasts I often zip over to Beatty Street and tuck in to the addictive Jambon et Fromage. It’s classic ham-and-cheese taken to new heights: pulled Kurobuta pork, Morbier cheese, and cherry compote on toasted fig-anise bread. The Belgian endive, pecan, and watercress salad on the side lightens things nicely; better still, take a friend and share the sandwich plus antipasto plates of intensely flavoured grilled vegetables, black-olive tapenade, and bocconcini salad with Parmesan croutons. If you don’t have to read a newscast, add a Belgian beer or a glass of wine (or two).—Gloria Macarenko, host, CBC News Vancouver



I took family members with a wide range of backgrounds and palates to Joël Robuchon’s L’Atelier at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. It’s a small space, and I was surprised by how well they served us. There really isn’t room for a party of 10, but they made us feel like they do it everyday. Everything was small plates. The little cup of chestnut soup was spectacular, with chestnut foam and bits of foie gras and nut—rich and deep without being cloying. I had a calf sweetbread, with a touch of laurel and stuffed romaine, and it was beautifully crispy—not soft or lacking texture as sweetbreads often are. And mini burgers of Kobe beef and foie gras with caramelized bell peppers on delicate little buns lighter than brioche. The beef had an unbelievably deep, concentrated flavour. And those crazy crinkled French fries, so thin you wondered how they hold together. Dessert was thin slices of tart—chocolate, lemon—again with remarkably intense flavours. Superb.—Harry Kambolis, proprietor, Raincity Grill, Nu, and C restaurants


Chefs for Lunch

At 2008’s Chefs for Life fundraising gala, held in September at Goldfish Pacific Kitchen, the dish that trumped the five-course seated dinner was the hors d’oeuvre served at the Champagne reception by chef Don Letendre of Elixir in the Opus Hotel. This two-part appetizer involved popping a Serrano-ham-wrapped Romesco prawn into your mouth, then chasing it with a Muscat grape and ajo blanco gazpacho. Others reversed the order, but either way, the smooth, creamy, almondy soup was the perfect complement to the lightly spiced prawn. The heady flavour burst from this imaginative little one-two punch proved that size doesn’t matter when it comes to making a dish memorable.—Mary Mackay, Terra Breads



Chef Pino Posteraro and the Italian consul general, Uberto Vanni D’Archirafi, dined at our house in June, just after Pino was honoured as Chef of the Year and Cioppino named Best Formal Italian at Vancouver magazine’s restaurant awards. That night, he taught my wife how to cook his spaghettini alle vongole. It was better than anything we’ve tasted in Italy. Weeks later we dined at Cioppino’s with the French consul general, Luc Serot Alméras, to celebrate my wife’s birthday. He too commented that the pasta was the best he had tasted. I had two pasta dishes that night: a spaghetti Bolognese and the spaghettini with clams again. Paired with excellent wines and having Pino as our marvellous host, these pasta dishes made for a most memorable occasion. Strawberry Cones, the famous pasta and pizza chain from Japan, is about to open in the food court in the Aberdeen Centre. It claims to make the best pastas and pizzas, so perhaps I’ll have to change my rating next year!—Thomas Fung, owner, the Fairchild Group


Wickaninnish Inn

It was the ideal storm-watching night at the Wickaninnish Inn in Tofino. Window table, great view. A perfectly made Manhattan to start. I love to ask people what they’d choose for their last meal on Earth, and I should tell you that mine would include some sort of game meat—venison or wild boar or caribou—as well as foie gras, sweetbreads, and an old Italian red, a super Tuscan. The waiter informed us that the dinner special included venison carpaccio to start, and a grilled veal chop topped with sweetbreads and foie gras. I looked at my wife: they’ve read my mind. Oh, said the waiter, and the wine special this evening is a bin-end 1998 Barolo, available by the glass. I have a background as a chef, and I critique everything to the nth degree. I could find nothing to criticize about the meal. Every dish, every portion, every flavour was perfect. The fact that the chef, Tim Cuff, left the Wick a week later made it all the more memorable in retrospect.—Eric Pateman, Edible British Columbia



When the New York Times came calling last March, a live Alaskan king crab put Vancouver on the map as one of North America’s best spots to eat Chinese. So it was no surprise that one of my most memorable meals of the year was a four-course feast made from a fat first-of-the-season 12-pounder. The fact that it took place at the Excelsior—a somewhat unkempt, self-proclaimed Hong Kong-style café cum noodle shop in a strip mall in Richmond—merely speaks to the rich tableau of Chinese dining in Metro Vancouver. The dishes were deceptively simple. Thick parts of the legs were steamed with julienned ginger and scallions, then napped with a drizzle of first-run soy sauce. Thinner leg segments were crusted with blanched chopped garlic and steamed. (We requested a side order of al dente egg noodles to sop up the combined juices from these courses—a must.) Chunks of the meaty body were fried and tossed with a “secret” mélange of chopped onions, peppers, and chilies. Leg trimmings were chopped and folded into a tasty Portuguese-style curried fried rice, presented au gratin in the shell. It was no molecular brainteaser, just a simple, glorious tribute to a magnificent crustacean.—Stephen Wong, food writer


I have a carpaccio fetish. My favourite meals almost always involve this irresistible starter. It’s all about raw meat: translucent tissue-thin slices of prime beef spiked with capers, Dijon, aged cheese, and truffled oil. I adore the tender renditions at Cru, Cioppino’s, and Gusto di Quattro, but I remember when I discovered Boneta’s version of smoked bison carpaccio and realized it was of a different order of magnitude. Full-flavoured bison becomes so tender from the subtle smoking that it dematerializes on the tongue. A drizzle of sweet-sour sherry vinaigrette, the welcome crunch of walnuts, reviving arugula, and more smoky flavours from roasted tomatoes lift this classic to new heights. Wipe the plate clean (and you will) with Boneta’s chewy bread, sip a glass of wine from the off-the-beaten-path list, and be thankful.—DJ Kearney, sommelier instructor and wine consultant


Five Sails

Having grown up in the Maritimes, I have a passion for seafood, so for a special birthday celebration with friends we chose the Five Sails in the Pan Pacific Hotel. Chef Ernst Dorfler’s tuna sashimi was accompanied by a little cup of classic lobster bisque with a delightfully modern twist: cappuccino-style milk foam on top. My main course, the Catch Dish, boasted superb shellfish from coast to coast—fresh Atlantic lobster, weathervane scallops, Pacific tiger prawns, and B.C. halibut—all of it enveloped in a silky citrus foam scented with black truffle. Heaven. Dessert—classic Grand Marnier soufflé—was sheer ambrosia. Throw in the spectacular view, superb service, and great friends, and it added up to the most memorable meal I had in 2008.—Diane Clement, cookbook author


Uva Wine Bar

I love café society, but I have rules, the first being that when you arrive, you should feel wrapped in a cozy cocoon. Not long ago, I took a guest to Uva. We were warmly welcomed, then seated at a cocktail table. I ordered Prosecco; he chose a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. We decided on a selection of olives and the eggplant bruschetta: simplicity itself. The server placed a flute of bubbling Paradiso to my right and poured my companion’s wine from a wee decanter. The olives and bruschetta arrived with an elegant little bowl for the pits. We both commented on the stylish, good-spirited service. My companion was Michel Roux, celebrated chef, restaurateur, author of 10 cookbooks, and wine agent, who has travelled the world many times over. I took him to my local—and he, I’m pleased to say, was every bit as enchanted as I was.—Barbara-jo McIntosh, Barbara-Jo’s Books to Cooks