Vancouver’s 10 Best Meals

What do our experts’ picks for the year’s most memorable meals reveal about our ever-shifting culinary tastes? Despite the occasional dalliance with decadence (10-course meals prepared by the city’s top chefs are rather unforgettable) we crave simplicity, rusticity, and genuine hospitality. Hearty pastas, richly braised meats, even a simple bowl of immaculately dressed legumes scored big. And heck, sometimes nothing beats a steaming-hot bowl of noodle soup.


Pillowy Perfection

Once upon a time, when you lived in West Vancouver and wanted an exquisite meal, you had to cross a bridge or two. No longer. We now have some very talented chefs on our side of town, and I’m enjoying no room more than Fraîche, in the capable hands of chef Wayne Martin. My definition of a good menu is one that engages me so deeply that I can’t decide what to order. Fraîche’s menu reads better than most, with thoughtful accompaniments that elevate the proteins, rather than just show up on the plate. Think quince Tatin with your duck confit, or a brown butter clam emulsion on the pappardelle with the striped bass. Can humble gnocchi merit top billing when served up alongside sultry kurobuta pork cheeks? I say yes. Martin’s gnocchi are impossibly light, like nothing I’ve ever tasted. It wasn’t until Chef Martin graciously emailed me the recipe that I learned the source of his magic. The main ingredient isn’t flour or potatoes, it’s ricotta cheese. This is a dish worth crossing a bridge for. – Lynn Duplessis-Henriccson
Fraîche 2-2240 Chippendale Rd.,604-925-7595.


Over The Top

It was a night for counting courses, not calories. The chefs who cooked for Senza Frontiere (Without Borders), hosted by Pino Posteraro at Cioppino’s in Yaletown last February, were like the Olympic hockey team: all-stars top to bottom. Daniel Boulud’s classic Alsatian tarte flambée and Vikram Vij’s marinated mutton with chutney (aided by Moët et Chandon) whetted the appetite. Then it was sit down and fasten seat belts for 1) Tojo’s impeccable Dungeness crab cakes (paired with Reisling Schlossberg 2006); 2) Michel Jacob’s terrine of duck foie gras (Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey 2003 Sauternes), silk on the tongue; followed by 3) Pino’s chicken consommé with Marsala and winter mushrooms (Gewürztraimer Cuvée Theo 2006)-a nice interlude. 4) Rob Feenie’s trio of Qualicum scallops (Bourgogne Blanc 1999 Leroy), plump and satisfying, made 5) Robert Clark’s sablefish in spot prawn bisque (Riesling Jubilee 2004 Hugel) seem like overkill. Whew. Are we there yet? Out came 6) Scott Jaeger’s butter-braised pheasant (Bourgogne Rouge 2001 Leroy), then 7) Daniel Boulud’s trilogy of milk-fed veal (Château Cheval Blanc 1996 Saint-Emilion Premier Grand Cru). Those still capable tucked into 8) David Hawksworth’s smoked-bacon-wrapped squab (Saint Joseph Les Granits Rouge Organic 2003 Chapoutier). Those still upright tried gamely to do justice to 9) Nico Schuermans’ splendid lamb sirloin with smoked eggplant caviar, Israeli couscous, and tabbouleh (Château la Louvière 2000 Pessac-Leognon). Those still conscious reached reflexively for sweets from the irrepressible Thomas Haas (Muscat Beaumes de Venise 2003 Perrin). A sensible evening? Hardly. Worthwhile? Proceeds to the Chefs’ Table Society. Memorable? Absolutely, for an entire (possibly shortened) lifetime. – Jesse Spencer
Cioppino’s 1133 Hamilton St., 604-688-7466.


The Italian Job

Dinner with the out-of-town in-laws always poses a problem. Go too high-end and you’re a listless bon vivant, too low-end and you lack discernment. But in 2009, some deep-fried chickpeas at the newly opened Campagnolo in an “emerging” area of town made me a star. I had never heard of ceci and, at first blush, $8 for legumes seemed Umberto-esque. But the server raved, so we bit, and a little dish of fried garbanzos with mint, lemon, and arugula set the tone for a most revelatory meal. The other dishes all played their parts perfectly. An appetizer of tuna crudo was light and fresh, a simple Salsiccia pizza had an authentic fennel bite and a beautifully charred crust. We drank a rustic, absurdly cheap Barbaresco from Ricossa and an elegant, expensive Barbera D’Asti from La Spinetta. Both were note-perfect. And the patrons of the neighbouring Cobalt Hotel were even on their best behaviour. You should be so lucky as to have a son-in-law like me. – Neal McLennan
Campagnolo 1020 Main St., 604-484-6018.


The Big Chill

Lunch on a cold, rainy day in Vancouver calls for something hot and soupy. On one such day, after a hectic morning, my colleague and I walked into Lin Chinese Cuisine hoping to feed our tired and hungry souls in a flash. We selected two items to share: a made-to-order bamboo steamer of xao long bao and a bowl of noodle soup with pork and shur-chai (brined vegetables). First came the big bowl of noodles, swimming in a full-flavoured broth, topped with a generous portion of shredded lean pork and a handsome-looking pile of house-made shur-chai. Everything about this noodle soup was done right: it was boiling hot, the noodles had a delicate texture, and the broth was perfectly balanced. Next, the xao long bao. Biting into the steaming-hot and juicy dumplings required strict attention-the buns burst with pork jus that threatened to squirt everywhere. The bill? $8 each, including tax and tips. No wine, no fireplace, no candlelight-just a cheap, memorable, deliciously comforting meal to carry me through a hard day. – Stephanie Yuen
Lin Chinese Cuisine 1537 W. Broadway, 604-733-9696.


Gentle Giant

fter nearly 20 meals in five days, we ended up here. In March 2009 my friend Alan Richman, the New York-based food writer, came to Vancouver on assignment for Bon Appétit. On his last night, I insisted on a late Sunday dinner at Bishop’s-this was after midmorning dim sum in Richmond and early supper at Vij’s. Bishop’s justified the effort. The room was quiet, with gentle music only apparent when we were the last guests left. The meal was classic and contemporary, sophisticated and homey. Sweet, soft cornbread was the disarmingly humble precursor to a radically deconstructed terrine. Weird components-sprouts, green olives, and a modern surf-and-turf combo of pancetta chips and tender octopus stumps-added up to a textural and flavour hit. Next, a perfect white square of carefully sautéed ling cod, impossibly fragrant and rich. Finally, a “light” dessert of classic cherry pavlova with a cheesecake-like decadence. When Richman asked about an obscure wine, our waiter fetched his iPhone to research it, a gesture of genuine hospitality. As we lingered, Richman said Bishop’s reminded him of an elegant private club, one that had not been allowed to slip at all over the years. I agree, and I’m happy to be a member. – Charlene Rooke
Bishop’s 2183 W. Fourth Ave., 604-738-2025.


Offally Good

The last time I ate liver and kidneys was during my incarceration in an English boarding school 40 years ago. Okay, not quite true: I eat foie gras-my husband liked to say only because it’s expensive-though I much prefer the modest French farmhouse style en bocal (in a jar) to fresh. Otherwise, the memory of boarding-school liver (grey, hard, and full of pipes) and kidneys (like little rubber balls on toast) makes me gag just at the thought. So how did I end up with rabbit liver and pappardelle at La Quercia one winter night? Somehow I heard only “rabbit” and not “liver.” One bite and I knew: offal. Tears started, teeth clenched, and I thought maybe if I took a big enough swig of wine I could get it down. Or there was always the schoolgirl ruse of spitting it discreetly into a napkin and disposing of it later. But the pappardelle had just the right bite, the sauce-Marsala wine, porcini, sage, and cream-was really rather good, and my guests were hungry and ready for a good time. Maybe another mouthful? And even another? – Christina Burridge
La Quercia 3689 W. Fourth Ave., 604-676-1007.


Marine Corps

My one and only New Years’ resolution for 2009 was to enjoy more fish, and my favourite meal of the year is a tasty testament to that resolve. Top dishes included Cioppino’s delicate, intense applewood-smoked yellowfin tuna carpaccio, moistened with the most invigorating lemony dressing. The campachi tuna melts in the mouth, the lemon citronette electrifies, and a glass of crisp Greco completes the experience. The fish I love most, though, is sablefish (Oceanwise, of course), and Cactus Club’s Rob Feenie’s crispy-tender sake-soy-marinated rendition was sublime. The ample cut floats in exotic dashi broth with shiitake mushrooms, fingerling spuds, and crunchy asparagus, and begs for a B.C. Gewürztraminer. – DJ Kearney
Cioppino’s 1133 Hamilton St., 604-688-7466.
Cactus Club Various locations.


Small Wonder

It was the type of meal every restaurant critic dreams about. I arrived at DiVino Wine Bar with no expectations and left in a daze of utter amazement. From pillowy pan-fried gnocchi filled with pure ripened goat cheese to a delicately swollen molten-chocolate soufflé that gushed a river of hot, thick, dark chocolate when pierced, chef Jefferson Alvarez seduced me with every bite. I knew this unassuming Commercial Street boîte was up to something different as soon as I spied a reserve wine list stacked with vintage Krug, Château Margaux, Sassicaia, Ornellaia, and numerous other trophy bottles. Even though the wines were priced unbelievably low (as a public gift of sorts from the owner’s private cellar), the extravagance seemed oddly out of place in this small, unpretentious room. But then I sank my teeth into a soft slice of duck confit on toasted brioche spread with buttery foie gras mousse and studded in sour cherries, followed by a mouthwatering belly of nouvelle Chinois Wuxi-style pork gently crusted in a tingly riot of exotic spices. Ah, I said to myself. This is a perfectly decadent, deliciously eclectic pairing. I’ve since returned to taste Chef Alvarez’s truffle foam on oxtail ravioli, nitro-frozen Tattinger champagne sorbet, and other modern molecular creations (all whipped up in a narrow box of a kitchen smaller than you’d find in most Yaletown condos). But I still can’t get over that first dinner that took me so completely by surprise. – Alexandra Gill
DiVino 1590 Commercial Dr., 604-258-0005.


Southern Comfort

My most memorable meal had none of the earmarks of traditional fine dining. It was May 7, and chef Robert Belcham (of then-called Fuel Restaurant, now the more casual ReFuel) had scored the first local spot prawns of the season from Steve Johansen at Organic Ocean a day before any other restaurant in the city. His plan? A good old-fashioned Southern Boil-no candlelight, no cutlery, no plates. I was lucky enough to secure one of the 12 seats at the bar. We watched in anticipation as Belcham dropped pounds of live, twitching prawns just hours out of the water into an aromatic court bouillon with smoked chorizo. Moments later, he strained the broth and dumped the contents of the enormous pot all over the bar. We tore into these bright pink delicacies with our bare hands, exposing the firm, sweet flesh, and shovelled them into our maws with abandon. We paused only to grab our pints of R&B Raven Cream Ale with juice-slicked fingers, or to jolt our palates with the odd hunk of chorizo. It was messy, uncivilized, and absolutely glorious. – Chris Gonzalez
ReFuel 1944 W. Fourth Ave., 604-288-7905.


Just Desserts

In food, as in physics, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. With many chefs (not to mention us punters) collectively sighing with relief over the passing of molecular gastronomy, it seems like 2009 was all about getting back to basics. The beakers were sent back to the lab and the edible paper was composted. And if it looked exactly like a fried egg, it probably was. To whit, chef Neil Taylor of Cibo Trattoria and his deliciously low tech and delightfully honest semifreddo (translation, “half cold”). No fancy machinery here: this ice cream-like dish dates back to 19th-century Italy, and requires a double boiler, a whisk, and some room in the freezer. In Taylor’s richly textured version, soft, creamy goodness gives way to crunchy praline and sweet, chewy chunks of pistachio nougat. The partially whipped then frozen cream is soft but just firm enough to hold all of the other textures in each bite. Unlike gelato, semifreddo doesn’t use water to create that frozen sensation in your mouth, just silky smooth, melting butterfat. I’ll take that over fish-flavoured candy floss to cap off a meal any day of the week. – Murray Bancroft
Cibo 900 Seymour St., 604-602-9570.