Friendly Chewies Steam and Oyster Bar gives Kitsilano some Cajun charm


Chewies Steam and Oyster Bar

2201 West 1st Avenue, 604-558-4448. Open 5 p.m. to midnight every day and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.

Seriously, just how charming can a bunch of guys wearing dark-grey Ts emblazoned with the slogan “Steamed, Stewed, or Nude” be? At Chewies Steam and Oyster Bar, the answer is very.

The guys in question make up the mostly male staff at the new spot at the corner of Yew Street and West 1st Avenue—which some might describe as cursed for restaurateurs, with Da Pasta Bar, Karv, and so many others having lived and died there over the years. Chewies gets its name from Richard Chew (who really does prefer to be called Chewie), a co-owner along with Mel and Jamie Haddad. The team’s youngish fellas are chatty and friendly—with each other and with customers—and entirely genuine. There’s no slicked-back hair or posturing that you might find at so many Yaletown bars disguised as restaurants. Instead, they come across as old friends who seem to sincerely enjoy what they’re doing. In fact, they are old friends, as our server explained as he plopped down across from me while I was waiting for my date; they all met and worked together at Rodney’s Oyster House.

Sure, these waiters are laid-back, but they don’t miss a beat. Service was excellent: questions were answered, water glasses offered and refilled, plus the staffers were never in a rush or distracted, even when a lineup was crowding the entrance. They help give the place the vibe of a welcoming neighbourhood hangout—a really, really nice one.

One of the waiters/bartenders made the gorgeous butcher-block style wood tables out of old fence posts himself. The lacquered tabletops match the hardwood floors, and the décor is simple but classy, with silver, grey, and black accents. Low lighting and candles warm up the room, and the music sets a casual, upbeat tone: Men at Work, Supertramp, Talking Heads, Queen… There’s a long L-shaped bar, and on Friday night, the two flat-screen TVs were pleasantly off.

The Big Easy is the basis for the culinary theme here, and Chewies definitely fills a gap in Vancouver. There’s Ouisi Bistro on Granville Street for Creole and Cajun cuisine, but not much else here specializes in gumbo, jambalaya, overstuffed po’ boys, and the like. With New Orleans’s Mardi Gras just days behind us, now’s a fitting time to visit this hot spot.

Chewie found his chef by a stroke of luck: mutual friends introduced him to New Mexico native Tyrell Brandvold, who has helmed kitchens in New Orleans and recently moved to Vancouver for a girl.

The restaurant layout gives view to two foodie focal points: the open kitchen, which includes a “steam bar” for deep dishes of mussels (I like the sounds of the coconut, jalapeno, and basil broth), and, up a couple of stairs, a big bed of ice nestling a variety of oysters; Kusshi, Malpeque, and Summer Breeze among them.

The bivalves are served with a trio of house-made sauces, this night’s being champagne mignonette (my favourite, since it doesn’t overpower the oysters), cocktail, and yowza!-inducing habanero chili.

We shared the panko-crusted pan-fried Fanny Bays, meaty and succulent with a tartar sauce singing with fresh dill.

Gumbo is never the most visually appealing dish: with its roux base, the sauce is the colour of Mississippi mud. But don’t let that deter you. With prawns, chicken, andouille sausage, okra, and habanero, this one has enough kick to make you call for Kleenex. Keep in mind this traditional dish is more of a soup than a stew. People hungry for a heartier plate will want to spring for the jambalaya (with chicken, andouille sausage, prawns, and Tasso ham over a heap of Cajun rice) or the Southern fried chicken. A voluptuous piece of poultry, the latter is crispy and nongreasy on the outside, juicy and tender on the inside. It’s marinated for two days in buttermilk, drizzled with a fiery honey butter, and served with mashed potatoes and green beans: a nonfussy pleaser.

Mains run $12 to $19, and portions are generous. Our waiter guided us rightly in not ordering too much or too little. Tempting but completely unnecessary sides include cheese grits, buttermilk biscuits, and Kennebec fries. (Dinner for two including three glasses of wine came to $82 before taxes and tip.)

It was a treat to see Wild Goose Autumn Gold by the glass on the smartly chosen wine list. However, a decent selection of creative non- and low-alcoholic drinks is lacking—a pet peeve, considering more and more restaurants are going beyond the usual juices to offer something interesting on this front. (Cactus Club has half-shot cocktails; Campagnolo Roma mixes quince and pear nectar with various sparkling waters.) A virgin Caesar just doesn’t cut it anymore.

Chewies’ signature dessert is French Quarter beignets, and these delicate, pillow-shaped donuts are, in true Nola style, covered with mounds of icing sugar. Served with a side of chicory coffee anglaise, this is the kind of dessert that makes you want to lick the plate. But c’mon. The place is welcoming, but not that comfortable.

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