Best Meals of 2011

THE WILLOWS INN | Hate to say that I crossed the border for my most memorable meal of the year, but it’s true. The Willows Inn (2579 West Shore Dr., Lummi Island, 888-294-2620. on Lummi Island isn’t just the greatest restaurant in the Pacific Northwest—it’s easily one of the best in the world. The first time I visited this idyllic San Juan Islands getaway (a 10-minute ferry ride from Bellingham), I honestly thought Blaine Wetzel’s hyper-locavore menu was a bit derivative. Many of his dishes—the ground hazelnut “soil,” powdered vinaigrette on herbed toast, and whey with potatoes—were direct ripoffs from Copenhagen’s Noma (the No. 1 restaurant in the world, according to the 2010 S. Pellegrino list of World’s 50 Best Restaurants), where Wetzel, a young Puget Sound native, had spent 18 months training. But by early fall, when the 25-year-old wunderkind had the bounty of the local fisheries and dedicated Nettles Farm at his disposal, the oysters served on frozen beach rocks, smoking morsels of cedar-cured salmon, sweet organic grains with foraged mushrooms, lightly poached spot prawns draped in seaweed, and freshly picked blackberries sprinkled over pine-infused ice cream all had me swooning for days. Everything on the table, from the fresh-churned butter to huckleberry juice pairings, was gorgeously conceived and executed. —Alexandra Gill

GOOD CHOICE RESTAURANT | I love the serendipity of living and eating in this city! From the outside, Good Choice Restaurant (6007 Fraser St., 604-325-9788) doesn’t inspire confidence. It looks like a joint that doesn’t care too much, but I’m telling you, it does. Staff are smiley and make a fuss over you. Plates are changed frequently, tea is topped up without asking. Most importantly, the kitchen sends out seriously good food for $12 to $15 a dish. Chef Raymond Ma’s chiu chow duck and his stir-fried scallops with celery, ginger, and XO sauce won accolades at the Chinese Restaurant Awards, but there are many more noteworthy dishes. The stir-fried shrimp with tea leaves are cooked perfectly, just edging past the point of translucence, and the singing chicken had me singing along. Other standouts: beef brisket cooked in a sweet soy sauce, sliced thin and served on a bed of sliced cucumbers; salted, spiced, and baked whole free-range chicken presented to the diner before it’s whisked back to the kitchen to be carved; a delicate fried-rice dish with crab roe, dried scallops, and Chinese sausage. Good Choice might be a silly name, but it’s a fitting one. —Mia Stainsby

PHNOM PENH | In all the years I’ve been going to Phnom Penh (224 E. Georgia St., 604-682-5777)—through various lovers, two husbands, and a legion of out-of-town friends—I’ve always had the same dishes: the famed butter beef, the chicken wings that seemingly every table orders, the tasty lemon pepper squid, and an order of pea tips for contrast. A dinner last summer with Asian food expert Stephen Wong that was designed to impress a Japanese friend failed miserably in its intent—she didn’t like any of the food—but it gave me a whole new set of favourites to order, like the giant, sizzling bánh xèo (Vietnamese crepe) stuffed with pork bean sprouts and vegetables, and the Vietnamese chicken salad with cabbage, carrot, and mint. Best of all was the spicy, garlicky Dungeness crab. It has to be ordered in advance (but not very far in advance, since they just nip down the street for a live one). Have it house style, fried and crunchy, with browned onions and loads of cilantro. Don’t bother with the crackers; use your teeth so you can suck the sweet, sour, crispy, spicy outside shell as well as the juicy meat inside. It’s noisy, messy, and sublime, and goes for market price, which means a big one is about $40. —Christina Burridge

CAMPAGNOLO ROMA | The high point was debating whether we could in fact taste the pig brains in the squash and taleggio dish. Doug said no. Leanne argued that you couldn’t taste it, but could mouth-feel it because brains have the texture of toothpaste. I said, no, brains are like spongy rubber. Libor said, no, they’re only like that when they’ve been cured. So went the evening when Campagnolo Roma (2297 E. Hastings St., 604-569-0456., which has brought inventive Italian to a mini-mall on East Hastings, put on a unique family-style dinner in November that specialized in alternative animal parts—part of the culinary zero-waste movement, I supposed. The meal included slices of pig heart with artichoke, rigatoni with calves’ intestines (like little tubes of powdery octopus), tripe in tomato sauce, the aforementioned brains, a beet-celeriac salad with pig-snout crackling and thin strips of pig ear, and a chocolate and pig-blood pudding. Here’s what I learned: 1. Tripe makes me heave (though Libor, from the Czech Republic, had multiple helpings). 2. Pig ear tastes like unrendered bacon fat mixed with gelatin. 3. I can eat a lot of strange stuff if it’s artfully disguised. —Frances Bula

TACOFINO | There’s been a lot of hullabaloo about our food carts, but unless you work in the downtown core, they’re of little everyday consequence. I work in South Granville, so it was no small moment a few months back when word spread through the office that Tacofino’s blue truck (Burrard & Dunsmuir, Mon-Fri, 11 a.m.-3 p.m., for weekends check Twitter, 778-870-6436. was in the ’hood. I was vaguely familiar with Tacofino from its Tofino roots, but also aware that Mexican food in Vancouver is of two varieties: the chichi style of crap served to people who like to “Cadillac” their margharitas, and the smaller joints that fuss over inherently casual food and then charge too much for it. The introduction of four wheels and an internal combustion engine seemed just the thing to change that. And Tacofino’s fish taco proved to be a wake-up call. It wasn’t just that they use crisp lingcod, which has just a glisten of oil left on it and that workingman’s flavour that halibut can’t match. It was the subtle chipotle mayo that was actually made with chipotle. It was the crunch of the cabbage, the salsa fresca that was, in fact, fresca. I sat in my office, hunched over, elbows splayed sideways, revelling in this glorious mess every day for a week. Then, just like that, the truck was gone. Greener pastures turned out to be the oh-so-cool streets of South Main, and for a while I made the 12-block pilgrimage, but eating alone on a park bench was too sad-Keanu to bear. We had a good thing for a few days, now it’s over. But their spot’s still free. —Neal McLennan

SZECHUAN CHONGQING | My most memorable meal is one I repeat several times a month. Sunday mornings at the Szechuan Chongqing (2808 Commerical Dr., 604-254-7434) with the men in my life (my twin boys and David) communing over our favourite dishes is a sacrosanct ritual that binds us deeply. As we sit down, our sleepy waiter says automatically, “Deluxe Tan Tan?” and soon a steaming bowl of soupy noodles with glistening meat sauce made of ground pork, sesame paste, pickled vegetables, and chili oil arrives. It changes subtly—sometimes it’s a little more fiery, sometimes it’s creamier with extra sesame paste—but it’s always comforting and sustaining. Talk is silenced for a few moments as we contemplate each earthy, savoury, spicy mouthful. Our customary dishes continue: silky won tons in spicy peanut sauce with their addictive smoky intensity; crispy fried chive and prawn dumplings; tender pan-fried pork dumplings that squirt juicy broth; and, maybe, if we feel the need to atone for Saturday night excesses, a virtuous and garlicky platter of wok-fried bok choy or pea shoots. In this city we enjoy a rich variety of tiptop Chinese cuisine, but for me, a Sunday anointing of Chongqing’s solid standards is a memorable family pleasure. Can’t wait for next weekend. —DJ Kearney

HAWKSWORTH | Before dining at Hawksworth, I’d been on a run of reviewing mostly average, casual comfort food spots with counter service and long lineups. Collectively, they were so far removed from anything remotely elegant that the experience at the newly unleashed Hawksworth (801 W. Georgia St., 604-673-7000. in the renovated Rosewood Hotel Georgia came in bold relief. Much had been written and whispered of the food, and our meal was as good as the gossip attested, the best I’d had in ages. After supping on Sloppy Joe cuisine for so long, I couldn’t help but slash through the foie gras parfait, vacuum the delicate spot prawn and bacon soup, and massacre the chorizo-wrapped halibut. I literally destroyed my supper with a hunger born of tedious exposure to low-brow ubiquity. But what spun me most was the restaurant’s adherence to forgotten service protocols. From spreading linen napkins on laps to proper mise en place, they didn’t put a foot wrong, and I luxuriated in the attention to detail. We don’t do “fancy” well in Vancouver. It’s not in our nature to either deliver it or subject ourselves to it. Hawksworth reminded me of what we’re missing, and it’s plenty. —Andrew Morrison

SAVE ON MEATS | In a year of extensive travel and dining, the meal that stays with me was a quiet lunch at Save On Meats (43 W. Hastings St., 604-569-3568. It was the first warm day of summer, and I was welcomed to the spare dining counter by an enthusiastic service team. The menu was chock full of diner classics, made from scratch and priced for incredible value. I tucked in to the Save On Meats Burger, which was generously portioned and humming with juicy, beefy goodness. The man on the next stool chatted with me about the other restaurants that once thrived in the area. (He also told me that, years ago, he hitchhiked with Tom Cochrane and gave him the idea for “Life Is a Highway”). As a child, my family regularly visited the area, making weekly excursions to Chinatown for groceries and other provisions, walking over to Woodward’s to shop, perhaps stopping by The Only for a bowl of seafood chowder. Over the neighbourhood’s long years of decline, Save On Meats soldiered on, providing real food to a neglected clientele, until it closed in 2009. For long-time Vancouverites like myself, it was deeply gratifying to see a revitalized restaurant reopen last year, once again serving the community at the heart of the Downtown Eastside. —Lee Man

ENSEMBLE | Wine-pairing dinners can be hit-or-miss (beware the winemaker who delivers a 20-minute lecture on sur lie while your soup gets cold), but a fall evening at Ensemble (840 Thurlow St., 604-569-1770. saw former Top Chef Canada competitors Dale MacKay, Rob Rossi (Bestellen, Toronto), and Connie DeSousa (Charcut, Calgary) collaborating on a meal that was both educational and infinitely pleasurable. We began with canapés that included a creamy chicken liver mousse served on crackers dotted with caraway seeds, paired with a Premier Cru Champagne (its yeasty, toasty richness playing off the cracker spice). Rossi’s scallop crudo was paired with a “sensitively oaked” chardonnay, whose toasty notes harmonized with bottarga (pressed and shaved fish roe) and a smoked Maldon salt. DeSousa’s bison heart kielbasa was rich and gamey, but the organ meat gave the sausage a succulent texture, and the accompanying soft, fruity syrah provided wonderful balance. The highlight of the night, though, was MacKay’s black cod with pork Thai broth. Simple in appearance—a piece of fish floating in a lagoon of slightly cloudy soup—the revelation was the simultaneously sweet, sour, and salty broth (the result of slow-simmering 27 ingredients) that perfectly offset the buttery-rich fish. Bok choy, smoked maitake mushrooms, and a dash of chili oil that left a slight tingle on the lips completed the deceptively complex bowl. —Rebecca Philps

CIOPPINO’S | A celebratory October dinner at Cioppino’s (1133 Hamilton St., 604-688-7466. Unable to decide what to order, we asked if chef Pino Posteraro would decide for us. He obliged with a procession of brilliant surprises, starting with escargots in a red wine and port reduction, the richness offset by polenta and a mound of truffle-infused ricotta. Next came prosciutto-wrapped loin of rabbit, cooked sous vide, perfectly tender and moist in a Riesling reduction. Then farmed sturgeon from the Sunshine Coast, Sicilian style (cooked before being lightly coated in garlic-infused olive oil and pulverized bread crumbs). My distant recollection of sturgeon was of smoked oily blandness; these rounds were firm but not heavy, clean and flavourful, lifted by the acidic bite of preserved cherry tomatoes. A pasta dish—a play on mac ’n’ cheese (including efficiently used rabbit bits) was followed by Quebec venison—rare, sliced paper thin, served with a juniper and nutmeg jus. A simple tarte Tatin with apple gelato capped this extraordinary meal. We’d eaten at Cioppino’s many times, yet never tasted any of these dishes. It’s tantalizing fun not knowing what the next offering might be; when each course is a revelation, it’s unforgettable. —Jesse Spencer