In Vancouver's West End, Left Bank reinvents Le Parisien’s French cuisine
If there’s one obvious faux pas you can commit while dining out—at a French restaurant, no less—it’s licking your fingers. Yet you just might find yourself egregiously breaching etiquette if you order the Sticky Pork Ribs from the bar menu at Left Bank.
In the former home of Le Parisien (and run by the same owner, Vancouver restaurant vet John Blakeley) on Denman near Robson, Left Bank offers a new take on French cuisine by incorporating African and Asian flourishes. Take those ribs, which burst with flavour thanks to a gorgeous agedashi glaze—consisting of sake, mirin, soy sauce, sugar, and rice-wine vinegar—and a ginger-kicked togarashi mayo. Topped with Thai basil and crushed cashews, these meaty bites are chewy, crunchy, and crazily delish.
Fans of Le Parisien (and Bistro Pastis, which Blakeley also helms) will recognize many of the previous spot’s standbys, like duck confit and steak frites. But Blakeley has given both the room and the menu a make-over.
“At some point, you’ve got to put an end to an era,” Blakeley says in a phone call following our incognito visit. “It’s time to bring a fresh look to the West End, to the city, to a French bistro. I grew up with coq au vin and boeuf bourguignon. I’m not saying we’ll never have them on the menu, but let’s take the traditional plate and introduce new spices and flavours that Vancouver is hungry for.
“It’s moving away from the old, traditional French bistro to a place that people are comfortable in,” he adds. “French food is sometimes still scary for people. They think it’s going to be heavy, it’s going to be butter, it’s going to be a special-occasion restaurant. Left Bank is a neighbourhood restaurant.”
Gone are the dark walls of Le Parisien. Left Bank is airier and brighter, and the red from the French Tolix chairs pops against white walls and pale-grey floors. Pendant-style, clear glass lighting adds to the restaurant’s clean aesthetic. A new addition is the 35-seat patio, which Blakeley says was two years in the making. (It was the first time, he adds, that the City of Vancouver allowed a portion of a commercial lane to be converted into a patio.)
Executive chef Spencer Watts (formerly of Bistro Pastis) adeptly melds the bold flavours of places like Morocco, India, China, and Japan with classic French fare. Restaurant manager Guillaume Cagna, a warm and welcoming Cormeilles-en-Vexin native, urged us to start with selections from the bar menu, and he didn’t steer us wrong.
Haricots verts are given a Japanese profile, served tempura-style with a fireweed honey and grainy mustard emulsion. Soft albacore-tuna cones are made of soybean paper and filled with sushi rice and a ginger-soy vinaigrette, the tender fish boosted by a chili mango aioli and given a crunchy texture by the crushed tempura batter sprinkled on top. I wish the black-sesame-specked pommes frites came with a punchier dipping sauce, but lemongrass mayo proves a mellow alternative. Gentler flavours are also found in grape-and-goat-cheese truffles coated with a fine almond crust.
Appetizers on the dinner menu include a confit of pork belly in a truffle-dashi broth. There are currently six mains to choose from, with sockeye salmon being an obvious choice this time of year. Served on a black plate with lyonnaise potatoes and lemongrass cream, the pink fish contrasts beautifully with the bright green of summer peas, and the taste is just as pleasing. A vegetarian tagine holds firm chickpea polenta that’s slightly crispy on the outside, snuggled up with a Parmesan-laden baba ghanoush and a tomato stew with radish, onion, and zucchini.
Sparkling cocktails, classic martinis, beers (many from Belgium and B.C.), and wines are all exciting and well priced, as is the food itself. Bar snacks start at $2.50 for the heritage egg custard and top out at $10 for fried squid with chorizo rouille. Charcuterie and cheese platters range from $15 to $27, while mains run $17 to $21. The resto will soon be open for lunch, and get this: there’s free parking in the back.
Left Bank has a fun side, which you may notice when you walk by the bar and hear the pop-pop-pop of a retro popcorn machine. A small bowl of the stuff comes with your food order, but this isn’t the type you find in movie theatres, thank heavens. The night we visited, it was tossed with duck fat and Chinese five-spice powder, and it was seriously good. Almost finger-licking good.