You know you’re in Lotusland when a highly anticipated new restaurant offers a daily kombucha on its menu. In case you haven’t visited a health-food store or gourmet grocery lately, kombucha is a slightly fizzy fermented tea that’s been flying off shelves because of its purported benefits. In restaurants, it’s becoming an increasingly popular non-alcoholic alternative to wine. The regularly changing house-made brew is just one element that makes the Farmer’s Apprentice so distinctly Vancouver.
Sharing a Fairview Slopes block with a yoga studio and a modern furniture shop, the Farmer’s Apprentice is headed by executive chef David Gunawan (formerly of Wildebeest and West) and his partner, Dara Young, a chef whose role here is front-of-house manager. With lots of wood features and little wildflowers on every table, the restaurant is all about local food; it has embraced the farm-to-table movement that’s swept the city’s culinary scene as well as the kitchens of eco- and health-conscious foodies. But rather than seek out products to support a menu that changes with the seasons, Gunawan switches things up on a daily basis, taking whatever farmers happen to bring in and working with it to create fresh, inventive plates that are meant to be shared.
This means that the menu is largely unpredictable, although there are a few items that carry over (such as the rib eye steak and the beet salad). If you really want to know before you arrive what’s being served on any given day, here’s a tip from our waiter: go to the restaurant’s Facebook page, where photos of dishes are usually posted daily. And don’t forget to make a reservation. If you don’t have one, don’t count on getting a seat in this small space, particularly on weekends.
Back to those menu items that tend to recur. The beet salad, with diaphanous slices of radish, has horseradish squaring off with very cold dabs of natural yogurt, making for a dish that’s as eye-catching as it is savoury. Hearty slices of sourdough bread from Beyond Bread bakery, crispy and piping hot, are accompanied by Olivista Arbequinia California extra-virgin olive oil and an onion butter that’s as sweet as honey. Sicilian Castelvetrano olives, meaty and a vivid green, are overly chilled for my liking but deliciously unique, having been smoked in-house over alderwood. (Alder showed up again on the dessert menu, this time flavouring the macarons that came with cheesecake and grape sorbet.)
The charcoal-grilled Angus rib eye, a thick slab of beef that’s perfectly pink for medium rare, comes from Two Rivers Specialty Meats, which means it’s free of hormones, antibiotics, and chemical additives and has been ethically and sustainably raised. It’s deeply flavourful (and also the menu’s most expensive item, at $40) and is served with a smoked-beet jus and caramelized buttermilk, which work well together. Roasted kuri squash accompanies. The colour of pumpkin and thick-skinned, the squash has a comforting flavour redolent of chestnuts—perfect for fall.
Tender roasted carrots are served with juicy raisins, a tiny bit of buckwheat, and Cheddar cheese that has the consistency of thick cream. “The cheddar is cooked with some milk and set with an algae,” Gunawan explained in a follow-up query. “We then blend it to achieve the smooth, creamy texture.” A trio of clams surrounds a fillet of sablefish in an aromatic pine-mushroom dashi broth. The sake marinade, however, proved too powerful for the velvety fish.
Other temporary offerings include curried sweetbreads with kohlrabi, Gala apples, and charred kale; unagi-glazed octopus with cucumber, celery, salmon roe, and chawan mushi (an egg custard); and squab with cauliflower, pomegranate, and oats scented of cubeb, a tropical vine with spicy, berrylike fruit. Vegetable- and grain-based dishes the night we visited ran $4 to $15; seafood plates were $9 to $20, and meats were $11 to $40.
Being truly Vancouver, the Farmer’s Apprentice has a certain cool factor too, thanks largely to the turntable at the back of the room. Vintage albums like Rod Stewart’s A Night on the Town, the Rolling Stones’ Goats Head Soup, and the Talking Heads’ More Songs About Buildings and Food are just some of the titles various staff members might pick for you to listen to while sipping your kombucha. The drink’s flavours range from cucumber to beet to Earl Grey tea. Served in a little glass bottle adorned with the Farmer’s Apprentice’s own label, kombucha is said to help with digestion. Not that you’ll need it. Even if you splurge for dessert (possibly nectarines with lemon curd and nectarine sorbet or tomato sorbet adorning sun gold tomatoes), you’ll leave feeling pleasantly satisfied and curious about what Gunawan will come up with next.
Dinner for two with a glass of wine each came to $140 before tax and tip.