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There are only three virtues in contemporary restaurant cuisine these days, three culinary value clusters that are considered worth espousing. The first is simplicity. The second is innovation. The third is bold flavour. Chefs all weight these differently, and you can be sure these values will change over time with culinary fashion. But you can parse any menu in the urban foodie West today to a combination of these big ideas.
Cinara (pronounced with a “ch”) means “artichoke.” So even if you didn’t know chef Lucais Syme and his partner, Gill Book — and the approachable northern Italian fare they’ve been serving at La Quercia and La Pentola della Quercia — you’d know from the name that simplicity is a core value at this recent Crosstown opening. The room is casual: wood floors, round tables, exposed brick, and mismatched, grandmotherly china. The service is attitude-free: friendly and prompt. The kitchen is anti-haute, with jars of preserves and a shelf of cookbooks lining one wall. Syme, with his red topknot, looks like he’s cooking at home as he chats with staff and hails regulars. No geysers of flame. No beakers or test tubes. No arrogant tirades.
The menu matches the vibe. We started with herring on toast, fontina gougères, and clams with poached leeks and boar bacon. There was micro cilantro and diced potatoes on the clams, onion confit under the herring. That’s about it: the menu listings at Cinara are pretty close to recipes. The small bites really did pop. No flavour exactly bold, but the herring toast provided a salty-sweet, explosive crunch. The boar bacon was richly smoky. Gougères, of course, may be eaten by the bushel even without the tang of béchamel and fontina inside. Our table ate the allotted three units in about 11 seconds.
But the mains struggled to bridge elegant simplicity and engaging flavour. Stuffed squid came on paccheri pasta tubes napped in tomato sauce, subtle flavours needing a better boost of acid or a pinch of sea salt. The duck was perfectly and simply cooked, but fermented kamut is a pretty gnarly grain for the crepes alongside. The sous-vide beef shoulder had bigger problems. The water bath is a stripped-down technique indeed, but this one was either too hot or too short. The meat arrived looking ominously like well-done steak. And with only a cosmetic swirl of anchovy salsa verde and a few roasted onions, the dish ate down quickly to beef alone, a dry and seemingly unseasoned chew.
A couple of years back, Syme spoke about his culinary values in an interview with Montecristo magazine: “Some of our dishes may seem underwhelming or lacking wow factor,” he said. “But it’s important to remember that we’re not trying to change tradition.” I very much appreciate that sentiment in our 24/7 Diners, Drive-ins and Dives flavour-bomb era. Perhaps you too have had moments thinking that if you saw another Korean bulgogi taco wrapped in a bacon weave you’d never eat again. Still, simplicity can be a lonely corner of the culinary value triangle if it doesn’t connect somehow to either deep flavours or ingenious invention. The humble artichoke on West Pender is definitely on to something. And when it starts to combine those elements more reliably, it will really blossom.
Cinara. 350 W. Pender St., 604-428-9694
Order Anything with nettles or boar bacon. Multiple gougères. A dartboard selection from the excellent dessert trolley
Hours Breakfast 7-10am daily; dinner Tues.–Sat. 5-10pm
Prices Starters around $15; mains around $25
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