There’s always a danger in reviewing a restaurant shortly after it opens. While there are inevitably kinks to work out, the chef and team are typically at the top of their game, running under the assumption that the early days are crucial to winning over critics and creating a buzz. But occasionally, when you check in again six months or a year later, the place has gone downhill, sometimes steeply.
That’s not likely to be the case with the excellent AnnaLena.
The recently opened Kitsilano restaurant is helmed by Michael Robbins, who named it after both his grandmothers. The chef spent the last four years as executive chef and managing partner of Oakwood Canadian Bistro, firmly and successfully establishing the eatery in the city’s dauntingly competitive culinary scene. (In this year’s Golden Plate Awards, Georgia Straight staffers surveyed over 100 chefs and restaurateurs, and Oakwood was declared one of Vancouver’s most underrated restaurants.)
Before that, Robbins, who competed in Season 4 of Top Chef Canada, was executive chef at Sanafir after being chef de cuisine at Glowbal, holding senior positions at Coast, and working in Sydney, Australia.
On AnnaLena’s website, he describes his style as modern Canadian with a strong Pacific Northwest influence. Helping execute his vision is sous-chef Mark Singson, also formerly of Oakwood, Glowbal, and Coast, who recently worked in Australia as well. A proud East Van native, Robbins brings artistry to every plate, like the winsome, Thai-inspired cured tuna and papaya salad in a lime-coconut broth infused with cilantro oil and studded with puffed wild rice.
His artistic streak extends far beyond the kitchen. Take the sculptures on display in the minimalist space that used to house Kitsilano Daily Kitchen. Robbins made the life-sized teddy bears himself; splashed with paint, these faceless statues stand guard to the left of the kitchen. Then there are his Lego creations: a couple of lamps, one fire-engine red, another in a black-and-white zigzag pattern; two hearts, one blood red, one in various greens. The room is black and white, save for the warm wood wall behind the bar that displays books and bottles of wine. The design is funky, uncluttered, and contemporary.
The menu items, meanwhile, burst with colour, character, and flavour. Dishes are meant to be shared (and range in price from $3.50 for oysters to $32 for wagyu short rib), and as one of the four of us concluded during a recent undisclosed visit, not a single one disappointed.
Robbins’s creativity abounds. Take the bison tartare, accompanied by egg yolk two ways. A gel consists of sous-vide-cooked egg yolks that are seasoned and blended; then he compresses the oxygen out of them in a cryovac machine, resulting in a rich, fudgy texture. Yolks cured in salt and sugar are dehydrated until they achieve the consistency of Parmesan, then shaved over the dish with a microplane.
Elsewhere, ultrathin, visually striking, and smoky-flavoured chili threads the colour of saffron bedeck roasted cauliflower in a buttermilk-dressed salad with pea shoots, sprouted lentils, cashews, and lemon marmalade. Tender buttermilk-fried chicken pieces are sprinkled with dill dust and jumbled atop a smear of horseradish-maple aioli and served with crispy salt-and-vinegar chicken skins.
House-made brioche that comes with shelled mussels is rid of its crust, torn up, tossed in garlic olive oil, and toasted to comforting and delicious effect. At the end of each night, any leftover bread is dehydrated and then slow-cooked into a pangrattato, or crumb, in garlic butter. It gives a crunchy finish to the spinach-and-Asiago ravioli that’s served atop thick, sweet tomato compote.
Seared trout is a simple and pleasing dish with charred onion and roasted carrots, beautified by a vivid pickled-pink-cabbage purée. The wagyu short rib, meanwhile, is cooked at 60 ° C for 42 hours and served off the bone with peppercorn jus, sunchoke purée, mushrooms, and green peas. It’s perfection.
There are two desserts to choose from: the answer is yes, please, to both. A deconstructed chocolate crème brûlée is the richest, yummiest “mousse” you’ve ever had, served with golden honeycomb and salted-caramel ice cream. Delicate fennel fronds decorate rhubarb compote, which has a playful combination of mixed-nut crumble, meringue shards, and black-pepper-and-thyme ice cream.
General manager Jeff Parr has curated a terrific wine list with new discoveries like Pender Island’s Sea Star Estate Farm and Vineyards’ Salish Sea (a blended white), while bar manager Kevin Brownlee crafts cocktails such as Clockwork Blood Orange, containing gin, Aperol, blood-orange tea, sparkling wine, and fresh lemon. Service is attentive and knowledgeable yet unfussy. I love the staffers’ uniforms of all black save for their bright-red runners.
Twenty bucks says AnnaLena will be just as impressive a year from now as it is at this early stage.