Royal Dinette brings David Gunawan’s farm-to-table philosophy downtown

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      Anyone who works in the heart of Vancouver’s financial district will tell you that dining options in the ’hood are limited. Try taking a client or colleague for a nice dinner within walking distance of your glass tower and chances are you’ll end up in a chain restaurant or a hotel dining room.

      David Gunawan’s Royal Dinette changes that.

      Gunawan is making a name for himself—quite literally; his name is emblazoned on the window of his new Duns­muir Street restaurant—by being an ardent supporter of all things local and organic. The former executive chef of Wildebeest and, prior to that, West runs Farmer’s Apprentice in South Granville with his partner, Dara Young. Right next door, the pair recently opened Grapes & Soda, which places as much emphasis on inventive food-and-wine pairings as it does on nurturing people’s inner oenophile.

      It’s hard to see how Gunawan has any time to take on yet another project, but here he is, working with head chef Jack Chen to offer lunch and dinner to a whole new clientele of food lovers with expense accounts.

      Maybe what makes his latest venture manageable is that he’s not reinventing himself. What you see on the menu at Royal Dinette is rooted in the same farm-to-table philosophy as Farmer’s Apprentice; Gunawan uses, plays with, and celebrates what’s in season and what he can get from nearby producers. He even recognizes his suppliers on a blackboard by the bar, listing “friends” like Salt Spring Island’s Foxglove Farm, Surrey’s Hazelmere Organic Farm, Maple Ridge’s Hannah Brook Farm, and many more.

      The restaurant has taken over the ground floor of Blackbird Public House. Owned by the Donnelly Group, the latter continues to operate upstairs. The Royal Dinette space, meanwhile, is brighter than before, with light-grey wooden tables, minimalist cage light fixtures, gold-painted columns, and jars of pickled vegetables on display next to bottles of wine. It doesn’t feel as laid-back and informal as the “dinette” name and whimsical website imply; unlike bygone diners, this isn’t a place you’ll find bottomless cups of drip coffee. Rather, this is upscale fare and a constantly changing menu.

      I love the fact that vegetables play a starring role, with the Garden section of the dinner menu consisting of more options than those for Pasta, Fish, and Meat combined. In one of several picture-perfect dishes, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, and blueberries pop up alongside chèvre and beautiful salt-baked beetroot, with the accompanying bright-green sorrel granita resembling icy, apple-y crumbs. Gazpacho gets the frozen treatment too, small beads of it providing a crumblelike topping to a bright salad of goat feta, torn mint leaves, and perfect slices of peaches and heirloom tomatoes.

      Trenette is a flat noodle resembling linguine that is made in-house and mixed with lip-smacking pork ragout as well as sliced green olives, pine nuts, tomatoes, and Pecorino cheese, for a comforting jumble. More dramatic in appearance and flavour is the squid-ink bucatini (a thick, spaghettilike noodle with a hole in the centre) with crab, clams, and roasted pepper.

      The most robust dish is a plate of Tamworth and Berkshire pork, heritage breeds that are known for their lean meat, juiciness, tenderness, and deep flavour. Here, thick slices are served with golden quinoa, zucchini, pine nuts, and peaches. 

      The food at Royal Dinette is terrific; as at Gunawan’s other restaurants, it’s elegant and innovative. One thing you need to consider, however, is that dishes can be dainty. In other words, many are pricey for relatively small portions. (Dinner dishes range from about $14 to $28.) Yes, topnotch ingredients cost top dollar, and there is a lot of labour involved in making items like eggplant cappelletti from scratch. But if you’re accustomed to having a meal-size salad for dinner for around $16 elsewhere, you may be disappointed by the veggie dishes in particular; a couple of small plates won’t necessarily fill you up. That’s even if you order them with a side of naturally leavened bread with olive oil and herb butter. The exception to this is possibly the eight-course tasting menu ($65). There’s a catch when it comes to the tasting menu, though: everyone at the table has to order it. This won’t work for all parties (as it didn’t for our group) and is guaranteed to disappoint some keen customers.

      Going the à la carte route, you’ll likely have room for dessert, and here too the portions are small. We could barely find the candy-cap mushroom custard on the plate, a thimble-sized amount with raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, blueberries, bourbon cream, and fine spruce needles.

      To get the most bang for your buck, I’d suggest the tasting menu. Just be sure that everyone in your party is on the same page before you make a reservation. Even better if someone in your group can expense it all.

      Follow Gail Johnson on Twitter @gailjohnsonwork.