Its name may be somewhat off-putting, but the food at this converted-house restaurant puts diners’ fears to rest.
During a recent conversation about restaurant names, a friend and I agreed that local chainlet Liquids + Solids lays claim to the city’s worst, conjuring such unpleasantries as the “Worst Toilet in Scotland” scene from Trainspotting. You could make the case that Invitro—or, in full, Invitro Food Labs and Eatery—is awkward in a parallel way: chilly and scientific and physiological. But you would only say so before eating there. Once you do, a warmer personality emerges. The project of Sarah Kashani, a two-decades-plus veteran of the restaurant industry, Invitro (in New Latin, it translates as “in glass”) looks and feels nothing like the beakers and test tubes its name evokes. Located inside an old house at the southwest corner of Manitoba and West Sixth, where local lunch favourite Our Place Cafe used to be found, the dining room is in fact quiet and homey, with dark wood floors, chunky bronze cutlery, orchids in glasses, and chandeliers. The menu, on first read, matches the room. There are four appetizers and half a dozen mains including two pastas and a chef’s special, all of which scan like dishes you could tackle at home: baked Brie, prosciutto-wrapped melon, a Bolognese, chicken rubbed with Tuscan herbs, beer-glazed pork chop. All of this turned out to be restaurant-grade delicious. Among my party of six, we pretty much ate the entire menu and everyone was happy. Nothing we had was designed to shock the taste buds nor make one look at an ingredient in a new way. But Kashani’s cuisine is artful, precise, personal, and flavourful. The aptly named Typical Caprese salad—that warhorse found at every neighbourhood Italian joint—arrived prettily stacked with microgreens, buffalo bocconcini, smoked prosciutto, and balsamic reduction; the Brie (billed as The Payoff) came with crostini and a superb quince preserve. Notably, the proteins were perfectly cooked and seasoned: chicken crisp outside and moist inside, steak richly caramelized and bang-on medium rare. The pork chop, meanwhile, was glazed golden brown, vibrantly flavoured with basil and thyme, and without a hint of dryness. If you were to criticize Invitro, it might be for not quite living up to that experimental-sounding name. Kashani nails everything, but she doesn’t push too many boundaries. The meats are injected (the pork with olive oil and beer, the chicken with a white-wine reduction), and one dessert in particular—a flight of chocolates and whiskies—while in no way visionary, showed very chef-like instincts in terms of its brilliant pairings. But is all of this not playing it much too safe? Do the mains—accompanied by only a small Persian salad of pistachios, goat cheese, and greens in rosewater—in any way suggest they were the product of a “lab”-like mind? Depending on your mood, your answers to those questions might vary—or might just be beside the point. The room was warm and inviting. Kashani herself came out from the kitchen and engaged with diners. And the servers were pleasant, informed, and, for the most part, prompt. But if on another night you were looking for something more edgy, more original—more foodie, basically—then Invitro might not push all your buttons. Having said that, it’s noteworthy that Kashani doesn’t consider Invitro a finished product. It’s early in what she sees as a developmental process. She put her life’s savings into this venture (selling a Yaletown condo in the process), and the menu when I visited was meant to be a base on which she’s looking to build. Expect more gastronomic techniques and experiments going forward, she told me. And crucially, expect surprises in the form of weekly guest appearances. Starting in March (I visited in February), Kashani’s plan was to devote Mondays and Tuesdays to lesser-known or perhaps entirely unknown cooks from Vancouver’s vast culinary world—people who maybe don’t lead the brigade in their own place of work but who have culinarily innovative and interesting things to say. Bring your quietly talented sauciers, your unsung grillardins. One night, one kitchen at their disposal, one expectant room—that idea sounds great to me, like a one-chef version of Food Network’s Knife Fight. In its present guise, Invitro is very much Kashani’s room. And even in these early stages, it was evident that the place was full of regulars. Kashani’s personality and vision are key to the evolution of the concept. And with increasingly original ideas in play, I’ll be keen to visit again to see how the Invitro name will be reimagined and reinterpreted. Invitro 2211 Manitoba St. 604-992-6224 Invitrorestaurant.com