The Gastown spot was hyped like few restaurants in recent Vancouver history, but the path that once seemed so sure has been far from smooth.
At restaurants, there are good dilemmas and bad dilemmas. An example of the former: “There are so many good choices, I don’t know what to order.” Of the latter: “My calamari are so overly deep-fried that I can’t pierce the rock-hard crust with my fork—and they are so liberally covered in squeeze-bottle sauce that I can’t pick them up with my fingers.” Guess which one I was presented with on a recent Friday night at Coquille?(Photo: Ediblicious Photography)
Coquille was hyped like few restaurants in recent Vancouver history. The internet couldn’t wait for owners Lee Cooper, Nin Rai and Jack Chen (all of L’Abattoir) to finally solve the city’s nagging lack of a really great, modern seafood restaurant that would be relaxed and well priced. A choice Gastown location (1 Water Street) was secured; design impresarios Glasfurd and Walker undertook an ambitious branding program (right down to the custom dishware); and a smart-looking website went up, advising people that “for parties of six or more, we recommend making reservations at least two weeks in advance.”(Photo: Glasfurd and Walker/John Sherlock)
But the path that once seemed so sure has been far from smooth. There have been staffing issues, like any new spot faces these days, but the biggest problem may have been the departure of chef Chen—he still owns a business interest but is no longer active in the kitchen. That might account for the serious lack of consistency. On the night of the impermeable cephalopods, there were moments of absolute clarity: our first dish was an order of smoked yellowfin tuna crudo that came out so quickly after ordering that I immediately feared it had been pre-made and unwrapped, special, just for us.
But in reality, the three slabs of fish were generously portioned, and their firm flesh had been teased with a hit of smoke and supplemented with tamarind in a simple, clean and modern presentation. Excellent, really.
I had initially ordered both the calamari and the fritto misto, but our friendly server returned to the table and pointed out (perhaps in warning, in retrospect) that both were deep fried, so I took the opportunity to sub in the shellfish-and-celery-root chowder for the latter. This choice turned out to be a rather modestly sized bowl of soup that was everything the calamari was not: it was extravagantly garnished with architectural shards of shredded fried potatoes, and the soup itself had great balance—richness without heaviness. The prawns were perfectly cooked, no small feat in a chowder. The two starters were so different in both presentation and conception that it’s tough to imagine them coming from the same era, let alone the same kitchen.
The two starters were so different in both presentation and conception that it’s tough to imagine them coming from the same era, let alone the same kitchen.
I had actually visited Coquille during their opening month and had a pleasant meal: the octopus, always a great litmus test of a kitchen’s ability and focus, came out perfectly moist with just the right amount of give; however, serving it atop toast didn’t do much to allow the flavour to really shine. And the hamachi crudo was served in a minimalist presentation with radish and a Thai vinaigrette that was light but not particularly fresh-tasting. I neglected to review it then, on the unwritten local rule that critics are supposed to give a restaurant time to “find its feet” (a concept seemingly imported from Broadway, although plays in preview mode are significantly less expensive than regular-run tickets, a key point restaurants seem to ignore in adopting this idea).
But 10 months later, Jack Chen is gone and the cooking is being done by the already-fully-employed-at-L’Abattoir Lee Cooper (although he wasn’t in the kitchen the night I visited) with chef de cuisine Chris Janowski. When it comes time for the mains, first up is a lobster risotto that’s liberally studded with beautiful chunks of lobster meat. It’s an odd risotto in that it channels freshness over comfort, but if you’re looking for lightness in your risotto (a small minority, one assumes), it’s a hit. And at $28, it’s only $2 more than what Popina charges for a lobster roll served on a cardboard plate and bussed yourself.
But then the whipsaw—a large slab of ling cod is aggressively salted, with a sear so thick it almost requires a steak knife to access. And it’s served with what can only be described as briny tartar sauce. Worse, at $31, it’s only $6 less than L’Abattoir’s superior version. To boot, at Coquille you’ll need to pony up an extra $7 to $9 if you want vegetables with it, which seems odd for a spot that’s supposed to be more casual and affordable.
And things don’t get any clearer with the libations. On the one hand, I started the meal with an on tap Paper Plane created by consulting rock star Shaun Layton, which showcases a great cocktail for a sweet $10. But when one moves to wine, there’s not a single bottle under $50. So it’s “approachable” in what way? Hats off to the house wine from Nichol—a sémillon and a syrah that are both bristling with energy—but at $63 for either (for a house wine!), you’re starting the conversation in pretty rarefied territory.
The meal ends with a cherry on top. Literally.
The meal ends with a cherry on top. Literally. Soft-serve ice cream with brownies and fudge sauce that has what appears to be a maraschino from a jar placed atop. Is it supposed to be ironic? It’s actually quite good—it’s ice cream, hot fudge and two-bite brownies, after all—but its presentation is straight from the Old Spaghetti Factory up the street. Where it would be half the price. My tally for the evening for two: with tip, $233.54.
The result is a place that’s difficult to make heads or tails of—peaks and valleys of Himalayan proportions. A few days later, fearing I was being uncharitable, I return for lunch and this time I notice it’s Lee Cooper who’s at the stove, and a sense of consistency seems to have returned. The scallop crudo are again generously portioned, fresh and bright. An almost deconstructed bouillabaisse that’s more plate than bowl immediately wins me over with its high-low: fingers of grilled-cheese toast resting side by side with plump shrimp and mussels.
But I wonder if it’s too little, too late. The spot was half full at lunch and, while full on the previous Friday night, it was easy to score a table on a day’s notice—which is not a harbinger of success in this town. Yelpers seem to be in love with the spot, and hopefully that enthusiasm is enough for some level of consistency to take root. But until then, I don’t think it’s necessary to book two weeks in advance.
Coquille Fine Seafood
181 Carrall St. 604-559-6009 coquillefineseafood.com
Hours: Open daily 11:30 a.m. until late Happy hour, 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. until close