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Everyone is dying to know what the tiny Chinatown room, which was awarded one Michelin star in 2022, is really like.
Quite a few months into the pandemic, an industry colleague reached out to say she was thinking of taking a job at Barbara, and what did I think of the place? I was at a bit of a loss, firstly because people never call and ask me for advice and secondly: having never worked in a restaurant, what possible insight could I have?
I said as much, but confessed that I had only been in once, but that it gave me a really good vibe. I enjoyed my meal and it seemed a good fit for someone who was passionate.
I did not say, “Mark my words, one day soon they’ll have a Michelin star.” And in the ramp up to last week’s announcements? When people asked who I thought was a lock, Barbara was not front and centre.
Truthfully this is more of a dig at Michelin, who for the longest time placed a value of service that was higher than that the average North American does, and in the past would have looked unfavourably upon Barbara’s all-natural, all-BC wine list. All 15 bottles.
But if you asked me what restaurant best captures Vancouver dining, I’d have said Barbara. Well, I’d first have said Burdock & Co. Then I’d say Barbara, and I think it’s the coolest that Michelin has decided that the narrow area in which Barbara excels is worthy of one of its stars.
But by narrow, I don’t mean modest. Much has been made of Chef Patrick Hennessy’s year-long stint at New York’s 11 Madison Park, consistently ranked as one of the world’s great restaurants, and how it influences his fare at Barbara. I can’t really comment: I haven’t eaten at 11 Madison and while I have the cookbook, I’ve never used it, as the recipes are Spanish Inquisition-type cruel in terms of complexity and time commitment. But to the extent it shaped Hennessy, I like to think that it was in the same manner that the restaurant shaped Carmen Berzatto, the fictional star of The Bear (the best show on TV, btw): it fine-tuned his talent and made him realize that life is too flipping short not to follow his own beat.
For Hennessy that means working in a room that seats 15. And I mean working: he’s cooking, he’s delivering, he’s doing tonnes of stuff no other Michelin-starred chef does to keep the micro-operation moving. There was only one other person working there on my visit. Two people, that’s it.
The food was excellent: a bit of a masterclass in dreaming up a dish and then paring it down to just the requisite elements needed to make it sing, a challenge that only works in the hands of a chef with vision who spends a lot of money on the freshest, most local ingredients. The standout dish for me was a beautifully composed beef tartare topped with crispy shallots and something pickled (radishes, maybe?) to help cut the richness. And it was part of a three-course tasting menu that was $70, which I though a very solid deal.
I do have some fears that diners are going to show up and expect fireworks from a chef who specializes in showstopper dishes—maybe that will work, but my visit was more an exercise in restraint than opulence. If you want Andy Warhol or Damien Hirst, then this ain’t your spot. If you like Cy Twombly or Donald Judd, then you’ll probably see the magic in the two-person orchestra playing in front of you.