There are restaurants, bars, bistros, and cafés all around us, each moniker conveying an image of an expected setting.
So what, many may ask, is a “workshop”?
Over on Commercial Drive, Merchant’s Workshop has been a buzzy neighbourhood spot pretty much since it opened as Oyster Bar back in 2012. As the joint and locals became increasingly entwined over the years, the whimsy and play of chef and owner Doug Stephen’s nightly features, craft-brewery tap takeovers, and occasional wine-soaked special events resonated with the community.
The Oyster Bar concept, though, was eventually nixed in favour of the trade-focused and well-crafted output implied by the word workshop, providing more opportunity for adventure.
In short, Stephen, partner Lindsey Mann, and manager and wine director David Back can now do whatever the hell they want as they ply their trade—without being reined in by any conceptual lexicon.
A concept like this is indeed malleable, if not abstract, which could provide an avenue for arrogance in the wrong hands. Under this scenario, however, the team have gotten to know the expectations and desires of their neighbourhood clientele and in no way want to jeopardize the dedication of their fans.
“Yeah, we’re gonna do fresh halibut because it’s in season and kinda expected,” Stephen told me when I popped in during a recent Sunday brunch. “But I’m not doing it with asparagus, even though most assume they share a season and should go together, because, honestly, I don’t think they’re a good match.”
Instead, his take involves fenugreek-braised collard greens, clam nage, crispy rice cake, and a ginger scallion sauce, with which this writer can’t imagine many finding fault.
This spirit and spin extends to the ever-changing wine program. When the Alberta government recently put a temporary hold on importing B.C. wines to protest our province’s aversion to Kinder Morgan’s pipeline project, the Merchant’s crew opted to swap to an all–B.C. wine list for the duration of the ban to support the home team.
As a guy who used to run restaurant wine programs around town, I can’t tell you how envious I am of how much fun it must have been to change an entire wine list on a whim, bringing automatic excitement to staff and guests via a slew of new pours.
It’s almost a no-brainer, then, that the team is inspired by this Sunday’s (June 10) Italian Day on Commercial Drive and is going all-in on Italy for its wine selection throughout the day’s festivities. The kitchen will echo the theme with plates including duck meatballs in San Marzano DOP tomato sauce with mozzarella and basil, and an Italian take on the house Merch burger, featuring a fennel-and-chili-studded patty, basil mayo, tomato sauce, mozzarella, and pancetta.
I’ve had a sneak peek at the wine list, which features a dozen by-the-glass gems, and it’s a good traverse across the country. Ferrari Brut, a traditional-method sparkling Chardonnay from Trentino-Alto Adige, will be a great way to start things off before diving into an aromatic white like the lemongrass-and-lime driven Natale Verga Grillo out of Sicily or the Monastero Suore Cistercensi Coenobium, a crunchy, apple-laden blend of Trebbiano, Malvasia, and Verdicchio made by a group (a gaggle, a flock?) of nuns just north of Rome.
On the red side of things, my first glass will undoubtedly be Elisabetta Foradori’s 2015 Teroldego. It’s a Syrahesque floral and peppery wonder, a fast favourite for many first-timers getting to know the cult-favourite producer. Should those enjoying the Merchant’s Italian Day revelry find wines they need to follow up on, everything being poured can also be found at the B.C. Liquor Stores or Liberty Wine Merchants locations down the street.
While we’re on the Italy-meets-B.C. beat, I recently had the chance to try a trio of new releases from LaStella Winery, our very own ode to Italian-styled wines set in Osoyoos, the sunbaked region in the very south of the Okanagan Valley.
LaStella Vivace Pinot Grigio 2017 ($22.99; online) has a lovely touch of river-rock briney character meeting fresh, crisp citrus and sage, while the pretty-in-pink LaStella Rosato 2017 ($22.99; online) blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Sangiovese brings boatloads of rhubarb, strawberries, and a hearty dash of white pepper to the glass.
I had the privilege of tasting their LaStella Arioso Sangiovese Grosso 2014 ($59; online), which is a wine club exclusive and, uh, it makes one damned tempted to join their wine club. Pitch-perfect Tuscan notes of violets, currants, fresh herbs, and earthy character mingle with hallmark Okanagan ripeness, acidity, and minerality.
Although their wines can be ordered direct, they can also be found at outlets like Kitsilano Wine Cellar, Sutton Place Wine Merchants, local B.C. VQA stores, and so on.
So let’s say “Salute” or “Cin Cin”! It’s so nice to enjoy la bella vita in our own backyard.