So many restaurants, so little time. Seattle Times food writer asks, ‘What’s a visitor to do?’
VANCOUVER, B.C. — One weekend in Vancouver. So many good restaurants. How to choose?
I hadn’t visited in a shamefully long time, and hadn’t been keeping up as I should with the city’s wildly growing food scene. Trying to contend with Seattle’s is crazy enough — and, as The Seattle Times food writer, also an occupational imperative.
So I did what writers do: Ask someone who knows better than you. Alexandra Gill, Vancouver restaurant critic for The Globe and Mail, was kind enough to provide a list of recommendations with plenty of choices, but not so long as to overwhelm. My only stipulation: “more on the good/fun side rather than Life-Changing/$$$.”
With Gill’s help, the weekend was a glorious loop of walk, eat, repeat.
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A few observations from the walking: Vancouver truly is far more cosmopolitan than Seattle — I overheard a dozen languages, no exaggeration.
While Vancouverites are even more reluctant to jaywalk than the citizens of Seattle, they exhibit very poor sidewalk etiquette, at least on Robson Street. Swerving willy-nilly is the rule, not the exception, and does not seem to correlate with inebriation.
The much-reported-upon increasing wealth of Vancouver is highly visible downtown: Limousines are rampant, as is the loud racing-around of very expensive cars.
Vancouver knows how to party, if the Saturday-night traffic closure of Granville Street for hordes of clubgoers is any indication (and it’s heaven or hell, depending on your predilections).
In Vancouver, even the panhandlers are particularly polite. To an offer of leftovers, a grizzled man in a big fur hat said, “I’ve already had dinner, thank you.”
One weekend really wasn’t long enough. Here’s where we ate — and all prices are Canadian, which means with the U.S. dollar strong, all this food is essentially on sale. (At this writing, subtract about 20 percent from the Canadian price.)
An izakaya to love
Kingyo (871 Denman St., 604-608-1677, kingyo-izakaya.ca): The appeal of this izakaya — a kind of Japanese restaurant with lots of different dishes meant to go with abundant drinking — is immediately apparent. Very pretty dark wood panels and screens decorate the walls, and it’s energetically loud, but not so cacophonous that you can’t hear yourself think (or your friend talk). A communal table divided down the middle by a stand of bamboo cleverly creates privacy and intimacy in a situation that’s almost always rather awkward.
Something as simple as sake here looks like a small springtime dream, served in a slender, shapely little glass inside (and overflowing into) a traditional wooden sake vessel, with a freesia blossom nestled next to it. Choosing from the many specials, we got lobes of lush, local sea urchin ($10.50 Canadian, “limited time only!!”) dotted with tobiko, splayed across palate-cleansing leaves of shiso; melt-in-the-mouth black cod sushi ($7.20 for three pieces); and springy udon noodles ($10.80) that forsook broth in favor of stewed-’til-soft, deeply flavored beef tendon and the pleasant, vegetal crunch of lotus root.
The menu’s typefaces seemed familiar, and looking further revealed that Kingyo is a sibling to Seattle’s Suika — already a personal favorite. If you haven’t been to Suika, you should go, but Vancouver’s Kingyo still warrants a visit with its much more extensive menu (and, at the moment, significantly cheaper prices).
Korean tacos and more
Damso (867 Denman St., 604-632-0022): Tiny, brightly lit, but still stylish, Damso is right next door to Kingyo, and what’s a weekend away without a Louis C.K.-style “bang-bang”: eating one dinner immediately followed by another? The patrons seemed to have taken the sandwich board out front — “Life is too short, just shut up and get drunk!” — to heart. There was much giggling and slumping and taking of selfies, but everyone remained well-behaved (because Canada).
Damso serves Korean food, and one of its specialties is a fat scallion waffle ($14.99) embedded with prawns, scallop, squid, bacon and mushroom. It’s fluffy inside, caramelized outside and really good all over. Korean tacos ($2.50 each) are also well worth any spare stomach space, with elasticky, fresh-tasting hand-stretched tortillas coddling falling-apart beef with a decent kick of Korean chili sauce. A few of the (many) other things I wanted to eat here: stir-fried chicken gizzard with roasted garlic and mustard vinaigrette ($6.99); spicy sea snails ($12.99); and foie gras tomato kimchi ($11.99). Next time, Damso. Next time.
Adorable, with flowery tea
The Birds & The Beets (55 Powell St., 604-893-7832; birdsandbeets.ca): Located in Vancouver’s historic Gastown, this cafe is almost unbearably adorable. The corner with exquisitely casual bouquets and birdhouses for sale displayed on a vintage oak desk is adorable; the people who work here are adorable; the wallpaper with the birds on it is adorable; even the exposed brick somehow has an extra patina of charm.
Ingredients for the painstakingly curated menu of sandwiches, breakfasty items and baked goods are scrupulously sourced, of course; local beer, cider and pressed juice fall under the heading “FROM FRIENDS.” And even before an advantageous exchange rate, the prices seem inordinately low: an avocado and soft-poached egg sandwich on brioche for $6; a miso, barley and egg bowl for $7. An airy but luxurious slice of ricotta leek quiche, topped with a tangle of pickled leeks for brightness, came with an adorable baby kale, yellow lentil and fennel bulb salad, all for $7.
The woman on one side of us had chrysanthemum tea; served in a glass pitcher, it looked like drinkable flowers. The man on the other side played online chess while simultaneously perusing recipes for vichyssoise on his laptop. The extremely amiable counterperson doted upon some extremely well-behaved children. Then the world exploded from adorableness.
An Italian worth meeting
Osteria Savio Volpe (615 Kingsway, 604-428-0072; saviovolpe.com): This new Italian place from an owner of longtime Vancouver French favorite L’Abattoir is in an as-yet-unprepossessing area called the Fraserhood (we took SkyTrain and a bus from downtown, fast and easy, thanks to Google Maps’ directions). The interior is stylish without seeming effortful or imitative (a feat in contemporary restaurant design): unfinished blond wood thin-wale wainscoting stretches up almost to the ceiling for a spacious feeling, and a sense of humor is evident in touches like a bench upholstered in large-scale houndstooth.
A salad of tangled baby wild greens ($15) was peppery but never bitter, balanced with little crunches of pancetta; soft, vivid-yolked egg; and shavings of rich, salty Grana cheese — nothing startling, yet exceptionally delicious. Bouncy handmade tortiglioni ($17) met its match in a still-lively tomato sauce and short-rib braciola, pleasantly chewy, then yieldingly tender. And strips of squid ($18) were exactingly wood-fired, served with perfectly Mediterranean fava bean and potato puree. If Savio Volpe (“the wise fox”) were in Seattle, it might be your new go-to Italian place.
Dim sum in Richmond
The Jade Seafood Restaurant (8511 Alexandra Road, Richmond, B.C., 604-249-0082; jaderestaurant.ca): Dim sum at Jade comes highly recommended not only by the Globe and Mail’s Gill, but also by two of the most ardent fans I know at home, who both insist (along with many others) that the dim sum in Richmond, just south of Vancouver, is so much better than any in Seattle. From the first bite, they’re proven right: A crepe-like rice roll with pork ($5.88) was so light and soft, it almost floated up off the plate. Jade’s dumplings have more refined wrappers and less oil, while flavors are fresher and more subtle — the wasabi seafood version ($5.68), for instance, whispers instead of shocks. Dim sum is served from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day, so you can hit this place on your way out of town and be home in time for supper.
If you go
Globe and Mail restaurant critic Alexandra Gill’s Vancouver, B.C., recommendations
New and fun
Royal Dinette: “One of the best restaurants to open last year.”
Savio Volpe: “Everyone says it’s great.”
Vij’s: “In a new, larger location with a big lounge area, so you no longer have to wait up to an hour outside in the rain.”
Bao Bei: “Go to the Keefer Bar for a drink while you’re waiting.”
Damso: “Small, cool Korean … where chefs go to eat late at night.”
Kingyo: “Ambitious izakaya.”
Kissa Tanto: “One to watch, from the owners of Bao Bei.”
Maenam: “Modern Thai.”
The Birds & The Beets: “Really sweet … and they sell flowers.”
Burdock & Co.: “Excellent brunch … Nigella Lawson loved it.”
Medina Cafe: “Best breakfast in town.”
Chef Tony, Richmond: “Mainland China-style with a bit more glitz and pricey dishes.”
Dynasty Seafood Restaurant: “Probably one of the most popular dim sum restaurants these days.”
The Jade Seafood Restaurant, Richmond: “Excellent.”
Tourism Vancouver: tourismvancouver.com