Shortly after we slid into a cozy little table at Bistro Wagon Rouge on one of those bone-chillingly wet nights that make Vancouverites curse their city, our server asked if it was our first time there. It was. She was quick to let us know it wouldn’t be our last.
She would have come across as cocky had it not been for the fact that she was so genuinely enthusiastic about the fare. She was also completely unpretentious, just like the place itself.
If French restaurants still get a bad rap for perceived snootiness, Bistro Wagon Rouge is anything but. Headed by chef/owner Brad Miller of the Red Wagon Restaurant, the bistro is a perfect fit for its Hastings Sunrise location on Powell Street near an auto-body shop, a couple of artists’ studios, and a local coffee joint. It occupies the former home of Docker’s Diner, a well-loved dive that for years served up simple dishes like clubhouses and burgers with fries and gravy. The style of cuisine may have changed, but the warm, casual, and welcoming atmosphere has not.
“I wanted to keep it real for people,” Miller says in a follow-up phone call. “I wanted to move away from the posh aspect of French dining and be realistic.”
Miller clearly knows how to please people’s palates for reasonable prices, as evidenced by the long lineups at his East Hastings Street Red Wagon on weekends. But even though he’s earned a reputation for standout diner fare, his background is, in fact, in French cooking. Before taking on the role of executive chef at Au Petit Chavignol and Bistro Pastis before that, he trained at Ferrandi: l’école française de gastronomie in Paris’s Latin Quarter. “I’ve wanted to open a French restaurant since day one,” he says.
Bistro Wagon Rouge maintains much of the character of Docker’s: there’s the faded checkerboard floor and the tiny pass that gives diners a glimpse into a kitchen that’s about the size of a broom closet. There are some old black-and-white photos on display from the spot’s previous incarnation, and Miller has even recycled some of the former café’s serving dishes—most notably the shallow oval bowls he uses for the cassoulet.
A one-pot wonder, this meat-and-bean dish that originated in southern France is typically served as a stew. However, Miller makes it his own by thinking outside the casserole. On the bottom of the dish, he puts a layer of navy beans. On top of that goes duck confit, the bird’s leg bone jutting out way past the dish’s edge; a hunk of crispy pork belly; and a thick, house-made Toulouse sausage. A traditional garlic-and-herb crust tops things off, and it all gets baked. This is eye-catching comfort food at its heartiest.
If cassoulet doesn’t appeal to those trying to go easy after holiday-season excess, there are lighter options. The mussels in the moules frites on this visit came in a subtle Indian curry sauce. Slightly charred octopus, served with arugula and paper-thin fennel, is delectable with chermoula, the capers, lemon, garlic, and cilantro jazzing up the mollusks’ meatiness. Steak tartare comes in a mound studded with cornichons and topped with a bright-orange egg yolk, which gives the meat some creaminess. Accompanying baguette slices are from Les Croissants’ Olivier—just like grand-maman used to make.
Expect to see all the classics—beef bourguignon, steak frites, French onion soup, pâté, and tartines (on this night topped with black-olive tapenade, pork terrine, hummus, or smoked trout)—but don’t expect one night to be the same as the next; Miller’s menu is always changing. What remains consistent are topnotch ingredients: sustainable seafood from 7 Seas, meat and poultry from Two Rivers Specialty Meats, truffles (like the shaved ones that adorned a lovely al dente celeriac risotto) from Ponderosa Mushrooms, and the like. One item that’s not from around here is escargots. (Now there’s an opportunity for a local culinary entrepreneur: a snail farm.)
The price point is fantastic for what you get. Most plats principaux go for $18 or $19, with starters between $8 and $13. Beautiful French press coffee is $3, and desserts are $6. (The lemon tart and the warm financier with pear, made in-house, were both extraordinaire.) The most expensive bottle of wine from the smart, short list is a 2011 Domaine Gerard Tremblay Petit Chablis, which goes for $50. Those prices are nothing to turn your nose up at—especially given the quality of what’s on offer.
A note to our efficient, friendly server: à bientôt.