I had the chance to check out chef Dale MacKay's Ensemble Restaurant and Bar (850 Thurlow Street) over the weekend. The restaurant has been open for dinner service on Tuesdays to Sundays for almost a month, and when I walked in, I was immediately surprised by how bustling it was for a Sunday night.
The six of us were seated at a table running alongside the black leather banquet. The room has an unfussy, refined casual look to it—dark wood with dark red accents throughout. The restaurant has also managed to make good use of the awkward, hexagonal space, with a raised bar running along the back wall, a high-back banquet dividing the open bar and dining room area, and square tables scattered throughout the dining room.
The menu reflects chef MacKay's training in traditional French technique married with seasonal, West Coast ingredients—right now, there's lots of lobster, prawns, and pork on the menu. I started with the lobster iceberg salad ($17), which consisted of crisp iceberg lettuce in Caesar dressing, pea shoots, crispy shallot bits, bacon, and lobster. The salad was refreshing and light, and I was surprised by the generous portion of lobster meat on my plate. Others at my table had the fresh cheese and roasted beet salad ($9), the raw oysters ($14 for six), the warm B.C. spot prawn cocktail ($11), and the Fraser Valley venison pate ($13.50). We also shared the bacon and onion-topped flatbread ($10), which was paper-thin and flaky, but immensely flavourful and satisfying.
Next, I had the beef shin and fritz ($12), which was served with celery puree and watercress. I had never had beef shin before, but as our server described, it was similar to osso bucco—incredibly tender meat that's taken off the bone, pressed into a cylindrical shape, and baked. The celery puree provided just the right counterpoint, and the lightly-salted homecut fries had a nice bite. Others at my table had the arctic char ($20), which delicately sat atop a bed of lentils, the creamy herb risotto with lobster ($18), and the steamed Vancouver Island mussels ($18), which were cooked in a smooth curry broth and served with fries.
When it came time for dessert, I had my heart set on trying the soufflé of the day ($11), which happened to be strawberry—the same soufflé that chef MacKay had won with during an elimination challenge on Top Chef Canada! I must say that the soufflé alone is probably worth stopping in for dessert. It arrived perfectly, the strawberry flavour was bold but not overpowering, and was accompanied by a delicate scoop of sorbetto. I didn't have the soufflé all to myself. My table actually shared three desserts—the chocolate fondant ($10), which comes with hazelnut-nougatine ice-cream and is a chocolate-lovers dream, and the warm citrus madelines ($7), which were like bite-sized lemon-infused cakes.
At the end of our meal, chef MacKay came out to greet us, which I saw him do with many other tables and thought was a nice touch. He also reminded us that Ensemble will be launching a brunch menu starting Saturday (June 11), and service will run from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on weekends. Expect to see classic brunch items with a modern French twist, such as brandy-cinnamon French toast with apples and lemon crí¨me fraiche ($12), waffles and fresh fruit compote ($11), poached black cod with asparagus served with poached eggs and hollandaise ($16), and Dungeness crab and spiced melon soup with basil and mint ($9)—another Top Chef Canada creation.
Visit the Ensemble Restaurant and Bar website to see the full menu.
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