Vancouver's food scene heats up

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      The results are in and it's official. We're good enough. We're smart enough. And, gosh darn it, people like us.

      Georgia Straight staffers interviewed more than 50 of Vancouver's top chefs, restaurateurs, and managers by phone and asked them how our city's restaurant scene compares to others around the world. A cosmopolitan bunch, these industry members have worked in London, Paris, Tokyo, and New York, and have eaten their way from Europe to Australia, China to India. And they've got a message for Vancouver diners: you don't know how good you've got it.

      We're a bargain
      "I've never seen in all my travels where you can get such quality and such service for the kind of price things are on offer here," says chef Andrey Durbach, who co-owns Parkside, La Buca, and Pied-í -Terre. "Even if you go and eat in the very most expensive restaurant in Vancouver, it's a bargain. I think Vancouverites are very, very lucky."

      The Pear Tree's Scott Jaeger seconds that notion. "Vancouver's dollar value is the best in the world. What we spend to what we receive is incomparable," he says, adding that this goes for both casual and fine dining. A meal at his restaurant, for example, is "almost half price if you were to go to dine [at an equivalent restaurant] in New York or San Francisco, and we would be almost a third of the price to do it in London." A set menu that costs $80 here "would fetch $140" elsewhere.

      Chambar Belgian Restaurant co-owner Karri Schuermans cites similar examples from her recent travels to Australia and New Zealand. "Cocktails in Sydney at a restaurant comparable to ours were charging between $15 and $20. We charge $9," she says. "In New Zealand, at a nice café, a gourmet sandwich was $18. I don't know anywhere in Vancouver where you'd pay $18 for a gourmet sandwich at lunch."

      So why are Vancouver's restaurant prices so comparatively low?

      "Vancouver's a very tough city to own a restaurant, probably the toughest in North America, because people don't want to pay a lot of money when they go out to eat," says Robert Clark, executive chef of C Restaurant, Raincity Grill, and NU Restaurant & Lounge. In contrast, Toronto is full of businesspeople who are less discriminating on price. In Vancouver, people "are looking for quality and value".

      "Vancouver's drawback is the amount of chain restaurants you see. They have a lot of money, so they can build beautiful rooms. But at the end of the day, they serve the same pile of shit on a plate. And the city supports that. For the small independent chefs to compete with that, it's very difficult."

      Romy Prasad
      Executive chef,
      Savory Coast Cucina Mediterranea

      "One of the things that has really kept prices down is there are too many places to eat in Vancouver, too much good-quality stuff," Parkside's Durbach says. "If you want to open a restaurant in Vancouver”¦you can't just compete on quality."

      According to Durbach, the number one difference between Vancouver and other major metropolitan areas is that "all our stuff is underpriced and undervalued. Vancouverites have become quite used to that and demand that and expect that. And they don't just demand cheap prices—they demand 8 o'clock tables as well."

      But a reality check may be coming. "I think Vancouverites should go out now and enjoy their bargains, because prices are going up," Durbach says. "People's lease rates and rents are going up.”¦The cost of transport is going up." Other cities are willing to pay more for our local ingredients, and that's driving up our prices. "I think we're in the final little period of Vancouver being that kind of bargain.”¦Everyone that I talk to in the restaurant business right now is doing a really big reevaluation."

      We've got great raw materials
      "We have these incredible ingredients to work with right here," says John Bishop of Bishop's Restaurant. "If you work in New York, you have to ship everything in. Same with central London. Not that you can't get stuff, but here”¦it grows here."

      Bishop adds that he "just came back from Toronto and visited two of the top restaurants there, which were excellent. Comparing them to Vancouver, we have as good, if not better, restaurants."

      "We're surrounded by ocean," points out Tim Keller, co-owner of Metro and Rare. Along with fresh seafood, our restaurants have easy access to Fraser Valley dairy, poultry, and vegetables, Okanagan fruit and wine, and more. "We're kind of in a little breadbasket”¦that allows us to get great local fresh product."

      "The quality of a restaurant can definitely be judged by the quality of ingredients they have access to and that they use," Raincity's Clark affirms. He believes that B.C.'s ingredients "are some of the best of Canada, and for a lot of things, some of the best in the world".

      Clark says that our chefs are also at the forefront of organic, sustainable cooking. "There's a grassroots movement that's always been in Vancouver—the alternative-lifestyle, vegetarian, hippie, tree-hugging type thing—that's very, very conducive to producing quality food," Clark says. "Per capita, there are many more chefs in Vancouver working toward that than there is in Toronto."

      Still, some say we could do better in utilizing the local bounty. "Whenever you truck food, it's going to lose flavour," says Fuel Restaurant's executive chef and co-owner, Robert Belcham. "A carrot from a local farm may cost a little bit more, but it's going to taste a hell of a lot better than a carrot coming from California. I wish more restaurateurs and chefs in the city cared about that and more customers demanded it."

      Of course, as Chambar's Schuermans points out, "We have a winter where we don't grow things for half the year." Restaurants in the Southern Hemisphere, for example, have better year-round access to local produce.

      Relying solely on local ingredients may not be possible for all restaurants. "We do have this pride, rightly so, to promote”¦local products and sustainability," says Pino Posteraro, executive chef and owner of Cioppino's Mediterranean Grill and Cioppino's Enoteca. "But, as well, we cannot deny that there is a shortage and lack of ingredients.”¦I think we [Vancouver's restaurant industry] compromise a lot the quality with the promotion of the West Coast, even though we know there is not much fresh here except for the spring and summer months."

      Posteraro says that relying on local ingredients works for small restaurants, and "I take my hat off to them," but for larger restaurants like his, importing the best ingredients from around the world makes sense. "I do big numbers. I can't afford to say in the wintertime, 'You know what? Sir, tonight I only have bits from the Island for 10 people and the other 240—bad luck.' "

      We're culturally diverse

      "In terms of weakness, it's still relatively difficult to find local produce. We're selling it all away and buying it back from other places. But farmers markets are getting bigger and better, so it seems like it's on the right track."

      Ryan Zuvich
      Executive chef,
      Plan B Lounge and Eatery

      "We're very blessed that our restaurants are very diversified," says Rekados Grill owner and chef Charlie Dizon. In the Main Street area alone, "we have Vietnamese, African, and Jamaican cuisines in, like, one block."

      Name pretty much any culture and you can find its cuisine in Vancouver. "The ethnic-food aspect is the strongest I've ever seen in any city that I've been to," says Angus An, chef and owner of Gastropod. "We have probably one of the best Chinese-restaurant populations in the world in terms of numbers. I've been to New York, London, and all these big cities that have a big Chinese population but don't have a lot of high-quality Chinese restaurants."

      On this front, we outdo our nearest neighbour, Seattle. "Your Chinese restaurants are far and away better than ours," says Seattle Times restaurant critic Nancy Leson in a phone interview. She praises the "outrageously wonderful" Japanese food at Tojo's Restaurant and adds that Vancouver has "wonderful Iranian restaurants and we don't, because you have such a large Iranian population".

      But according to restaurateur Vikram Vij, we can do even better in the area of multicultural cuisine with "more niches, more specialty". "Within India, and within China also, there's such a variety," the owner of Vij's Restaurant says. "Every region makes their own style of cooking." For example, in India, Bengal has a great seafood culture. "We need a little more diversification within those regions."

      "Vancouver has an excellent selection of restaurants. We offer good product for good value. The service is very high in standard compared to other cities."

      "There are too many restaurants in Vancouver. That's the most negative thing we have. Too many restaurants, too many discount programs. [By] having too many restaurants, only the very strong will survive. It's more difficult to fill the seats. We have to be more aggressive in our marketing programs."

      Jean Turcotte
      General manager,
      The Cannery Seafood House

      We've got talent
      Vancouver's chefs are "as good as anyone, anywhere in the world", says La Belle Auberge's executive chef and owner, Bruno Marti. As a coach for Team Canada and Team B.C., which compete in the World Culinary Olympics, he travels the globe. "We know what everybody else does," he says. "Plus, we always go out to the finest places wherever we go to make sure we taste the best that they have. And it always comes out to the same: they are no better than us. And, in some instances, we are better than they are."

      Not only does competition keep chefs on their toes, it keeps our trends fresh. "Every time you go to a competition with 2,000 cooks from around the world, from Singapore to Switzerland, when you come back you have no choice but to have more imagination," Marti says. "And that makes us constantly ahead or at least in the mainstream of what's happening around the world."

      Michel Jacob, chef and owner of Le Crocodile, says Vancouver is now training homegrown talent. "Now in Vancouver there is a very strong base of cooking schools and hotels that teach apprentices to be good chefs," he says. Fifteen or 20 years ago, "all the good chefs came from New York. Now this doesn't happen anymore. There are some very good local chefs who are trained, born, and raised in B.C."

      We're young and keen "Restaurant-scene-wise, I think we're the most inventive [in Canada] and at the forefront of interesting change," says Andre McGillivray, co-owner and general manager of Boneta. "I see things happening in Toronto and Montreal that Vancouver has already accomplished, usually about five or six years previous."

      McGillivray singles out the variety and creativity of Vancouver's cocktail culture in this respect. He points to West restaurant bar manager David Wolowidnyk, who won the title of Canada's best mixologist at a
      national competition in November, "absolutely massacring every candidate from Toronto and Montreal".

      "I think we are very diverse as far as ethnic restaurants go. You can go out into the city here and take your choice of what you want and it's right there. As far as advancements go, I'd say we are pretty comparable. We are not New York City, with all their expensive high-end restaurants going up everywhere. But the quality of the food in Vancouver, I would say, is definitely quite superb."

      Alana Peckham
      Executive chef, Cru

      But Emad Yacoub, owner of the Glowbal Restaurant Group, which includes Coast, Sanafir, and the Italian Kitchen, says our food trends trail behind other North American cities. "It's fashionable right now that everybody has those sliders, those baby burgers," he says. "They were doing them in Toronto years ago. I had them in New York in the beginning of the '90s." Although Yacoub acknowledges that Vancouver's ingredients are topnotch, he says our chefs need to take more risk in trying new things.

      Sahara Tamarin, manager of Chow, points out that Vancouver's restaurant scene is still quite young compared to those in urban centres like London. "But with that comes a greater ability and desire to experiment, try new things, and push the envelope. We're not totally set in our ways."

      "Vancouver's strength is that it supports adventurous cooking," says Romy Prasad, executive chef at Savory Coast Cucina Mediterranea. "There's a willingness to try things. And the city will not tolerate weak cooking."

      We have room to improve
      While praising Vancouver's restaurant scene, industry members freely admit there are flaws. "Still, in Vancouver, it's very hard to find good food after 10:30 p.m.," Le Crocodile's Jacob says.

      Maureen Fleming, co-owner of So.Cial at Le Magasin, also says "a weakness is the lack of late-night dining opportunities and 24-hour spots.”¦In Europe and the rest of the world, people go out a lot more. Vancouverites tend to cocoon."

      "Our liquor laws aren't great, that's for sure," says Sean Heather, owner of the Irish Heather and Shebeen Whisk(e)y House, among others. He explains that most of the city's restaurants that are not designated as pubs or nightclubs close at midnight because that's when they must stop serving alcohol. "So if you're 40 and you're not really interested in hitting the nightclub scene, and you're not interested in the loud bar scene but you want to go sit in the lounge of a restaurant and have a glass of wine or something, and it's a quarter past midnight, you're out of luck."

      "The Vancouver restaurant scene is fantastic, fabulous for the clients, for the customers. But for us, I think it is a little tougher than any other city because maybe, we are a little too many here. The competition is so high, so you have to be able to really fight hard to survive."

      Jose Rivas
      La Bodega

      According to Glowbal's Yacoub, restaurants need to go beyond great food and service. "What the city has missed the train on is understanding the whole package of being a restaurant," he says. In Las Vegas, for example, "they hit it so well regarding the design, the lighting, the music, the uniforms."

      Blue Water Café's executive chef, Frank Pabst, notes that Vancouver restaurants are not yet Michelin-rated. "Maybe that's an indicator, maybe not" of how we rate on an international scale, he says. But in terms of formal fine dining, "Vancouver certainly lags behind a little bit from the top cities in the world." We simply don't have the population that is necessary to support many extremely high-end restaurants.

      However, the recent news that New York celebrity chef Daniel Boulud will bring his talent to Lumií¨re and open a DB Bistro Moderne in Feenie's old location could be a vote of confidence in the city's potential. "It's great for Vancouver," Pabst enthuses, noting that Boulud will attract both diners and restaurant workers to the city. "It's really going to move us up on the food map." But "even Daniel Boulud will have to make adjustments," such as dealing with Vancouver's slow periods of the year that New York doesn't have. "It will be very interesting for all of us [chefs] to see what he's doing and how much it's accepted."

      The Seattle Times' Leson dines in New York City frequently. How does she think Vancouver stacks up? "Frankly, I think nothing compares with New York," she answers. But Leson adds that "Vancouver is certainly on par with Seattle. I would not say it's better and I certainly wouldn't say it's worse." She says Seattleites look forward to dining up north. "I don't know anybody who goes to Vancouver and doesn't come back and say, 'Wow, I ate at this great restaurant.' "

      Lucky us-we just need to go down the block.