In time for St. Patrick's Day, Forkhill House Irish Bistro offers Vancouver a fresh take on Irish cuisine

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      When Jeffrey Lenz suggested to his wife Jaime that they should open an Irish restaurant, she thought he had lost his marbles.

      "She looked at me and said, 'Are you crazy?' " he tells the Georgia Straight. "She goes 'There's no such thing as an Irish restaurant.'"

      His counter response? "Think about what you just said," he told her.

      After all, sure, there are Irish pubs aplenty, but is there such a thing as an Irish restaurant?

      Jaime, who is a Maple Ridge–born Irish Canadian, explains that Ireland faces the same challenge that Canada faces with its own cuisine: how do you define Irish food?

      Jeffrey and Jaime Lenz
      Craig Takeuchi

      "When people think Irish, people think meat and potatoes," she says, "and it translates very well to a pub setting partly because a lot of the Irish dishes, especially from Northern Ireland, are based in British food."

      Just as Canada has been overshadowed by the U.S., Jaime pointed out that Ireland has been heavily influenced by England and Scotland.

      However, after having explored restaurants across Ireland, she has observed that the country has been awakening to its own culinary identity.

      Accordingly, the couple wanted to serve up Irish cuisine that offers a modern spin while drawing upon Jaime's Irish roots.

      Her family hails from the village of Forkhill in County Armagh, Northern Ireland (near the east coast between Belfast and Dublin), where they had a flax mill, produced flour, and had a store selling Canadian grain. Being so close to the border, the area was rife with tensions between the north and south, as well as between Catholics and Protestants.

      During Ireland's Great Famine of the 1840s and '50s, she explains, Catholic and Protestant churches would offer food but required them to convert to their religion. However, her family took a different approach.

      "When people were really at the height of starvation, my [great] grandfather took it upon himself to put a cauldron in the front yard and his whole thinking was if you came and gave a day's work, then he had no problem feeding you," she says. "He didn't ask what religion you were. He didn't ask what affiliations [you had] to any groups. It was just 'Come and work for your food and I'll feed you—I've got the ability to.' And that's how it all went, as simple as that."

      Craig Takeuchi

      And now, Jeffrey says, they're applying that philosophy to 21st century Vancouver—which is quite appropriate for a multicultural and diverse population, not to mention timely considering the current socio-political climate.

      "It doesn't matter you believe in or where you're from," he says. "We don't care. Just come and have some good food and enjoy yourself."

      What Jeffrey brings to the table (literally and figuratively) is extensive restaurant industry experience, having worked in management at establishments like the Cannery, Joe Fortes, Aqua Riva, and Al Porto. Based on what he's learned over the years, he says his new restaurant will focus on high-quality food, wine, and service but remain unpretentious and unintimidating.

      "That's how you open an Irish restaurant," he says.

      Forkhill House Irish Bistro

      While he brought in executive chef Tannis Smith to create contemporary interpretations of Irish dishes, using locally sourced ingredients, Jaime also had an important role in the menu development.

      "It comes down to what I grew up eating and all those comfort foods and how to present them in a way that they weren't pub]-style] and Tannis has this incredible knowledge but I have food history and that's where I kind of come from," she said. "The only mandate was, 'Here's the Irish ingredients. Here's the food history and the feeling behind it. What can you make out of it?' "

      Jaime points out that British Columbia has food resources (especially when it comes to seafood) equivalent to those of the Emerald Isle, since both are coastal regions of similar latitudes. 

      "The dishes are easily translatable," she says.

      To open things up for Smith, they permitted her to explore some of Ireland's international culinary influences, from places like France, Spain, and Italy.

      What Smith came up with astounded Jaime.

      Think Irish stew is just chunks of beef or lamb with carrots, peas, and potatoes? Think again.

      "Tannis has now taken it where you're presented with this lamb shoulder that just sits up off the plate that says, 'Yes, I am this Irish stew and you are going to love me.' The first time I saw it, I had never seen anything like it."

      Forkhill House Irish Bistro's Irish stew ($18)
      Forkhill House Irish Bistro

      On paper, the idea of duck breast with walnut and Baileys Béarnaise sauce ($22) didn't sound like it would work. However, hearing about something isn't the same thing as tasting it, the couple soon found out.   

      They also drew upon recipes from Jaime's late father, who was a farmer.

      There's his mixed green salad with celery, apple, and smoked gouda in a caraway dressing ($11). They called it Robin's Boring Salad. Then there's the Less Boring Salad—devised by chef Smith—featuring paella and orzo with chorizo, salmon, prawns, and duck confit in a lemon basil vinaigrette ($14).

      The humorous names are part of their desire to be personal, unpretentious, and in keeping with Jaime's family.

      "We've always had this weird sense of humour," she says. "Very dry, like a British sense of humour, and we would explain things like that."

      That's also evident in their choice of name for their bangers and mash. The two bangers (that's sausages to you) are produced in Jaime's father's butcher shop in Maple Ridge, and were chosen to showcase her father's talent. Served with a mustard-based demi glaze, they come with baked duchess potatoes with melted Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and vegetables ($20).

      And what reverential name did they bestow upon it? Bang the Duchess.

      "In my realm, that would be completely acceptable and so I convinced them, 'No, you need to put it on the menu as Bang the Duchess,' " Jaime says. "You have to be able to laugh at it. That's what it's about. It's just comfort and accepting anything and everything that comes your way….We love a good laugh."

      The menu spans everything from appetizers, such as Scotch eggs with parmesan crusted fennel sausage and cilantro garlic sauce ($9), and shared plates like polenta frites with habanero marmalade ($4) or their popular bone marrow with pumpernickel crostini ($12), to entrées like grilled salmon or steelhead with a whiskey honey glaze, caviar, tomato rice, and vegetables ($17) or grilled beef tenderloin with onion gastrique, roast potatoes, and vegetables ($30).

      Jeffrey says that although they've started with a menu centred around comfort food for the current cold weather, things will change with the seasons, such as transitioning to lighter seafood dishes for spring.

      Craig Takeuchi

      Most of all, the Lenzes want to convey the smalltown intimacy that they experience in Maple Ridge.

      "We want to literally drag that feeling with us and get these people out of their buildings and get them into our building and get them to relax and decompress and enjoy and just feel and slow down," she says.

      It's in an apt location to do so. Straddled between the West End and Coal Harbour, the restaurant is situated in a house at 1616 Alberni Street, a quiet pause between the rush of Robson and the roar of West Georgia Street. With 3,000 square feet over two floors, it seats up to 100 people.

      The spot was formerly inhabited by The Fat Badger, which closed in January after a two-and-a-half year run serving British pub food, and the 35-year-old French fine-dining restaurant Le Gavroche. An Irish restaurant right next to the Indonesian consulate—you can't get more Vancouver that.

      Craig Takeuchi

      Decorated with family photographs and Irish-themed décor, the interiors deliver a homelike ambiance to an area where everyone lives in apartments or condos. That's all part of the plan—Jaime wants to provide a space for Vancouverites to remember what is slowly being pushed aside and forgotten.

      "When you go to dinner, it's not about rushing around. It's about sitting, relaxing, conversing, feeling, interacting," Jaime says. "And that is what being an Irishman is all about."

      Speaking of which, the grand opening on March 1 was well-timed. Of course, they'll be celebrating St. Patrick's Day (March 17) with prime rib roast with mashed potatoes, gravy, horseradish, and Yorkshire pudding ($30). It's available from 4 p.m. onward. Well then, it's certainly time to raise a pint of Guinness and say "Sláinte mhaith!" to welcome an underrepresented addition to Vancouver's culinary scene.

      You can follow Craig Takeuchi on Twitter at @cinecraig or on Facebook