A Vancouver Dine-athlon
Twenty-one restaurants in three days: That's my record. I'm not a competitive eater (if I were, that record would be 21 hot dogs in three minutes); I'm a semiprofessional one (I write about food for a living). I often find myself in an unfamiliar city, charged with the task of visiting as many bars and restaurants as possible in one weekend.
My latest trip took me to Vancouver, where more than 150 restaurants (including a handful from jet-setting superstar chefs) have opened in the past year. This surge can certainly be linked to the upcoming 2010 Winter Olympic Games, but it's also a testament to a dining culture that's moving beyond the authentic Asian restaurants it has long been famous for. Today, Vancouver is dominated by understated Italian spots with an extra-large devotion to local, seasonal ingredients, and upscale Asian food matched with equally impressive cocktails. My plan: to hit all the best new placesin just one weekend.
Wanting to embrace the Olympic spirit, I turn my trip into an athletic challenge, traveling from one restaurant to the next by bicycle. In the past I've run, hiked, pedaled and paddled to dinner. (Once, I even dog-sledded to a fancy restaurant on a particularly frozen Minnesota night.) So I begin my dine-athlon by procuring the fastest bike in stock at Spokes Bicycle Rentals, located at the entrance to Stanley Park, a 1,000-acre playground for the city's hyperactive, outdoorsy citizens.
Vancouver is a great place to explore on two wheels, given its compact layout, more than 200 miles of dedicated bike routes and spectacular skyline of shiny high-rises framed by the North Shore mountains. The seawall patha part of which runs nearly six miles around Stanley Parktakes me across a bridge into the Kitsilano neighborhood, a former hippie haven where chef Angus An has opened Maenam. An trained under David Thompson at London's famed Thai restaurant Nahm. Here, his menu doesn't stray very far from authentic Thai preparations, though he leaves room for local ingredients, like the halibut cheeks in a green curry sauce amped with spicy holy basil and crunchy pea eggplants. Even the most familiar dishes, like green papaya salad and pad thai, have a vibrancy I've never tasted in American Thai food.
Maenam, surprisingly, is also one of the city's best new cocktail spots. I pair my meal with the Siam Sun Ray, an electrolyte-loaded blend of vodka, lime and toasted-coconut juice infused with ginger. It's the perfect preworkout drink for a challenge like this, and I need the boost before I embark on a kayak tour of False Creek, an inlet south of downtown that takes me past some of the city's best beaches and Jetsons-like architecture, including the vast new Olympic Village.
The Diamond. Photo © Guy Roland.
Back on my bike, I ride through the cobblestone streets of the city's oldest neighborhood, Gastown, passing 19th-century buildings that now house art galleries, fashion boutiques and hip new restaurants and bars. The Diamond, a former speakeasy, overlooks Maple Tree Square and a statue of the unfortunately nicknamed Gassy Jack, a legendary saloon-keeper. Perusing the menu, which is inspired by the dishes served at izakayas (Japanese-style pubs), I settle on a banh mistyle sandwich filled with Chinese Peking duck and chicken and also order a side of pickled beets and hard-boiled eggs that come with Japanese mayonnaise and a pile of panko for dipping. The Diamond was opened this summer by three of Vancouver's craft-cocktail pioneers and the drinks menu consists mostly of original creations, divided into categories like "Boozy," "Proper" and "Delicate." I try the "Not So Boozy" Diamond Cup #6, a Pimm's Cuplike concoction stuffed with a fruit basket's worth of garnishes.
Changing out of spandex in a restaurant men's room and leaving a helmet at the coat check have long lost their awkwardnessfor me, at least. But my bike seat and jeans have been rubbing each other the wrong way, so I make a pit stop at Lululemon. The cultish yoga clothier originated in Vancouver, and I find my secret weapon at the flagship store: a pair of stretchy "Kahuna" workout pants disguised as gray slacks. I can thankfully now dine-and-ride without changing clothes when I drop in at the new restaurant outposts of two world-famous chefs.
Jean-Georges Vongerichten chose downtown's Asian-chic Shangri-La Hotel for his new Market, offering an anthology of dishes from his diverse restaurants. But Daniel Boulud one-upped him by taking over two of the city's best restaurants. Lumière is a miniaturization of Boulud's New York City flagship Daniel, with elaborate seasonal dishes, a mostly French wine menu and the hushed atmosphere of a library. It's so quiet, in fact, that I can hear the revelry next door at Boulud's DB Bistro Moderne, where plump Quadra Island mussels with chorizo and jalapeño are paired with inventive cocktails, like one that blends Wild Turkey bourbon with duck-fat-infused Grand Marnier.
I start the next morning by biking a hellishly hilly route up to Grouse Mountain, home of the Grouse Grind, a 1.8-mile hike/scramble to the summit. Hundreds of tourists complete the route each day, so how hard can it be? Hard enough to leave me an hour later with lifeless legs, wishing I'd carbo-loaded at the city's local-obsessed Italian restaurants.
Nick Fauchald takes a break. Photo © Geraldine Campbell.
One of these places, Campagnolo, is bravely located on a rather derelict strip of lower Main Street. Inside the bunkerlike space (with concrete-block walls and exposed wood beams), chefs Robert Belcham and Alvin Pillay apply fastidiously sourced local ingredients to the dishes of Italy's Piedmont and Emilia-Romagna regions, like my rigatoni with rabbit and spinach. I also try some of the excellent house-made salumi and a thick hunk of salmon ("Caught last night," my waiter says) with a crisp skin that almost shatters under my fork.
A crosstown bike ride brings me to the city's best pizza at Nook, a casual new joint hidden on the izakaya-packed Denman Street in the West End. Everything here is uncomplicated and deceptively understated, from the concise, almost-all-Italian wine selection (a bottle or two of British Columbian wine has been included to uphold the locavore mentality) to the brief list of chalkboard specials that flaunt chef Mike Jeffs's love for British Columbian ingredients. A moment after I sit down at the counter, my server slides me a bowl of BC cherry tomatoes. Healthy bar snacks? "Why screw with them?" he asks. He follows them with more free tastes: a few shavings of salami from nearby Oyama Sausage Company. The pizza is as promised: a puffy, charred crust topped with a generous pile of prosciutto, arugula and roasted garlic. I finish the entire thing.
But I've paced myself poorly. Needing to slow things down, I switch gears for a leisurely 25-minute ride to Kitsilano to scope out La Quercia. Co-chefs Adam Pegg and Lucais Syme have turned an unassuming little dining room into one of Vancouver's most in-demand reservations. The succinct menu is resolutely Italian and bolstered by a lengthy "fresh sheet" of market-inspired specials, like braised lamb neck with anchovy-caper sauce. I order a spicy and exceptional (though not exceptionally spicy) spaghetti all'amatriciana, known here as "the midnight special" because it's the staff's preferred post-service meal. By now, it's close enough to midnight that I consider myself an honorary member.
My final morning in Vancouver isquite literallya race to the finish. I have two hours to bike downtown and visit Medina, one of the city's few serious brunch places. I bypass the crowd standing outside, snag the lone seat at the bar and order before I'm even handed a menu. Medina has a reputation for its crispy Belgian waffles with inventive toppings like white chocolate with pistachio and rosewater and fig-orange marmalade. But it also excels in all things eggy, like the fricassee, a cast-iron skillet of fried eggs oozing over a bed of shredded short ribs, roasted potatoes, caramelized onions, arugula and smoked cheddar. It's gooey and delicious, the perfect victory meal. I haven't toppled my personal record on this trip, but I'm looking forward to my next visit, which I'm planning as a leisurely marathon rather than an all-out sprint.
Nick Fauchald is the editor in chief of Tasting Table, a daily epicurean e-mail.