Monday, January 17, 2011

An Offer I Couldn't Refuse, Pt. 2: Having a Gas

Time for some history:

More than once we heard Vancouver, BC, referred to as the "City of Glass" after the legions of windowed towers that dominate the city proper. The original settlement, however, was much more humble. Called Gastown, it was named after gold prospector, riverboat captain and saloon keeper John "Gassy Jack" Deighton (statue, above). It was reincorporated as the City of Vancouver in 1886, though less than two months later the entire city was burned to the ground by an out-of-control brush-clearing fire. Whoops.

The two surviving buildings formed the core of the city's rebuilding efforts, and the neighborhood known as Gastown grew and prospered into the 20th century until developers' attention wandered to other, more lucrative ventures. Like many historic districts, it fell into disrepair, neglected by all but the city's least fortunate citizens. But, as happened in many urban centers in the 1960s and 70s, just as the mania for so-called "urban renewal" was about to level it, a dedicated group of citizens organized a campaign to save the area and Gastown was declared a historic district in 1971.

Like Portland's Old Town, at first it was a huge tourist draw, though it struggled with drug and gang activity for decades. Then, about five years ago, new entrepreneurs were drawn to the area by attractive rents and a reflowering began.

Our tour began with a preview of Big Lou's Butcher Shop, a venture by neighborhood restaurateurs Karl Gregg and Allan Bosomworth (left) (see Two Chefs and a Table, below) that was scheduled to open in  the next couple of days. Advertised as a nose-to-tail butcher shop, the partners are sourcing their meat from area farms like Polderside Farms, Sloping Hill Farm, Pemberton Meadows Beef and Heritage Valley Farm. Though they aren't curing or dry-aging their own meats yet, they do share a cold storage facility with other suppliers and plans are in the works for an expanded list of house-made products. What they do have is a meat-case full of very large hunks of animal flesh and sausages made in-house, and a menu of specialty sandwiches. Details: Big Lou's Butcher Shop, 269 Powell St., Vancouver, BC. 604-566-9229.

A couple of blocks away Karl and Allan had done a quick change into their chef coats and were talking us through the menu at Two Chefs and a Table, a bistro as well as a catering and event planning company. Like many of the restaurants we visited, it's dedicated to showcasing local, sustainable products as much as possible in this northerly climate. Or, as Karl said, "Someone calls and says they've got 300 pounds of tuna and we'll change the menu." The open kitchen isn't surprising, but the reason they have one is, according to Gregg. "It's so you can smell the food before it comes to you," he said. As to why they recently added a full brunch on the weekend, he said, "It's because I like a good brunch." Any wonder that I'm putting this tiny place at the top of my list of must-visit restaurants on our next trip north? Details: Two Chefs and a Table, 305 Alexander St., Vancouver, BC. 778-233-1303.

The next three Gastown spots we visited were owned by Gastown mover-and-shaker Mark Brand, who looks like he just stepped out of a Scorsese gangster movie. Sea Monstr Sushi occupies a long, narrow brick-walled space where the disembodied heads of the sushi chefs hover behind the service bar-cum-seating area. Your orders are placed along the top of the counter as they're plated, the lighting specifically designed to spotlight the food at each place. Details: Sea Monstr Sushi, 55 Powell St., Vancouver, BC. 604-681-2144.

The Diamond has that slightly dangerous, speakeasy vibe, only enhanced by its narrow, gated entrance at street level. From there it's a climb up a darkened staircase to a windowed room that feels like it's straight out of a turn-of-the-century brothel. Which, according to Brand (photo above), at one time it was. In the second-oldest building in Vancouver, the story goes that it survived the 1886 fire only because it was the favorite bordello of the city's firefighters, once again proving that it's not what you know, it's who has a big firehose (so to speak). Also a bartending school, it offers classes from beginner to expert, which accounts for the plethora of stoppered bottles of house-made bitters and infusions behind the bar. Though the drinks are the focus, the food is also rumored to be good, consisting of small plates meant to be shared. The one disappointment? We didn't get to go into the secret room behind the bar where guest bartenders test their latest creations. Details: The Diamond, 6 Powell St. 604-408-2891.

A favorite of reviewers and the public alike, Boneta is the third jewel in Brand's crown, one he shares with partners Neil Ingram and Jeremie Bastien. It's named after Brand's mother, though he lays the creative spelling of her name at his grandmother's feet. Consistently excellent quality is a hallmark of this casual French dining spot, its hottest selling items being the bison carpaccio and the very (French) Canadian poutine of crispy fries, Okanagan cheese curds and a salty brown gravy. The rest of the menu changes regularly to reflect seasonal availability, with one reviewer calling 29-year-old chef Bastien's menues "youthful, exuberant, unbuttoned." This is not expected to change when the restaurant moves to its new location a few blocks away in the historic Garage building in mid-February. Details: Boneta, (new location) 12 Water St., Vancouver, BC. 604-684-1844.

Not that I'm a big fan of restaurant taglines, but the three words attached to Gastown newcomer Cork & Fin are "Eat. Drink. Local." Owners Elliott Hashimoto and Francis Regio shop local waters and pastures for the fresh seafood and meat featured in their restaurant, preferring to have relationships with small family purveyors over larger distributors.  Their $30 three-course prix fixe menu is said to be one of the best deals in the city. Not only that, but they actually encourage customers to share it with a dining companion. And in warmer weather, the whole front of the restaurant opens up to spill onto the sidewalks, sharing some of that seafaring ambience with the rest of the city. Details: Cork & Fin, 221 Carral St., Vancouver, BC. 604-569-2215.

As if a tour of six restaurants in one afternoon wasn't enough, we were scheduled to attend a preview of the Vancouver Tales of the Cocktail event at the hotel before dinner at L'Abattoir back in Gastown. After sampling an authentic (and perfect) Sazerac made by Jay Jones of Pourhouse*, served in an antique glass from his personal collection, we hopped (or was it stumbled?) into taxis and were whisked over to L'Abattoir where bartender Shaun Layton "crossed the wood" with a cocktail, the Loire Sidecar, that he recreated from the menu at the Hemingway Bar in Paris. (He's also known for collecting antique crystal glassware and bar tools, so if you want to make friends fast, start complimenting him on his selection.) Chef Lee Cooper's menu tends toward traditional preparations with totally fresh ingredients, with all sauces, pastas, breads and even fresh cheeses made in-house. His baked sablefish with mushrooms was fabulous and prompted a spirited discussion of naming fish for marketing purposes (sablefish is also called butterfish or black cod, though it's no relation to the true cod). The brick-walled dining room is on two levels, with the bar one the first level and a glass atrium that would be an ideal hideaway for murmured, romantic conversations. Details: L'Abattoir, 217 Carrall St., Vancouver, BC. 604-568-1701.

For more from my culinary tour of this gorgeous city, see Part 1: An Offer I Couldn't Refuse and Part 3: A Grand Tour.

*Jay Jones has since accepted a position at the bar at Market by Jean-Georges at the Shangri-La Hotel.

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