When most people think of high end Vancouver restaurants, they light upon Hawksworth. The restaurant was named Restaurant of the Year by Maclean’s; its eponymous owner, the youngest chef inducted into the B.C. Restaurant Hall of Fame. David Hawksworth was selected, among all Canadian chefs, to partner with Air Canada to bolster the offerings for the airline’s business class international flights and lounges, and then used his cachet to successfully market the program. To my mind, Hawksworth restaurants are the Mark McEwans of Vancouver: expensive, pretentious, dull and safe.
Interestingly enough, Hawksworth made his name opening the restaurant I believe is Vancouver’s best. That was back before he was famous, before he left for Europe to hone his talents at Michelin-starred restaurants, returning to provide a glitzy but somewhat homogenized Canadian dining experience.
So what do I think is the best restaurant that Vancouver has to offer? And who is Canada’s most undiscovered great chef?
Quang Dang of West. Ironically, Chef Dang (half Vietnamese, half Scottish) once worked for Hawksworth as a sous chef.
Dang has cooked at some of Vancouver’s most innovative restaurants: Diva at the Met at its height, and the unfortunately departed C Restaurant, once Canada’s answer to New York’s Le Bernardin.
In 2003, Dang went to the international cooking competition at Bocuse D’Or in Lyon, France to compete against the greatest chefs in the world. His ranking was only middling but he has gotten so much better since.
When he’s not working, Dang spends his spare time studying cookbooks, which his partner complains fills their house, about 3,000 of them in all. It shows.
I always start my meal at West with my favourite cocktail, A Passage to India, curry-infused three-year old rum, mango purée mixed with vodka and simple syrup, lemon juice, crushed ice and lime skin on top. A wonderful touch of heat and refreshment.
Chef Dang started our recent meal with Kusshi oysters from Deep Bay, Vancouver Island, with fresh wild raspberries, watercress and herb oil (all local, of course). I would not have thought that raspberries would go so well with oysters, with the watercress adding a touch of bitterness. Next, coho salmon — it is Vancouver after all — from Haida Gwaii, salmon roe from the same fish, watermelon radish, citrus herb puree with serrano pepper, wild sorrel and three different types of mint.
The salmon had been cured lightly overnight with a sugar and salt cure and herbs, and slightly torched at the end, giving the flavour a little snap. Next course was Vancouver Island scallops with B.C. chanterelles, cherries from the Okanagan, celeriac puree, shaved summer squash and a chanterelle jus.
Then came a side striped prawn from Cape Scott at the northernmost tip of Vancouver Island, a smoked potato agnolotti, charred onions and a pickled potato and chive butter sauce with a garnish of fennel tips.
Then, sablefish (Alaskan black cod) with two types of seaweed, daikon, shimeji mushroom and the lees, or rice mash, from Granville Island sake, Masa. For garnish, squid ink crisp, toasted seaweed and red onion chips.
The dessert was an angel food cake with fresh local strawberries and a house made strawberry ice cream — an airy white flour cake with egg white wrapped in a crepe, so light and summery. This is not farm-to-table or 100 mile diets for the sake of cachet, branding or being politically correct. It is the use of very local ingredients (the restaurant is a kilometre from the Pacific) because they are fresh and unadulterated and then having the craft and creativity to make them sparkle with flavour.
Why is West not jammed every night?
The main problem is that it is located on a retail strip of Granville Avenue, inauspiciously between the Granville Bridge and the airport. When you walk in and out, you do not feel you are in a particularly happening part of town. Much restaurant buzz relates to diners viewing themselves as part of a scene. Here, even the décor is dated, with nothing cool about it. You are not in Yaletown, Gastown or even the increasingly cool east end. But it is still the best food in the city and well worth the pilgrimage.