Top Chef Canada's Dale MacKay makes a stunning Ensemble
Ever since Dale MacKay won the title of Top Chef Canada, excitement about his recently opened Ensemble restaurant has been escalating.
A protégé of the F bomb–loving Gordon Ramsay, MacKay isn’t just a celebrity chef. He’s a shrewd entrepreneur: having known for months about his Top Chef Canada win (but legally forced to keep it quiet), he couldn’t have timed the May launch of his new venture better, opening just as the Food Network series was gaining momentum.
Vancouverites seem eager to support him and see what all the fuss is about. We received not one but two phone calls from the Thurlow Street spot to confirm a recent weeknight early-dinner reservation. No wonder: by 6:30 p.m., there wasn’t a single empty seat to be had.
The elderly, dressed-up, martini-sipping ladies sitting next to us were none too pleased about the pre-dusk din, however. Leaning in to talk to each other and straining to hear their server, they asked for a quieter table, a request that was impossible to accommodate given the open floor plan and packed house.
The black-and-red décor is unfussy, allowing diners’ focus to fall squarely on the food. But does MacKay’s food live up to its hype?
Savoury and sublime, the chef’s French-bistro-meets-Vancouver-inventive sharing plates hit the right note every time, and the menu is equal parts variety, value, and pleasure.
Potato gnocchi are the size of scallops, their softness offset by a slight crispiness that comes from a quick trip to the frying pan. The accompanying tomato butter sauce makes this the kind of soothing dish you want to come home to after a lousy day at work.
Former Lumière and db bistro moderne executive chef, MacKay is as adept at comfort food as he is at refined fusion fare. Pretty purple Japanese eggplants envelop dark-as-sand baba ganoush in mini sweet-and-sour towers topped with crisp eggplant chips.
He’s got an artist’s eye, too, which is especially apparent in one of his Top Chef–winning items, a mound of Dungeness crab showcased in the vibrant golden hue of spiced-melon soup.
We couldn’t have been more blissed out by the succulent beef shin—slow-cooked to fall-off-the-bone, stringy, stuff-that-sticks-between-your-teeth perfection—that’s served with a smidge of carrot purée, a heap of watercress, and hefty, salty fries.
Green lentils make a bed for delicate, delicious Arctic Char, topped with crisp slivers of green apple. I loved the fish. Although the restaurant doesn’t carry the Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise logo, both this and the black cod with pork Thai broth (another Top Chef signature dish) are sustainable species.
I didn’t like the fact that the service began to slide as the meal progressed: as the place got busier, we saw less and less of our server. General manager Kevin Van Hullebush stepped in to fill our water glasses and bring us dessert menus, but later we had to flag our waiter down to get the bill and were never offered coffee refills.
Dessert mollified us, though. The fondant consists of warm chocolate spilling out of a rich brownielike shell, clearly made with the best ingredients MacKay can get his hands on. Sprinkled with gold leaf and served with hazelnut-nougatine ice cream, this baby is a must-have.
Pineapple was the flavour of the daily soufflé; I tasted egg before fruit, but my husband adored it—which was perfect, because I wasn’t planning on sharing any more of that fondant.
Sharing plates run from $8 to $18, and portions are generous, though we still would have had room for a side of asparagus ($7) or a basket of bread ($3). Five-ounce glasses of wine range from $8 to $13, and bottles are also fairly priced.
A potent mix of Bulliet Bourbon, bitters, brandied cherry, and orange flower, the In Fashion cocktail ($12) tastes like liquid Hawaii. Had I not been driving, I would have tried a Basil Caiphirina ($12), made with Cachaí§a, fresh lime juice, and basil, and basil syrup.
With its reasonable prices and stellar flavours, Ensemble has shot to the top of my list of favourites. I’ve already decided what to have next time we visit, hopefully sooner rather than later (herb risotto, tomato-and-watermelon salad with mascarpone, bacon-and-onion flatbread, and the pulled-pork sandwich with apple-horseradish slaw).
Dinner for two with three alcoholic drinks, five sharing plates, two desserts, and coffee came to $112 before tax and tip.