When the announcement came that Daniel Boulud and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, two of the world’s most respected chefs, were opening restaurants in Vancouver, the city’s fooderati nearly choked on their sablefish in delight. Vancouver’s food bloggers and food journalists saw to it that every stage of the three new restaurants (Boulud is involved in two), from decor and staffing to menu development, was analyzed. The great chefs’ arrivals were seen as confirmation that Vancouver was now the dining destination in Canada and would put the city in the ranks of legendary culinary capitals like Hong Kong, Paris, Tokyo and New York. (Though one observer who felt it best to remain anonymous did express some dismay: “When Boulud came and did the press launch it was absolutely grotesque how much ass-kissing was going on.”) On a recent visit to Vancouver I wanted to see what had happened after the splashy openings, when the day-to-day people were in charge.
The least formal of the three restaurants is DB Bistro Moderne. The room feels vaguely retro and cinematic in its design. A zinc-top bar and oxblood leather chairs suggest classic bistro, while a partition of smoked glass dividing the main dining room from a wine-lined private area, and a soundtrack that mixes angular jazz with remixed reggae, indicates a more adventurous bent. This blending of classic and contemporary is carried through in the cuisine—overseen by long-time Boulud chef Stephane Istel. All of the bistro dishes purists expect—an exemplary steak frites, coq au vin—are in evidence, but it’s not all cuisine grandmère. Grilled tuna comes with an Eastern bent in the form of cucumber mint raita and spicy harissa. One of Boulud’s most notorious creations, the DB Burger, is also on the menu, but in a relatively more reasonable $28 version, without the option of the US$150 burger they serve in New York. The version offered here is unfortunate: the foie gras filling is a cold slippery mess, the braised short ribs stringy, the truffle non-evident. Overall the food is expertly executed, but at times can feel a bit soulless. Once the novelty of having a Boulud restaurant in town wears off, perhaps we’ll see chef Istel assert more of his own personality into the food.
Across town in the Shangri-La hotel, Vongerichten’s Market has quickly established itself as the place to see and be seen, thanks primarily to its downtown location and slick, intimate bar. A supergroup of Vancouver hospitality was gathered from well-known restaurants around the city, bringing a built-in clientele. Vongerichten’s menu is basically a compendium of his most famous dishes: rice-cracker-crusted tuna, warm asparagus salad with truffle vinaigrette and Hollandaise, grilled rack of lamb with smoked chili glaze and oyster mushrooms. The best dishes—an ethereal sea urchin and yuzu toast with jalapeno, the richest butternut squash soup imaginable, rich and sticky soy-glazed short ribs with apple-jalapeno purée and rosemary crumbs—are thrilling. Such triumphs make the duds—an amateurish red snapper with black beans, avocado, sake and ginger, a flabby foie gras brûlée—seem even more disappointing. Still, with nearly all of the entrees coming in under $30, the restaurant is priced comparably with the rash of “upscale casual” restaurants that have broken out all over B.C. Market outshines the best of them.
Lumière is easily the most ambitious and luxurious of the three. Heading up the kitchen is Dale MacKay, a young chef who worked at Gordon Ramsay’s New York restaurant. The 40-seat dining room’s air of hushed reverence is aided by the sound-dampening effect of a carpet that feels about three feet deep. Dinner begins with a series of three exquisite and minuscule amuse-bouches that look like they were assembled with a microscope and tweezers. Such intricacy continues through geometrically precise rectangular solids of squab, diaphanous shavings of baby vegetables, glistening spheres of seared beef, and a tiny quenelle of pina colada ice cream. There are some beautiful flavours but all the fussy manipulation becomes a bit exhausting. The best way to experience the restaurant might be to skip the multi-course overload and arrive early for the Taste of B.C. menu. A manageable three courses priced at $55, it represents one of the best high-end dining values in the city.
Whether the famous chefs produce the kind of culinary Bilbao effect—attracting hungry patrons from around the world—the city is hoping for is an open question. For now, however, it’s the diners who are winning.