2012’s Most Unforgettable Dining Experiences

Le Dîner en Blanc

Flash mobs can sometimes be amusing when observed from a safe distance (like from in front of a computer screen)—for me, being involved in anything that smacks of a high school drama performance is nightmarish. So no one was more surprised when I found myself smack in the middle of the biggest flash mob the city has even seen. But Le Dîner en Blanc is no typical song-and-dance routine; it’s a “secret supper” event that started in Paris 25 years ago and has now spread all over the world, from Mexico City to Kigali, and for the first time, Vancouver. Here’s how it works: you sign up (and pay a $25 fee), then show up at a designated meeting place wearing all white, with a folding table, chairs, linens, proper silverware and wine glasses, and a picnic dinner in tow. A group leader reveals the location of the flash-mob dinner, and you join the 1,200 others descending on, as it was in August for this inaugural year, Jack Poole Plaza. Edith Piaf warbled over the loud speakers as we caboosed onto a winding line of tables and marvelled at the spectacle of the largest dinner party ever imagined. Most attendees brought their own food (sushi trays were popular, as were Tupperware tubs of gussied-up kale salad) but we opted to preorder chef Dale Mackay’s picnic basket of charcuterie, cheese, olives, salads, and baguette, which was perfect, but sorta beside the point. There we were, chatting with our neighbours, drinking wine en plein air, watching the daylight fade and the Coal Harbour high-rises twinkle to life. And we raised our sparklers at the end of the meal as if to say, now the real fun begins. For then there was dancing to live music, and more wine, and the too-rare feeling of really being all in this together. ⎯Rebecca Philps

Quang Dang and Mourad Lahlou: One Night Only

The drenched Sunday of the Remembrance Day weekend, gutters plugged with leaves and the odd bedraggled poppy lost from snatched-at lapels. A dirty night to be out, and I admit it took force of will to bother. But the reward! Joining West (2881 Granville St., 604-738-8938) chef Quang Dang for one night only was San Francisco’s Mourad Lahlou, whose 128-seat Aziza won in 2010 the first Michelin star for a Moroccan restaurant. Co-presenting was Bombay Sapphire gin, which explains the traditional welcome of mint-green tea goosed with sparkling wine and gin—a fiddle on custom, but no more so than the accompanying crostini with fresh cheese, grated almond, and tomato jam. And so the magic unfolded, seven courses balancing the rich spices and layered sauces of Morocco with the West Coast minimalism of both chefs: chicken liver mousse alight with berbere spicing; a lentil soup, heavy with tomato, enlivened by date, all sweetness and umami. And the mains: beef cheeks with brown butter couscous and a Moroccan spiced carrot jam that I could happily subsist on; black cod, simplicity itself, ringed by saffron broth; and—the star attraction—basteeya, a reverse chicken potpie of slow-braised meat holding a centre of well-balanced grains and herbs. With each dish, a bespoke gin cocktail from West barkeep David Wolowidnyk, the spirit infused, blended, sometimes sous-vided with herbs and seeds and fruits, the greatest of them the Beldi that won him the Bombay worlds in Marrakech in May. Rain? What rain? ⎯John Burns

Whistler’s World Oyster Invitational

The playground that is Whistler was designed to support Bacchanalia. So it was hardly surprising when my man told me he wanted to drive up the mountain for a boozy, all-you-can-slurp event called the World Oyster Invitational, hosted by the fine Bearfoot Bistro (4121 Village Green, Whistler, 604-932-3433). “Last year,” he enthused, “we practically died before the sun went down.” Sold. Clever organizers bolstered the dozens of shucking stations (all dishing plump Sawmill Bay oysters) with a concurrent Bloody Caesar Battle, which meant the order of the day was full, forward flavours. Downstairs, in Bearfoot’s legendary wine cellar, we discovered our favourite station: J.S. Dupuis, from Tableau Bistro, was dishing screw-your-diet Oysters Kilpatrick buttressed with a touch of maple syrup (“a Quebecer’s secret weapon,” he whispered with a wink) and cooked bacon on top. For his accompanying cocktail, Dupuis went to the trouble of smoking a set of oysters in hickory, then dehydrating them and grinding them into a powder mixed with celery salt; this was the briny rim for each Caesar. The vodka itself was infused with bacon, jalapeños, horseradish, and shallots. The Worcestershire sauce was mingled with Louisiana sauce, cumin, and a hit of HP. These were major, enveloping tastes that managed to command the senses without getting crass. Later, as attendees started to tilt sideways, things ratcheted up with speed-shucking competitions (presided over by a rosy Fred Lee). Men from Canada, Ireland, and the U.S. (plus a lone woman, Noriko Kamashima, from Japan) bisected hundreds of shells to the crowd’s unabashedly fervent hoots. ⎯Michael Harris

Just Another Night at Wildebeest

While most leading-edge chefs are glued at the hips to provisioners, Wildebeest’s David Gunawan takes it a step further and micro-manages the flavours destined for his plates. “Farm to table has become catchy these days,” he says. “We’re beyond that.” His farmers follow the seasons, too, and in apple season, the chickens and pigs were dining on “dropped apples” as well as whey (which builds protein and muscle) from farm-house cheese. All of which lends exquisite flavour to his meat and poultry dishes. Sauces and marinades usually disguise the nothingness of chicken but at Wildebeest (120 W. Hastings St., 604-687-6880), the chicken needs nothing (although the wine-braised jus kicks it even further). A 48-hour-roasted Angus beef short rib (with smoked salt and hay-infused jus) had me cross-eyed with glee. Bone marrow in a “luge” bone was primal. Chawanmushi, a Japanese savoury custard, was a delicate, airy contrast. Gunawan honours the purity of ingredients—though a fresh tomato-centric dessert was too stark for me, even with a sorrel sorbet and fromage frais backing it up. His approach works best in dishes like his riff on a Noma (pundits say, best restaurant in the world) appetizer. The naked display of raw radishes with honey yogurt, beet sorbet, and “crunchy bits” (aka soil) really worked. I remember a delicious dessert of alpine strawberries done three ways: with yogurt meringue, poached, and as a sorbet. And how ’bout those food-friendly cocktails created by one of the owners, Josh Pape. A revelation! ⎯Mia Stainsby

A Four-Star Diva

Modernist Persian. Who knew there was such a cuisine and that it was created in Vancouver? It’s a shame the Globe and Mail hadn’t yet launched its star-rating system when I critiqued Diva at the Met (645 Howe St., 604-602-7788) under its new executive chef, Hamid Salimian, because this extraordinary meal was more original than any I’ve ever eaten. Four stars? You bet. Dinner began with a palate-popping flurry of exquisite amuse-bouches that included an olive-oil marshmallow sprinkled with Kalamata salt, crunchy brioche bedecked with creamy Canadian caviar, and a translucent sheet of potato “glass” showered in Périgord truffle. I’m not a fan of molecular gastronomy when just used for kicks. But there was nothing gimmicky about the deeply smoky flavour teased out of a whisper-thin bacon wafer, or the mesmerizing texture of a Parmesan cracker melting on the tongue under a snowy drift of Parmesan powder and charred-eggplant. And that was just the prelude to the seven-course tasting menu. Terrifically tender duck breast took classic Fesenjoon stew to new heights by incorporating reduced sour pomegranate, sweet-orange crackle, and crispy kale chips. Puffed foie gras didn’t just sit on its wowing sponge-toffee texture but was anchored in caramelized fig dotted with candied walnuts and pickled green strawberries. From milky sweetbreads to buttery turnips, ash-crusted beef tenderloin to silky braised short rib, every component was executed with incredible finesse. The room was nothing special, service ranged from overly friendly to uncomfortably stiff, and the wine pairings were respectably modest. But for food this exceptional, I’d give it four stars even if it were served from a street cart. ⎯Alexandra Gill

BYO Wine Pairings at Dynasty Seafood

A momentous occasion: a group of 10 wine friends celebrating the advent of the BYOW era in B.C. And Dynasty Seafood (108-777 W. Broadway, 604-876-8388) was the perfect place to do it. Though Vancouverites take great pride in the quality of our Chinese cuisine, we have long been conditioned to accept that somehow fine wine is not part of the equation. Not anymore, as our informal Friday night get-together resoundingly proved. The menu was not planned and the wines were a random hodgepodge, but the pairings that serendipitously emerged were extraordinary, suggesting the need for innumerable repeat visits. A mystery appetizer spontaneously appeared just as our first wine—Pierre Gimonnet ‘Cuis’ Premier Cru Champagne—was being poured. It looked like a plateful of oyster fritters, but they were far too light for that. In fact the “El Bulli doughnuts,” as we called them, were filled with an airy foam that had an essence-of-ocean brininess—sea cucumber, we decided. The combination of light texture and intense flavour perfectly matched the Chardonnay-and-chalk magic of the wine. It was a good omen, and set the standard for the evening. Next, fresh Dungeness crab—spicy, salty, garlicky. Would that work with Riesling? For the purposes of science we tried three—a Rhein­gau Kabinett, a Mosel Spätlese, and an Alsatian Grand Cru—and yes, they worked. Peking duck with New Zealand’s Felton Road Pinot Noir was perfection. Chicken marinated for 24 hours in aged soy sauce with Le Vieux Donjon Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc, ditto. Many dishes followed, all of them topnotch. Service was impeccable, with endlessly patient changing of plates and glasses. It was an unforgettable evening, outside the realm of hope just months ago. ⎯David Scholefield

Closing Time at Cru

When I heard that Cru was shutting its doors at the end of June, I felt a pang of sadness. Not only because Vancouver was losing a great room, but because Cru had a special place in my heart. When it opened nine years ago, the response was immediate. Beautiful small plates and a smart wine list sought to demystify food and wine pairings and enlighten diners to their transformative joys. It was also the early days of online forums, which were underpinned by a genuine joy in a community of food enthusiasts. Over raucous meals at Cru my eGullet buddies became real-life friends who are now family to me. Right before the final service at Cru, I sat down to a meal of green pea risotto and seared halibut at the height of its season, followed by a ridiculously luscious chocolate torte. Owner Mark Taylor—who went on to open Siena just a few blocks away (1485 W. 12th Ave., 604-558-1485)—was, as always, the perfect host. And the years fell away, to a time before restaurants were dissected by online reviews, Facebook pages, and Twitter feeds, and dinner was just about having a great time with new friends. It was lovely. ⎯Lee Man

La Pentola

Nothing against Don Letendre’s cooking, but for me his Elixir never reached the smart elevated bistro he intended. I always blamed host Opus Hotel, whose DJ booths and gauze-divvied downstairs bathrooms lured in Axe-wearing warriors. Yet dining in the room’s new incarnation, product of Lucais Syme and Adam Pegg of La Quercia, is a happy surprise: gone are the club chairs and stuffing, the butterscotch colours and sepia wall tat. In their place, clean, modern, whitewashed La Pentola della Quercia (350 Davie St., 604-642-0557), a temple of simplicity for chef Stephane Meyer’s Northern Italian menu. We started with excellent Negronis (the bar program has also been refurbished) and appetizers (bruschetta, coppa) and got down to business, which in any decent Italian restaurant is family gossip. My brothers and I caught up, my sister-in-law (who redesigned the room) pointed out details of our surroundings and talked about her pregnancy; we moved on to a graceful parmesan soufflé, to rich roasted bone marrow with salsa verde and crostini, to “badly cut” pasta with seafood and chilies, to the night’s special of stinging nettle ravioli, to divorce and family scandal and wrongs righted and old jokes, to a decent flatiron steak well-matched to arugula, balsamic, and pine nuts and a bottle of Laughing Stock Rosé (for $40!) and this is exactly what downtown needed: a breezy room that can accommodate serious food, yet light enough to laugh and remember and forgive. When we left the “Little Saucepan,” the last of the rosé on our lips, we said, We must do this again soon! ⎯Peter Weir

Master Chefs in Their Natural Environment

Going out for dinner is great, going to the beach is great, too, but going to the beach for dinner? Strictly for hacky sackers. It’s a logistics thing—sand gets everywhere and quality control is impossible. Am I saying your celebration cookout at Spanish Banks wasn’t a good food experience? That’s exactly what I’m saying. But as usual there are exceptions—and in this case it requires a ferry, a harrowing mountain drive, and, finally, a short walk past a No Trespassing sign outside of Tofino. It’s here—an all-shell beach eponymously called Shell Beach—where Wickaninnish Inn chef Nicholas Nutting and pastry chef Matt Wilson defied the odds in early fall and conjured up a meal whose every course seemed like it was presented by the slowly rising tide. Each dish—from a foraged berry-and-greens salad to a Clayoquot Sound spot prawn broth—literally came a stone’s throw from our table, and was caught or gathered by the chefs themselves. An entrée of simply roasted greenling—a delicious cousin to the ling cod—was paired with Vancouver Island corn and chanterelles gathered in a secret spot just inland. But it was dessert, served as the light was almost gone and the water practically at our feet, that was the tipping point. Pastry chef Wilson had gathered salal—a leather-leafed shrub—and paired it with husks from local Alberni wheat kernels to create a base meant to evoke dirt, and then placed a scoop of ice cream heavily infused with smoke from fresh red cedar on top. Eyes and nose said we were engaged in chowing down on the forest floor, but our taste buds screamed three Michelin stars. So it’s possible to have fine beach dining…but you need a pair of superstar chefs willing to do all the heavy lifting. ⎯Neal McLennan

 The Warmth of The Fork at Agate Bay

It was an adventure long before we walked through the doors of The Fork at Agate Bay (2530 North Shore Rd., Bellingham, 360-733-1126). Unlike the majority of Canadians here, we had ventured far from the mall. Heading east, we’d wound our way around Lake Whatcom on a crisp fall night. The lakefront homes on the city’s eastern edge got sparser and the trees got denser. A rat-like creature scuttled across the road—a possum, we later determined. So, when we finally saw the lights of The Fork, it felt like an oasis in the wilderness. An exaggeration, yes, but The Fork, perched on the edge of suburbia, retains an aura of what it once was—a roadhouse where farmers could gather and get a bellyful of something warm. It’s fixed up to feel like a comfortable country house (dark wood floors, dressers with flowers in vases) that happens to have a couple of bars, and its menu is filled with inventive creations that incorporate local ingredients into rich, European-style dishes. (It reminded me of the dear departed Cafeteria on Main Street.) My salad featured an ancho-smoked red pear that was a taste bomb. The garlic truffle fries were sharp and tangy. Porcini-crusted scallops and squash gratin were lifted by a scattering of diced house-pickled apple. Two big pieces of chicken came with a dense Madeira sauce and delicata squash stuffed with smoked chicken, fontina, and onions. Not as fine as nearby Willows Inn, but in its Pacific Northwest way so much more down home. ⎯Frances Bula