On game night, score one for Dale MacKay’s ensemble Tap
Get together with friends, drink beer, watch the game. That’s one way to make it through Vancouver’s oppressively grey winter, and a pretty good one at that for sports fans. Those who also appreciate craft beer and well-crafted food will welcome the addition of ensemble Tap.
Top Chef Canada winner Dale MacKay opened this new sports bar in December, following his first eatery, ensemble restaurant & bar on Thurlow Street. Don’t confuse the two establishments: the first serves French-inspired small plates, while this one on Smithe Street near Scotiabank Theatre—simply marked eTap on the sign—serves casual comfort fare.
In a phone interview with the Georgia Straight, MacKay explained that he designed the menu along with ensemble’s former sous chef Brad Hendrickson, who is now eTap’s executive chef. (While MacKay still cooks primarily at ensemble, Hendrickson presides over the kitchen at eTap.) Both chefs love barbecue and sausage-making, so these specialties figure highly on eTap’s menu, which includes a house-made sausage platter, ribs, and a cold-smoked pork chop served with sauerkraut, inspired by MacKay’s favourite meal as a kid.
Pub standards such as burgers, nachos, chicken wings, popcorn prawns, and caesar salad get equal play. Appetizers run $8 to $18 and mains $13 to $28 on the menu, which is light on frilly descriptions of origin. MacKay explains that he buys local, high-quality ingredients but “we just don’t blab on about it”. He uses the same suppliers as he does for ensemble and as he did when he was executive chef at Lumière. The kitchen grinds fresh meat daily for the burgers and makes its own sauerkraut, spaetzle, and sausages, the latter with whole spices. Fresh cilantro-specked bread crumbs coat the calamari. “We’re taking things that people know and love already and hopefully doing it better than everyone else,” he says.
The effort shows in the food. The French onion soup I tried on my earlier visit was thick with sweet, slowly caramelized onions that made the dish satisfyingly rich. Topped with a cheese toast, it had just enough Gruyère to be gooey good. The two plump caraway sausages that formed part of the bangers and spaetzle plate were packed with flavour and had a nice coarse texture with the perfect fat-to-lean ratio. I would have preferred a less nubby spaetzle, but overall the dish delivered.
I lapped up the pulled-pork sandwich, which earned MacKay accolades on Top Chef Canada. Spilling over with barbecue-sauced meat and mayo-laced coleslaw, it was a messy delight. While the fries were just average, the baked-bean side was at once warm, dark, and stormy, spiced with smoked paprika, cumin, coriander, and fennel.
The Asian steam-bun appetizer, however, was less successful. The two taco-shaped puffy buns stuffed with seared albacore tuna and house-made kimchi sounded promising, but they begged for texture. The raw fish melted into the bun and the spicy sauce obliterated everything else.
I think there were veggies in those buns, but it was so dark I couldn’t see. Walking into the restaurant felt like entering an electronics store at night. The cavernous bi-level space boasts 14 flat screens that flash from every angle. This may be heaven on game night, but the rather uninspired décor and tight first-floor tables won’t bring me back if I don’t want to be glued to the tube.
While our server was pleasant, she was largely absent and impossible to flag down on the mezzanine, leaving our water glasses perpetually empty. Perhaps due to inexperience, she also didn’t correct our assumption when we debated in front of her whether to order pints or a pitcher of draft, and when the “pints” arrived, they were 16-ounce glasses rather than 20-ounce pints. (The menu didn’t specify serving size, and I’m not the only one annoyed by this kind of ambiguity. Vancouver’s Campaign for Real Ale is petitioning for restaurants and bars to provide better serving size information.
That said, eTap is likely to rectify these issues. MacKay is serious about beer, serving it in the proper glasses, and beer education. There are 15 options on tap, including the house lager by Big Rock Brewery and La Chouffe Belgium Strong Blonde, and currently off-menu flights will soon be promoted. Thirty local and international bottles are also available, from Kelowna-based Tree Brewing’s Thirsty Beaver Amber Ale to Spain’s Estrella Inedit. MacKay is also kicking off a monthly beer pairing dinner, which will bring in brew masters and other experts. The first takes place this Monday (January 30), with supplier Dave Turnbull spotlighting Belgian beers.
While eTap is not participating in Dine Out Vancouver, its own “Taste of eTap” promotion continues until February 4. Three courses go for $29, with three optional beer pairings for $15.
And on game night, you won’t miss a play.