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Is it expensive? Yes. Is it also a good deal? Again, yes. And this sentiment seems to be shared by the restaurant-going crowd.
Jack Evrensel was one of the most highly regarded restaurateurs to ever hang a shingle (or in his case, many shingles) in this fair city, so when he sold his Toptable mini-empire (then consisting of CinCin, West, Araxi, Blue Water and Thierry) a few years back to the deep-pocketed Canucks-owning Aquilini clan, most wags predicted doom for the new owners. Running a restaurant has crushed many a seasoned industry veteran—how were these newbies going to handle Evrensel’s obsessive pride and joy?
Pretty darn well, it turns out. Blue Water is as popular as it ever was, Thierry is as niche as it ever was, and while West has morphed from destination dining to a neighbourhood spot, that transformation had begun long before the sale. With CinCin, the Aquilinis revamped a tired bastion for tourists into one of the better Italian spots in town. And we haven’t even got to Whistler, where Araxi’s reign atop the village restaurants is challenged only by the newly revamped Il Caminetto—which they also own (having bought it last year from Umberto Menghi) at the high end and their more casual spot, Bar Oso, at the low.
But buying a known commodity and not screwing it up is one thing—successfully creating something from scratch is quite another. For well over a year before Elisa—that’s the new spot—opened, there had been rumours of a full-court press of the entire Toptable team to get the “Steakhouse,” as it was known in the industry, perfect. Even the launch of the name last fall—it’s an ode to the Aquilini family matriarch—was filled with the sort of pomp and circumstance normally reserved for a state visit.
It all added up to the sort of hype that’s impossible to live up to, but on three visits in the last few months it appears that Elisa is up to the challenge. It doesn’t hurt that they’ve assembled a sort of Toptable all-star team—chef Andrew Richardson, chef de cuisine Yvan Burkhalter and restaurant director Ricardo Ferreira all came over from CinCin, sous-chef Alex Hon from West, and, for good measure, they poached sommelier Franco Michienzi from Hawksworth and bar manager Katie Ingram from L’Abattoir. Wow—how does one pay for such talent? We’ll come back to that in a bit.
The hook for Elisa is that it’s a new kind of steakhouse, its feminine name a nod to this isn’t the usual bro-fest explosion of red leather, brown leather and lingering Cohiba smoke. Walking into the classy, muted room doesn’t skew male or female as much as it screams money (designers the Rockwell Group were parachuted in from New York). As we sit down, it’s clear the menu designers didn’t get the feminine memo: the hulking black leather-clad tome is straight out of the 21 Club circa 1927.
In addition to steak, Elisa’s big on tartare (which is sort of like expressing your musical diversity by saying you like country and western), which opens the menu with five variations. We started with the bison and, at the server’s urging, the tuna. Good choices. The generous portion of lightly smoked bison rolls out atop some grilled red fife bread and dotted with pickled ramps. It’s just the right amount of richness, and, at $20, the portion size is easily enough for two—compare that with Bao Bei’s $18 version which is smaller in size and cheaper in cut, and the expense of Elisa starts to seems relative.
The tuna version ($19) is the perfect counterpoint—light, with a bed of perfectly ripe avocado providing some creamy lavishness held in check with soy and horseradish. So far, so great. (I went with the veal on another visit and its solid, if staid, take on vitello tonnato left it a distant bronze medallist.)
The salads don’t let the momentum slide, which, I suppose, is their role in a steakhouse. The Caesar uses gem leaves instead of romaine, which necessitates using a knife and fork (groan) but then compensates by not shying away from the anchovies (and when we tell the server we’re sharing it, comes out on two separate plates). The burrata ($19) is a glorious little slab of Puglian white gold (the portion neither chintzy nor generous), studded with wood-grilled veg and pickled red onion, is among the best in town.
But enough with the opening acts—you can dazzle all you want with raw tuna, but even if you’re a new-style steakhouse, the steaks have to wow or you’ve failed.
The steaks wow.
I’m of the school of belief that the most important step in a great steak is sourcing great meat, and here Elisa has no parallel. There are 21 different cuts from nine different purveyors that run the geographical gamut from Wisconsin to P.E.I. to the Kagoshima prefecture in Japan. It verges on too much, but I’m able to rule out the ones that will bankrupt me—the above-mentioned A5 Wagyu ($28/oz) and the 50 oz tomahawk ($179)—and ultimately settle on three.
First up is a Holstein dairy cow rib-eye ($58) that comes out much thinner than I expected but is a wallop of rich, creamy flavour. I counter that with a lean (Alberta) Wagyu flatiron ($38) that is a marvel of consistency—none of the sinew that can creep into the cut, each bite firm but again a blast of rich beefy goodness. The third is the P.E.I. striploin ($49) and it’s only a slight letdown—the flavour is still there (the cows eat the island’s potatoes) but it’s a tiny bit on the firm side and salted just a hair aggressively. It would likely be the best steak at almost any other spot in town, but in here it’s a step behind.
All come with a carrot purée side and half a roasted potato, which while, not really enough to qualify as a full side, are at least a slight nod to the ridiculousness of the practice of charging someone $50+ for an entrée and then expecting them to pony up another $12 for a side—although I ponied up for the onion rings ($12), the roesti hash browns ($10) and the Brussels sprouts with parmesan ($10) and all were large portions, as they should be for that supplementary price. We ventured just once outside le boeuf—the land-and-sea portion of the menu is literally hidden behind the overlay of the steaks—and it was for the rabbit ($39). We were told it was nonna’s recipe, and as insulting someone’s nonna is a universally bad idea, I’ll simply say we ate only a small portion of the bland, very dry dish.
At 46 pages, the wine list looks like it comes from a restaurant that’s been in business a decade. The prices are generally high (the markups generally hover between 2.5 and 2.75 times retail) but that translates into relatively well priced for a steakhouse, where huge margins are the norm. And there are bargains if you look—a bottle of savoury, peppery syrah from the small Okanagan producer Winemaker’s Cut is only $58 for a $32 bottle of wine, and the Aquilinis own blend from their Red Mountain vineyards in Washington is a perfect foil for steak, and at $80 priced at what’s probably just retail, given the value of that land and the price of neighbouring wineries. The corollary is that if you want to celebrate with a bottle of Krug, expect to pay a $444 markup on a bottle that retails for $286, which as a percentage isn’t egregious but seems ungenerous just the same.
So what of the cost of this voyage? My tally for one tartare, two entrees, two sides, a dessert and four glasses of wine is $246, which with tip buzzes $300. There’s no getting around that that’s a flipping expensive dinner, but it’s concurrently a pretty solid value. Black and Blue would be at least as pricey and is not even in the ballpark in terms of food, service or decor. The fact is, great steak is very expensive, but Elisa wins your heart with little gestures—you start with the not inexpensive beef carpaccio ($20) and it arrives with a very liberal sprinkle of Burgundian truffles. And the portions are huge.
Is it expensive? Yes. Is it also a good deal? Again, yes. And this sentiment seems to be shared by the restaurant-going crowd—it’s been slammed since opening, with the big room packed almost every night. It’s all going so well that one wonders if soon the Aquilinis will be described as restaurateurs…who also own the Canucks.
1109 Hamilton St.604-362-5443elisasteak.com
Hours: Bar daily from 4:30 p.m.; dinner daily from 5 p.m.