Once upon a time, the Georgia Straight pages omitted the year. I can’t be a hundred percent sure but, rooting through the clippings, I figure it was late 1991 when I first began writing about Vancouver restaurants. Blame James Barber, who then had the gig and who, one day, said, “Okay” after I said, “If you ever want to give up your job”¦”
Early reviews spanned La Bodega, Nyala, and Sophie’s, while one headline read: “Sloppy eggs and bee-pollen cookies survive at Naam”. All are still going strong, but not Le Railcar, which stood at Carrall Street’s north end, or—this was the cacti-and-dusty-pink-sofa era—Santa Fe Café and Zuni Café, where, at both, chef Eddie Cheung cooked a fusion dish of linguine with tiger prawns and black-bean sauce that home chefs tried to emulate.
Now, some 650 reviews later, and umpteen stories under my belt about what we buy, cook, grow, and raise, it’s time for a move. Not to a rival publication but to France.
By 1992, I was covering Tomato Fresh Food Café, where a dish was served with—a phrase I would use increasingly—“whatever’s in season”. Now, we assume menus are linked to the calendar, and expect ingredient sources to be listed. Not back then. Isadora’s Co-operative Restaurant on Granville Island, which served organic beef from Rafter K Ranch in the Chilcotin, was a rarity. The public market had been around since 1979, but you couldn’t buy spot prawns right off the fishing boats at the government wharf, farmers markets were years away, and veterans’ housing stood where Lumií¨re now stands.
A benchmark year, 1992 saw a group of chefs, writers, and industry others meet at the Raintree, Vancouver’s ground-breaking regional-cuisine restaurant, where food activist Herb Barbolet explained the concept of the organization FarmFolk/CityFolk. We were all a bit vague about what food security was or why it was so critical, or how “food” and “politics” even belonged in the same sentence. Now, it all seems prescient.
Restaurant reviewing soon expanded further afield to focus on what grew in our back yard and what chefs did behind closed doors. A confirmed nosey parker, I inveigled myself into the kitchens of the Hotel Vancouver, Le Crocodile, and, in 1993, Bishop’s, pasting myself against a wall in the surprisingly small space. At the end of a long evening, I knew without question why John Bishop had, and continues to have, the reputation he does. I wrote of Bishop “spiraling a finely sliced apple like a miniature staircase (a favour he occasionally performs for guests), quietly switching a full laundry bag for an empty one—and his almost hand-rubbing glee when someone who’s ordered a fine Spanish red chooses chicken livers to go with it”. Driving out with then–Bishop’s chef Dennis Green to Hazelmere Farms on a chilly winter day to pore over seed catalogues and discuss what crops Naty and Gary King would grow for the restaurant prefigured today’s chef-producer alliances. Attending a regional-cuisine dinner in a Cowichan Valley farmhouse in January—cooked by chefs Bill Jones and Sinclair Philip—brought home the continuum of food production.
Meanwhile, back in Vancouver, new restaurants continued to come on the scene. Here, in 1994, is chef Gord Martin cooking moules at Mussel Bros., and, some years later, sitting down with me as I tracked how primal scribbles evolved into wildly inventive dishes for Bins 941 and 942. Not a review, this time, so I could “out” myself. Apart from the level playing field of media events, I always ate anonymously, confirming details by phone; chat often led to other discoveries.
“Know where Chinese chefs eat after work?” One midnight, I found myself, with New Zealand–born chef Simon Chin plus his fridge-sized maí®tre d’, bombing down Fraser Street to a restaurant that served late-night snacks. “Try it and we’ll tell you what it is,” was the deal as I sampled pork intestine—“a cousin to Sunday-roast pork crackling”—and pig’s blood, “basically a sliced clot”. Well, maybe not those, but I do think Vancouver diners are far braver about trying new tastes than they used to be. Raw fish? Very few Japanese restaurants are in my early stack of newsprint, whereas today we have 400 or so.
Early in 1995, I chanced on a new little Indian spot where “the service was just plain lovely”, mentioned the care the owner “brings to everything he makes”, and stated that “a meal for two under $25 isn’t only possible, it’s extravagant”. The restaurant was Vij’s, and the first two quotes still apply. Vikram Vij is one of the chefs who has become synonymous with Vancouver for out-of-town foodies. Another is Robert Clark, who I once spent a kitchen morning with at C Restaurant, where he almost persuaded me to share in his sampling of fresh sea-urchin juice. Good chefs know no fear.
What will I miss when I leave Vancouver? Mostly, the abundance of Asian restaurants. White-linen palaces, scruffy noodle shops, Richmond food courts—I’m there. My cellar, sadly, will lack Joie and Burrowing Owl and those gorgeous Elephant Island fruit wines, and I’ll only have a long-distance perspective on emerging culinary regions like the Cowichan Valley, the Okanagan, and the Fraser Valley.
Writing for the Straight not only took me there, but also into the lives of readers who phoned or e-mailed to ask where to treat Toronto cousins to dinner, or if I knew where in White Rock they could buy suckling pig, preferably roasted. I’ve been lucky enough to work with some ardent and intelligent food writers, notably André LaRivií¨re, author of the former Conscientious Kitchen monthly column, who is now the driving force behind the Green Table Network that helps restaurants work towards a sustainable food system.
The big difference between then and now, of course, is where we all get our information. Citytv show CityCooks not only does a superb job of conveying the breadth of local cuisine but also, rightly, collars world-famous chefs and authors whenever they visit Vancouver, usually lured by Barbara-jo McIntosh to her eponymous bookstore.
Just as inspiring were the nonprofessionals. The four generations of TV producer Prem Gill’s family who I watched make wedding sweetmeats called ladoos in the Sikh temple. Another wedding in Crete, an invitation that resulted from a restaurant review and a subsequent friendship with Harry and Thea Prinianakis, now owners of the Main, where the olive oil they use comes from the family grove.
The dishes I’ll take with me to France aren’t made with shaved truffles (although I’d never say no), foie gras (I can buy that at the local market), or quail stuffed with ceps (I can buy that from the travelling butcher’s van). I think of cream-braised cabbage with bacon at long-closed North 49, cooked by Karen Barnaby, who now helms the Fish House in Stanley Park, and the blow-your-mind grilled prawns with a chili sorbet at Diva at the Met when Michael Noble was there. Then there are the bacon-wrapped scallops at C Restaurant, a dish created by its first chef, the late Soren Fakstorp. And to finish, shrikand, a Gujarati dessert of thickened yogurt, saffron, pistachios, and cardamom seeds which I first tasted at a small place, long-gone, called Surat Sweet.
Writing about restaurants has been like a series of brief affairs versus the deepening relationship that normal people have with their favourite eateries. I’ll miss the constant challenge of trying to translate sensual experiences into words. But I won’t miss the large Visa bills, making reservations under a fake name (and then forgetting it), the black looks if my husband Peter called me “Ange” within waiters’ earshot, and drinking little or no wine to keep my wits sharp while imbibing gallons of water. I needed all those loo visits though. Where else would I jot notes?
Restaurant reviewing is in flux. When I started, maybe a half dozen of us in Vancouver ate for a living. Now, thanks to the Internet, everyone is a critic, a few near-professional but most bashing away at the equivalent of kindergarten piano practice. Still, I’ll trade that when I can read the Horowitzes of restaurant criticism in the Sunday Times or the New York Times with my morning latte. Going on-line also lets us eat imaginary dinners at Chez Panisse or the Fat Duck, or shows us 1,200 photos of dishes served at El Bulli.
Chefs, of course, eat around. Last I heard of David Hawksworth, he was munching his way through Las Vegas and San Francisco, research for the restaurant he’ll open next year. More places are coming down the pipe, including DB Bistro Moderne, and there are ongoing questions, like when will Moderne Burger a few doors east tear the brown paper off its windows (it’s been well over a year), and what and who will fill Holt Renfrew’s rooftop space.
I’ve done my bit. It’s your turn.