Restaurant wine lists worth swooning over in Vancouver

When a restaurant has a remarkable wine list, it makes sense to say yes to dinner.

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      The best restaurant wine lists aren’t necessarily the biggest.

      That being said, let me begin this survey of some personal faves with this: the wine list at Bern’s Steak House in Tampa, Florida, is, as far as I know, the biggest in the world and certainly the best. Roughly the size of the old Manhattan phone directory, it runs to a few thousand pages, with photos and illustrations.

      At Bern’s (named after cofounder Bern Laxer), the drill isn’t to look at the menu first, but to check out the massive list, see what you’ve always wanted to drink, price and selection being no object, and then match it with something to eat.

      Chances are it will be available, and someone will go into the low-ceilinged, labyrinthine cellar, where little electric carts scurry through the corridors to locate your choice. Even Canadian icewines are there, although you may have to go into the Dessert Room to order them.

      Probably the closest thing we have in Vancouver is CinCin on Robson Street. Warm, inviting, good food—reservations are a must.

      Wine director Shane Taylor has chosen hundreds of specialty wines—45 pages of well-thought-out bottles—with the menu firmly in focus. The emphasis is on rare Italian labels, though the rest of the wine world is also well represented.

      My personal favourites from the menu include a hubbard and red kuri squash soup with crème fraîche, sage, honey, and curry-infused oil. Choose a sparkling wine from one of the many on offer—they pair beautifully with this unusual and delicate soup. The requisite antipasto platter for two would also marry nicely with the bubble, should there be any left.

      There are many seafood and pasta selections “for the table”, and truffle fans are amply accommodated with a choice of black Burgundy truffles or white winter truffles at $2.50 and $4.50 per gram, respectively. The menu recommends a “minimum 4 grams to truly capture the essence”.

      The many Old World reds have been carefully chosen to complement all of the mains. Ditto for the array of whites. Your choice may be difficult to make.

      Few restaurants have made as much noise since opening as the Flying Pig, both of them, in Yaletown and Gastown. I prefer the Gastown location for its proximity to the parkade, and as far as I can tell the menus are identical, save for the daily specials. The wine list is well priced and chosen to match the hearty, robust food. Wines are grouped so: reds, whites, rosé and bubbles, and notable wines, the latter including Freemark Abbey Cabernet Sauvignon at $99, tied for the costliest wine on the well-chosen little list.

      Some of my current favourite appetizers are three-pea soup with smoked ham hock and chick, split, and sweet peas; beefsteak tomato and bocconcini duo; and seared chili-rubbed skirt steak with matchstick potatoes—all under $10.

      As for entrées, blackened steelhead trout, Mount Lehman roasted half chicken, wild-seafood pappardelle, and veal piccata are all excellent and under $25.

      Crispy Brussels sprouts, Andrew’s pulled-pork poutine, and bone-marrow cheesy bread, all $5 to $9, are some of the generously portioned sides.

      A third location (120 seats plus a small patio) will be opening in September in the Olympic Village.

      Alberto Lemmo, chef and proprietor of Zefferelli’s Spaghetti Joint on Robson Street, is rarely in the kitchen these days, but his talented culinary brigade and personable servers offer great, reasonably priced Italian home cooking.

      The best bruschetta and tomato dipping sauce are whisked to the table on your arrival. I like to start with the Trebbiano house white while perusing the menu with the aforementioned treat. You can order an appetizer-sized pizza and go for some red if you’re in for the evening.

      My favourite appetizer—and one I unfailingly order—is the chicken livers pan-fried with sage and sherry and served on crostini. This can be a meal on its own and marries beautifully with the Montepulciano house red. Another honourable mention is the pan-fried Italian sausage with kale, garlic, and tomato sauce.

      There are plenty of traditional pastas, including a textbook linguine puttanesca, as well as pan-fried lamb’s liver, osso buco, and grilled chicken served with spaghetti aglio e olio.

      Fifteen wines are available by the glass, including a Prosecco and a couple of excellent B.C. labels. Various cocktails and a “select wine list” of five white and 14 red bottles complete the offerings.

      It’s a fun, comfortable spot, one that’s open from lunch till fairly late.

      Tiberio Faedo, who’s been purveying brilliant lasagna al forno for decades at La Cucina in North Vancouver, has the best collection of Amarones I know, including one half-bottle.

      Then come Champagnes and Proseccos ($42 to $350) followed by white wines, sorted by country, and various reds. The Italian reds are grouped by region: Piedmont, Veneto, and Tuscany, including a separate section of Brunelli. The costliest—and maybe the best—reds are a 1999 Angelo Gaja Sperss ($410) and an Aldo Conterno Granbussia Barolo from 1998, either of which would go perfectly with the hearty, traditional fare. There’s a good selection of U.S. and B.C. wines, including Opus One and Oculus, as well as wines by the glass.

      Foodwise, your Italian favourites are on the menu, all cooked to Nonna’s perfection.

      Last but not least is Yew seafood + bar in the Four Seasons Hotel Vancouver and its popular promotion Wine Down Sundays & Mondays, with 50 percent off any bottle on sommelier Emily Walker’s voluminous list.

      Back in the days of Chartwell Restaurant, I had Christmas dinner here every year with my family. The wine cellar is almost as good (and as big!) as it was in Ruy Paes-Braga’s time as hotel manager. There are 14 Champagnes alone and several hundred other perfectly chosen wines. (Worth a column on their own, they’re priced at $45 to $1,250, for a rare vintage of Château de Beaucastel.)

      Wine Down affords a great opportunity to sample some of the pricier options at half price. A favourite Sunday brunch is the crab and truffle frittata with Camembert, black truffle, and baby spinach or the albacore tuna niçoise with Little Gem greens, green beans, a farm-fresh egg, warm potato, sun-dried tomato, olives, and grain-mustard vinaigrette paired with a fabulous bubble. Sets Sunday right up!

      The Seafood Tower for two ($55) or four ($95) is a work of art, and the king crab legs are a well-priced addition at $15.

      Just add a half-price bottle, sit back, and enjoy your day.



      Penelope D. Lightbourne

      Mar 28, 2014 at 6:59am always, with Jurgen's wonderful writing can feel the joy and enthusiasm with every stroke of the's like a satisfying fiction...but of course, it's not...that's the joy of it can't wait to reserve and take it all in...wonderful

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      Jill Smith

      May 23, 2015 at 4:50pm

      I have to add that when I was at the Gastown Flying Pig last year, the service was so helpful, informed and easygoing, and I truly appreciated it. I just arrived in town from Seattle and was exhausted and just looking for a place to park my derriere. They couldn't have been more accommodating. Great service is the icing on the cake for a place that has amazing food. It's now my favorite in Vancouver.

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