2007 Vancouver Golden Plates - Best restaurants of the city

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Our critics report back on the new spots that moved them, the food that surprised, and the best places for value among the bounty that is Vancouver’s restaurant scene

Also see: 2007 Golden Plates Readers Choices

With utmost stealth, wearing oversize hats, designer shades, and "Who me? A restaurant critic?" expressions, we dart from banquette to banquette on our way to the restaurant's back room. Bolts thrown home, we remove our disguises and get to work. Our mission: to debate, wrangle over, and ultimately agree on the recipients of this year's Golden Plate Critics' Awards. This time around, judges are scattered across two hemispheres and three time zones. Writer, cookbook author, and former restaurateur Stephen Wong, currently in New Zealand, votes by e-mail, as do executive editor of Wine Access magazine Jim Tobler, stuck at Calgary airport, journalist-stylist Nathan Fong on business in Toronto, and Citytv CityCooks host Simi Sara, who is just plain busy. Present are wine-and-food authority Sid Cross, Straight wine columnist Jurgen Gothe, journalist and bon vivant Duncan Holmes, wine and food writer Judith Lane, and me.

To get the pot swirling, someone raises the point that two local reviewers (neither is present) recently listed the same restaurant as best and worst pick of the year. Judging is, of course, subjective, not to mention contentious. Holmes points out: "We've had way different, more interesting years." True, but rarely a year so prolific. There's room for all sorts is the consensus, but let's not encourage copycats. None of our nominees are.

The first discussion centres on what factors qualify a place to be included in our Best New shortlist. Holmes maintains: "It surprises the city, gets people talking really quickly." Lane cites the recognized threesome of food, ambiance, and service. Says Gothe: "Sixty percent is food." And the rest? "Service, 15 percent; wine list, 10 percent; ambiance, 10 percent; and gut reaction, five percent," he says, adding of food: "The best offers surprise, is well made, and well combined." "Taste is huge, but don't go stupid on us," puts in Holmes. "Ambiance is important, but it's certainly not critical. I've never gone to a restaurant for ambiance" is another comment. Cross thinks "It's become less important as people become more casual."

These guidelines are only broad strokes, but the three winners all reflect equally valid facets of current dining tastes. (See sidebar for a full rundown.) Smart, casual, affordable, and with the back-yard intimacy of its charming patio, Crave is our winning pick for modern retro fare that, in chef Wayne Martin's hands, redefines comfort. Completely different in mood and setting, Gastropod—part of the cluster of new eateries that has made West 4th Avenue just west of Burrard very interesting over the last year—takes Vancouver dining in another direction: chef Angus An draws on his kitchen experience at Michelin-starred eateries to offer innovative dishes like salmon with wasabi sabayon, and braised beef cheeks with glazed chestnuts. Our third pick is La Buca, where long-time city chef Andrey Durbach's basso profundo Italian classics have drawn plaudits from day one.

Our next category begs the question, What exactly is West Coast cuisine? A chef shopping daily? Regional ingredients? Vancouver has done such a strong job of promoting regional and seasonal that there's talk of retiring the category next year. Another hard call, but eventually Raincity Grill nails top spot for its long-time support of local producers and wineries, and promotions like its 100-Mile Menu. On to the Best Asian category. Er”¦ "It's a bit wide," says one critic, pondering how somewhere as elegant and sizable as Sun Sui Wah can be judged against, say, tiny Phnom Penh, not to mention the fact that the two serve totally different cuisines. How can we judge? Short answer: we don't. Instead, we subdivide, adding new categories. Best Chinese, certainly, with Sun Sui Wah nailing first. Best Japanese has Tojo's, where new surroundings now match the cuisine. (By e-mail, Wong says he has a problem with our second pick of Blue Water Café as Japanese: technically it isn't, but we rebut that Yoshihiro Tabo's sushi is outstanding, and executive chef Frank Pabst displays a Japanese restraint and aesthetic in his treatment of the freshest possible fish. Otherwise, we're in total agreement on Best Indian (Vij's) and Best Other Asian (Phnom Penh).

Looking ahead to next year, Cross says: "I'd like to have something on there about wine. Earls. You can [go there with a large group] order four or five bottles of wine and still pay the bill. Low markups." Savory Coast gets a nod, too, for vinous value. From there it's a short segue to a discussion of value in general, which is not, we agree, based on price. You can feel as ripped off by a ho-hum five-buck bowl of noodles as you can by a costly salad that's basically standard organic greens dressed with hyperbole.

"I highly put forth Long's Noodle House in this one for a mention," writes Wong. Also—snip this bit to stick on the fridge—we come up with: Bins 941 and 942, C-Lovers Fish and Chips, Crave, Go Fish, JJ's Dining Room, Memphis Blues, Ocean 6 Seventeen, La Régalade, Salade de Fruits, Tomato Fresh Food Café, and Yagger's. (For that last one, Lane follows up by e-mail: "How about $8.75 for a hanger steak in a five-peppercorn demi with baked potato and caesar salad [before 8 p.m. on Saturdays]?)

Back to the official categories. "Best Fresh? What about frozen as well?" asks one judge, tongue in cheek. "God help the restaurant that doesn't serve fresh food." Nominations follow thick and fast. Located right next to the fishing boats at Granville Island, Go Fish serves plates that couldn't come any fresher. Nor could the produce brought in daily to Aphrodite's Café from Glen Valley Farm in the Fraser Valley.

Voting in the geographic categories brings home almost all restaurateurs' reluctance to dive into uncharted waters. West End/Downtown/Yaletown—or "Stanley Park to Science World" as someone puts it succinctly—sees Blue Water Café and Raw Bar take it, followed by another long-time Yaletown venue, Cioppino's, with Diva at the Met in third position.

Despite earlier comments about ambiance, freeform discussion veers into the attractions of places with exceptional looks—the four-inch-heels-and-swimsuit part of the judging. Inventing a Most Glamorous category lets us rhapsodize about the comfort of Globe@YVR (and its whopping fireplace and fantasies of flying to Bangkok or Amsterdam as you gaze at the planes on the runway), the deep-seated luxe of Bacchus also endowed with a big fireplace, and the white sofas the size of '50s Pontiacs at Ocean Club in West Vancouver. Back on track, a discussion of Best West Side drums up a number of worthy contenders, some new, some not. But where our three top picks (West, Bishop's, and Lumií¨re) reflect well-established tastes and incomes, nominees in the Best East Side category are a snapshot of neighbourhoods in transition. Looking at the three winners—Crave, Aurora, and Memphis East—any sociologist worth her salt would deduce a young, food-loving, and food-savvy group with the occasional lust for meat.

Voting for the Best in Burnaby–New Westminster takes nanoseconds. No contest—in fact, few nominations. Scott and Stephanie Jaeger's Pear Tree takes it, with Hart House second and judges remarking they'll have their eyes on developments as new chef Dennis Peckham, with stints at Lumií¨re, West, and Napa Valley's French Laundry under his belt, assumes the helm.

We've left one of the toughest categories till last. Best Chef has come to mean more than dexterity with pans and ingredients. It's boldly going where no one's gone before—even, in the winner's case, becoming a destination that diners are (gasp) willing to drive to, showing consistency that develops diner loyalty, and sinking every spare waking hour into representing your country. For all these reasons and more, we concur on Scott Jaeger. Since he opened the Pear Tree in 1998, he has drawn a growing clientele to the point where two years ago, he enlarged and renovated his restaurant into a room that oozes engaging, modern style. No, he didn't bring home the gold from the recent Bocuse d'Or culinary contest in Lyon, but let's not overlook what he did achieve, putting Canada in the top third of contestants, well ahead of England (10th), Australia (12th), and the U.S. (14th), countries with comparable dining scenes to ours. (As Tobler later notes by e-mail: "The tough part of this process is in actually shortlisting, let alone picking winners. There are so many terrific dining options, from gourmet to extreme value, through the entire Lower Mainland. We are in one of the true great food areas of the world here.")

Finally, we consider restaurateurs and chefs who, 20 or more years ago, established the bedrock of Vancouver's dining scene, often training those names now in the headlines. In today's blizzard of press releases, preopening blogs, and dizzy dining mayhem, it's easy to skim over the considerable number of stellar restaurants that have survived simply because they do a good job all the time, quietly building a loyal following by offering dependable cuisine, top-flight service, and a comfortable place to be. Hence our Critics' Classics. We're not short of contenders and it's not easy to choose, but in the end, for its calm competent kitchen, sunny French setting, streamlined but affable staff, and, of course, assured and sensual plates (onion tarte, to name but one), we name Le Crocodile.

That agreed, we don our disguises once more and slip off into the afternoon.

Chef

1. Scott Jaeger, The Pear Tree Restaurant
4120 East Hastings Street,
604-299-2772

2. Michel Jacob, Le Crocodile
909 Burrard Street,
604-669-4298

3. Andrey Durbach, La Buca
Restaurant and Parkside
4025 MacDonald Street,
604-730-6988, and
1906 Haro Street, 604-683-6912


New

1. Crave Restaurant
3941 Main Street,
604-872-3663

2. Gastropod
1938 West 4th Avenue,
604-730-5579

3. La Buca
4025 MacDonald Street,
604-730-6988


West Coast

1. Raincity Grill
1193 Denman Street,
604-685-7337

2. Aurora Bistro
2420 Main Street, 604-873-9944

3. Bishop's Restaurant
2183 West 4th Avenue,
604-738-2025


Chinese

1. Sun Sui Wah Seafood Restaurant
3888 Main Street,
604-872-8822;
102–4940 No. 3 Road, Richmond,
604-273-8208

2. Kirin Restaurant
201–555 West 12th Avenue,
604-879-8038

3. Shanghai River Restaurant
7831 Westminster Highway,
Richmond, 604-233-8885


Japanese

1. Tojo's Restaurant
1133 West Broadway,
604-872-8050

2. Blue Water Café
1095 Hamilton Street,
604-688-8078

3. Kintaro Ramen
788 Denman Street, 604-682-7568


Indian

1. Vij's
1480 West 11th Avenue,
604-736-6664

2. Mumbai Masala Restaurant
138 16th Street,
North Vancouver, 604-984-8888


Other Asian

1. Phnom Penh Restaurant
244 East Georgia Street,
604-734-8898

2. The Flying Tiger
2958 West 4th Avenue,
604-737-7529


Downtown

1. Blue Water Cafe
1095 Hamilton Street,
604-688-8078

2. Cioppino's Mediterranean Grill
1133 Hamilton Street,
604-688-7466

3. Diva at the Met
645 Howe Street, 604-602-7788


East Side

1. Crave Restaurant
3941 Main Street, 604-872-3663

2. Aurora Bistro
2420 Main Street, 604-873-9944

3. Memphis Blues Barbeque House
1342 Commercial Drive,
604-215-2599


West Side

1. West Restaurant & Bar
2881 Granville Street, 604-738-8938

2. Bishop's Restaurant
2183 West 4th Avenue,
604-738-2025

3. Lumií¨re Restaurant
2551 West Broadway,
604-739-8185


Fresh

1. go fish
1505 West 1st Avenue, 604-730-5040

2. Aphrodite Café
3598 West 4th Avenue,
604-738-5879

3. (tie) Raincity Grill
1193 Denman Street,
604-685-7337

3. (tie) Bishop's Restaurant
2183 West 4th Avenue,
604-738-2025


Burnaby/New Westminster

1. Pear Tree
4120 East Hastings Street, 604-299-2772

2. Hart House Restaurant
6664 Deer Lake Avenue,
Burnaby,
604-298-4278


Critics' Classics

1. Le Crocodile
909 Burrard Street, 604-669-4298

2. Il Giardino
1382 Hornby Street,
604-669-2422

3. La Belle Auberge
4856 48th Avenue, Ladner,
604-946-7717