Vancouver gastropubs give pub grub a makeover

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Outside it’s drizzling, and the sky is an oppressive grey. Inside, though, the room is packed with folks enjoying a pint of ale over a potpie as they watch football on the telly. No, this isn’t a neighbourhood pub in London. It’s Vancouver, where the gastropub concept has caught on.

A gastropub takes the warm, convivial atmosphere of a pub and combines it with gastronomy, or good eating. Begone, greasy chicken wings downed with a Bud Light!

Simon Conway, who hails from Britain and is the chef and co-owner of the Three Lions Cafe (1 East Broadway), explains. “They [gastropubs] are bringing back pubs the way they used to be: the mom cooking in the back, the dad pulling pints, and the kids serving tables.” He and partners Ruben McKeown and Eamon Byrne have created a familial warmth, from the cozy din of those plonked at the bar to the chatter of patrons eating and drinking around roughly hewn wooden tables.

Conway echoes this homey feel in the food through fresh, wholesome ingredients. For a rabbit ragout pasta, he sources organic rabbit from the Fraser Valley and slow-cooks it for two to three hours in the oven. He then takes the meat off the bones and makes a rabbit ragout that includes wild mushrooms, fennel, tomato, and the leftover braising liquid. The dish is then finished to order by adding mushrooms, garlic, shallots, spinach, and capers to the ragout, and spooning it over orecchiette (ear-shaped) pasta.

Conway recommends pairing the dish with a glass of Mad Dogs & Englishmen Monastrell wine, which has a sweet cherry flavour that goes well with game. But for classic bangers and mash, it’s Guinness all the way, he says. And you’d better come ravenously hungry. Two plump Cumberland sausages made with finely ground, unmedicated organic pork arrive atop buttermilk mashed potatoes—all in a bowl-shaped Yorkshire pudding. Oh, and let’s not forget the rich beef marrow and caramelized-onion gravy that’s perfect for sopping up with hunks of the pudding.

Bangers are also on the menu at Gastown’s the Greedy Pig (307 Cordova Street), as well as a potpie filled with ham and split pea stew, plus plates of charcuterie and cheese. The long, narrow room has an eclectic, bohemian vibe to it, right down to its lively indie music. “People just want to come and relax, and they don’t want to be in a stuffy environment,” explains co-owner Allison McKinnon. She and husband Cam wanted to create a casual place with food-forward offerings that would match barman Nick Devine’s well-crafted whisky- and bourbon-cocktail list.

Case in point: the pulled pork sandwich. First, pork shoulder is dry-rubbed with coriander, garlic, salt, black pepper, cayenne pepper, and paprika and then slow-roasted in the oven for four hours until tender. It’s then hand-pulled and piled generously onto a potato hamburger bun (made daily by La Baguette et L’Echalote bakery), along with house-made barbecue sauce spiced with cayenne pepper, black pepper, and paprika and served with a creamy slaw of shaved fennel and diced apple. Don’t worry—the sandwich comes cut in half so it’s not such a handful.

McKinnon suggests noshing on the sandwich with a Roughrider, a concoction of Canadian rye shaken with muddled raspberries, black raspberry liqueur, and fresh lime juice and topped with Jamaican ginger beer. She explains that the heat of the ginger beer and the fresh raspberry flavours balance the spiciness of the pork and the barbecue sauce.

While the Greedy Pig has a quirky, unassuming appeal, Pivo Public House (526 Abbott Street) represents a completely different take on the gastropub. This Crosstown room has a modern brightness to it, amplified by large flat-screen TVs, streamlined furnishings, and a high ceiling. Over the phone, general manager Christian Brown says that the restaurant wanted to put an updated face on the old neighbourhood pubs that have been slipping away. And since pivo means beer in Czech (and a host of other languages), expect a solid selection of bottled beers such as Morimoto Soba Ale, a Japanese-inspired buckwheat-based ale made by Oregon’s Rogue Brewery.

As for the menu, “It’s a fresher, modern take on pub food,” Brown says. Plates range from aged Cheddar pierogies pan-fried with pancetta and onion to Cajun bourbon chicken served with garlic mashed potatoes and seasonable vegetables. One of Brown’s favourites is a poutine consisting of thinly cut Kennebec potato fries, fresh cheese curds, house-made pulled pork, melted Cheddar cheese, Montreal-style demi-glace gravy, and a sprinkling of green onion on top. Artery-clogging, yes. Pleasurably indulgent, definitely. And with a caramelly Blue Buck ale by Phillips in hand, you might just be the next gastropub poster child.

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