Yup, it’s only January, but I’m calling it now: Say Mercy!, which just opened at 4298 Fraser Street, will be deemed one of the strongest additions to the local dining scene this year.
Here are five reasons why.
1. Chef Sean Reeve
One of Vancouver’s most undersung chefs, Reeve has been impressing discerning food lovers at the Mackenzie Room since it opened five years ago by the same owner-operators, Collective Hospitality Group (which includes Reeve, Antonio Cayonne, and husband-and-wife duo Andrew and Katie Jameson). TMR, as it’s sometimes called, is devoted to field-to-fork fare, with some of Reeve's standout dishes being the Showstopper Salad (which melds more than 30 farm-fresh ingredients) and Chicken of the Sea: sea urchin pâté with hazelnut, pear, and squid ink brioche. He trained in Italy, learning classical techniques from the masters, and is passionate about authentic barbecue; in fact, it was experiencing and experimenting with the smoky flavours of the South in his earliest kitchen jobs that made up his mind to become a chef. At Say Mercy! he gets to put the two together—which brings me to my next point.
2. You’ve never tasted anything like this
At first mention, Italy-meets-the-American South is confounding. Perhaps the dish that best illustrates Reeve’s ability to nimbly dance between disparate cuisines and cultures is his Barbecue Bolognese: When you first taste it, your taste buds are like Huh? What’s happening here? There’s the fresh house-made spaghetti and the salty pancetta and then there’s smoked pork butt, all tender, soft, and fatty, topped with generous amounts of Grana Padano.
Then it hits you, the flavours and textures coming together in succulent, revelatory harmony, and it all makes sense, and you might just swoon.
Another example is Amberjack Crudo: frequently showing up on Southern menus, the pale pink, sweet-tasting amberjack shares the plate with sun-dried olives, endive, mint, and grapefruit. Want one more? Shrimp & Grits. Shrimp and grits! Featuring rich, lobsterlike rock shrimp, the dish is deeply delicious with mussels, Calabrian chili, fennel, and tomato.
The menu also features whole sea bream in oregano butter sauce (have it with roasted cabbage in Fontina cream sauce); sunchoke risotto; and more. To finish, the choice is simple: one of each, please, a baseball-size lingonberry beignet and slab of frozen mud pie.
When you just want to keep eating because the flavours are so fine, you may have no choice but to surrender to the experience—to say mercy.
3. The drinks
You’ve got Meghan McDowell (formerly of Nomad, Bistro Wagon Rouge) to thank for the thoughtful, playful wine list. There are two sections to her first fully curated list: Wines for Drinking and Wines for Thinking. With an affinity for natural wines, she’ll happily geek out with you if you want to go out of your comfort zone and try something like the 2018 Roche Texture Pinot Gris from the Okanagan. I love that she’s included an orange wine (the Similkameen Valley’s 2018 Scout Vineyards Riesling). But she’s not going to go all snooty somm on you, and there are plenty of deliciously approachable options.
GM Cody Dodds, who was at the Mackenzie Room from the beginning (formerly of Fairmont Pacific Rim), crafts bold cocktails that showcase local spirits.
4. The team
One of the biggest problems facing local restaurants is finding qualified, dedicated staff. That doesn’t seem to be the case here. The crew is strong and enthusiastic. Mathew Bishop is Reeve's chef de cuisine; he cheffed at TMR for three years after spending time at Araxi and L’Abattoir. On the floor are folks like William Johnson (former owner of the now defunct, much-missed Crowbar ) and Carlin Sandor, former GM of Farmer's Apprentice.
5. The room
With wainscoting in a eucalyptus hue, Art Deco wallpaper, and vintage fixtures and mirrors, the Mid-century Modern-inspired corner space (where the former Dark Manor Inn lived a short, darkened life) is stylishly comfortable. It's a neighbourhood spot that feels special. The bathrooms are rather gorgeous, too (they even have a selection of personal care items including feminine products; nice touch.). Just as at the Mackenzie Room, Andrew Jameson came up the design.
Who says January is dull and depressing? Not with this newcomer to Vancouver’s food scene.
Say Mercy! is open daily from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.