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Whirlwind Vancouver Food Tour, Day 1


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On the way home from my recent hiking trip in Oregon, I squeezed in an ever-so-brief trip to Vancouver. I made it into town in time for a quick dim sum lunch at Kirin, a Mandarin restaurant I hadn't visited before (quite good), but the main event of Day 1 was a check-up visit with David Hawksworth at the restaurant formerly known as Ouest.

Now that Ouest has refashioned itself as West (rumor has it the next incarnation will be only a symbol: the Westerly aimed compass point), with more of an emphasis on Pacific Northwest cuisine, the question on everybody's mind is, "Is it still as good?"

Based on this experience I would say yes. West is aiming to capture a larger audience than Ouest and so David Hawksworth is cooking a wider range of dishes in a wider range of styles. There is some casual brunchy fare available that will not necessarily appeal to Ouest die-hards (e.g., eggs "princess," with smoked salmon and salmon roe) but which will no doubt improve the bottom line of West therefore allowing it to stay open, stay affordable, and keep putting out the really good stuff for us. If you are ever in any doubt, just invoke the special gourmet code (see the inside of your decoder ring) with the waitstaff and the chef will prepare you a multi-course degustation in the grand Ouest tradition even at lunchtime, even at the bar. Hawksworth is a chef who likes a challenge. Challenge him.

The restaurant has been renovated physically as well as conceptually, with a large picture window pouring light in from the street (in summer there is daylight this far north until very late) and a more casual, accessible feel overall. When I visited Ouest-now-West shortly after it opened, it was mostly empty. Vancouverites clearly felt it too stuffy. Return visits were the same, despite a few half-hearted attempts to make the place more casual such as the earth-shattering move from white to gray tablecloths. But this time around the book was almost full and by the time I left the place was slamming. I also saw my first-ever West walk-in customer. A couple walked past the big windows, did a double take, read the menu, and inquired about a table. The hostess said there was only one table left, the one directly across from the open kitchen. The couple wasn't happy about that and, after pestering the hostess a little, departed, pouting melodramatically. Three minutes later, their bluff having been called, they returned and slinked into the table. Within minutes they were yakking it up with the chef and having a grand old time. This is really the best table in the house for those who want the full Hawksworth experience. By the end of the evening, after some prodding from the couple, Hawksworth had instructed them on proper ring-mold-unmolding technique and West had won some new customers. They left triumphantly, gushing to the hostess they had earlier snubbed. Mind you I thought the restaurant was just fine the old more formal way, but Vancouver is Vancouver and this new look is what people like. As long as I can get the same old food it's no skin off my back.

I asked the chef if I could come a little early and hang out with him in the kitchen so as to photograph other people's food before having my own dinner. "No problem," he said, as if to indicate he thought I was quite batty (I feel I am getting that reaction too often in life; I wonder if there is a message here?). Having been in a few restaurant kitchens now, I can say that the kitchen at West is a first-class operation. There are few theoretical limits to what can be accomplished with this kind of equipment, space, and staffing, and the ingredients being used at West reflect the bounty of British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest: vibrant stuff. The West team handles everything with great care, it is all laid out and presented just so, and Hawksworth despite his youth is an old-school perfectionist. Most of the dishes are heavily engineered and rigorously plated but they come out looking simple and casual.

So, what we're looking at here is mushroom cappuccino with porcini powder.

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This is the amuse bouche of carrot and ginger veloute.

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One of Hawksworth's signatures is the parfait of Quebec foie gras and chicken livers with golden apple jelly -- a big slab of the stuff placed in a pool of the jelly -- accompanied by toasted brioche. Upon a quick review of all the West menus, this is the one dish that appears on all of them.

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Roast wild salmon with a leek and soya bean salad, tomato and fennel vinaigrettes. This is an entree on the current a la carte dinner menu.

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Lamb sirloin with fresh English peas and fava beans. I think this is from the "land" tasting menu (there are three pre-set tasting menus, plus Hawksworth will do surprise menus upon request). What you see in the copper pot there is a jus made with lamb bones and trim, fennel, onion, garlic, carrots, tomatoes, celery, thyme and white wine, veal and chicken stocks, simmered for 3 hours, reduced and passed 3 times. These is the kind of labor-intensive cooking that, while it yields simple-seeming results, cannot be recreated via shortcuts. I do not believe anybody else in Vancouver is putting this kind of effort into dishes and it is for me what has distinguished West/Ouest from Lumiere, which is also excellent and is much more attention-grabbing but lacks the Hawksworth discipline.

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Before I get to my meal, a story: I had all these photos on an IBM Microdrive and I don't have the right adapter on my computer for that so I asked Fat Guy aka Steven aka the Husband to upload and process the images on his PC. I was off by two frames when I told him where the West photos started, so what he wound up seeing was two dim sum plates from Kirin. Fat Guy has not been to the post-Ouest West so for him the photos were his eyes and ears on my meal. His reaction upon seeing the photos, shouted out across the apartment, was, "What the fuck with Hawksworth's new dishes? What is it a Chinese restaurant now? I knew this whole 'West' thing was going to be a disaster." Oops.

So, my meal. Had I known I was getting a special amuse, I would have stolen one of those demitasse cups of carrot-ginger veloute, but I don't feel too bad because I did much better: Yellowfin tuna, kumquat, and cucumber jus. Beautiful crisp spring flavors. This is really an amuse version of a dish on West's "small plates" menu. Apparently Hawksworth is a tuna fanatic and rejects 1/4 of the deliveries even from the best fishmongers.

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Warm spot prawn salad (spot prawns are just about my favorite local ingredient) served in a globe artichoke with tomato jam and arugula pesto. Again, spring was on the plate. I couldn't find this on any menu; it appears to have been improvised.

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Steamed snapper with crispy greens, peanut, shallot, and tarragon vinaigrette. The mixture under the fish consists of toasted and crushed peanuts mixed with tomato, shallots, white wine vinegar, tarragon, chives, and chervil. Somebody get me Larousse on Sauce Bois Bourdin. This dish was another winner right up my alley: light, with that crispness and acidity that I love to see in haute cuisine. This also from the "small plates" menu.

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Hawksworth decided to push the edge of my envelope with this dish. He knew I didn't favor calamari, but he was adamant I taste some of what he insisted was the cream-of-the-crop product-wise in the calamari pecking order. He referred to this as "disco shellfish" on account of the wild yellow color. A fricassee of Manila clams and golden mussels with saffron (a lot of saffron), topped with crispy squid. I think this was a special of the day, based on an available ingredient.

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The meat dish was roast lamb with a soft herb "crust" and young vegetables. A classic Hawksworth entree and a great piece of lamb -- I'm very picky about lamb. You'll notice the olive oil drizzled around, it's very good and I got him to cough up the 411 on his supplier: http://www.basiloliveoil.com

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Desserts, I'm afraid, didn't photograph well -- all were white on white. But West's pastry chef is serious. I'll try to do that part of the meal justice if I can get back there in the fall. In addition to the desserts, there's a nice cheese selection, half Canadian and half European. The Canadian offerings include David Wood's Salt Spring Island Marcella, which is superb, served with warm walnut raisin bread and spiced pear compote.

Here's the way the restaurant looks just after opening, with the late-afternoon light streaming in.

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This is what it's like when it's hopping.

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And here's the man himself.

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One final thought on West:

Even with the Canadian dollar "strong" right now, $63 Canadian is a mere $46 US. That's the cost of a tasting menu at West. I cannot believe you could find a menu on that level for anywhere less than about $85 US in New York, which would translate back to $116 Canadian. Again this is with the Canadian dollar at a recent record high. There is also a 10-course grand menu at West for $95 Canadian (about $69 US) that includes foie gras. On the a la carte side, dinner appetizers are in the Canadian low teens and entrees are all under $30 Canadian save for two. Almost everything on the "small plates" menu is under $10 Canadian. In other words the value is excellent.

Click here for Day 2 >>

Ellen Shapiro

www.byellen.com

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Those photos are excellent. They look incredibly 3-dimensional on my monitor. The clams and mussels in saffron were reaching out to me. Please keep travelling, eating and sharing with all of us.

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Wow Ellen, what a treat! Beautiful pictures. The food looks great. The salmon...the lamb... too bad about the desserts. Was there any cheese from Quebec?

I just love West. If I lived in Vancouver, I'd hang out there all the time.

Thanks. :smile:

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Credit for the photos belongs to David Hawksworth and the Canon corporation. I just push the button. But I'm glad you all like them and I've got some more coming from Vij's and Joe Fortes.

Lesley, I was about to say yes there is a Quebec cheese on the list but then I looked up the one I assumed was from French Canada (Jean Grogne) and it turns out to be French-French. So no, there are no Quebec cheeses on the list. That strikes me as odd now that I think about it.

Mapledale Cheddar, Ottawa Valley

5 year Aged Cheddar, Slightly Nutty Flavor

Comte Juraflore, France 

Creamy Cow's milk cheese, Sweet Flavor

Tuxford and Tebutt Stilton, England 

Cow's Milk Blue Cheese, Rich and Mellow

Natural Pastures Camembert, Comox Valley BC 

Local Made Young Camembert, Soft and Creamy Texture

Jean Grogne, Siene et Marne 

Triple Cream Whole Milk Cheese

David Woods Saltspring Island Marcella, BC 

local made goats cheese, firm texture

Ellen Shapiro

www.byellen.com

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Great photos and review. I feel that I have to divulge that Chioffi's in Burnaby are selling the 2002 Eleni olive oil in bulk. It is fabulous. I doubt anyone who lives in Vancouver is reading this anyway judging by the activity on this board, but if you are, and you care about great ingredients get down there and buy it before it is all gone.

My love for West has been expressed in a previous posting, your photos make me long to return.

David Cooper

"I'm no friggin genius". Rob Dibble

http://www.starlinebyirion.com/

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Mind if I ask a couple question about the photos?

Please, go ahead!

- What brand and model camera did you use?

Canon D60, which is a 6.3 megapixel digital SLR. These photos were shot with a 50mm F1.4 Canon USM lens.

- Did you use the built-in flash or existing lighting?

Neither, for the most part. The food photos are all with external flash. The last one is, I think, the only one done with ambient light only. The one before that is with flash. The one before that may be filled in with flash. If you are very interested I can go into the raw images and pull out all the exposure, flash, shutter speed, etc., data for you on any image you like. In my kit I keep two Canon 550EX Speedlites, which are fairly large and powerful flashes, and a wireless Speedlite transmitter. That means I have the option of shooting with one flash on the camera, one flash on the camera and one flash off the camera operating in slave mode, or two flashes off the camera triggered by the wireles E-TTL transmitter. These permutations address a lot of the glare, reflection, and shadow issues that one faces with a built-in flash. (The 550EXs are even powerful enough to be stand-mounted with my umbrellas provided the umbrellas are placed close to the subject, and I also carry two mini-diffusers that can mount on the flashes to cut glare.)

Thanks :smile:

You're welcome. :biggrin:

Ellen Shapiro

www.byellen.com

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Equipment is overrated, though. Not to get too sidetracked on a photography discussion (we can do a new topic if you like), the main advantage of a lot of good equipment is that it makes it easier to take a large number of decent photos quickly and reliably. In other words it's essential for a working photojournalist to have a certain level of gear in order to capture images on the spot and consistently. But good equipment won't magically make your pictures good, and a competent photographer will get usable pictures even with basic consumer-level equipment. Options will be more limited, lighting will be more of a challenge, and it's really tough to control depth of field (aka aperture, which helps give dimensionality to photos by controlling focus contrast between foreground and background), but good photos can be had. That's especially true on the Web. Though I'm shooting at 6.3 megapixels, it's totally unnecessary. The photos above are 600 pixels wide. The images my camera takes are 3072 pixels wide. That's quite a lot of overkill for snapshots. Even the cheapest 1.3 megapixel camera shoots at 1280x960 -- double the resolution you're seeing here. The average consumer camera at 4.0 megapixels shoots 2272x1704. More than enough even for 5x7 prints. Of course there are other factors too, like quality of sensor, but really you can get some great shots with digital point-and-shoot cameras.

Ellen Shapiro

www.byellen.com

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I bought some of the organic Eleni olive oil at the Gourmet Warehouse about a month ago when they were offering some free tasting samples. I think if I had hung around the tasting table any longer they would have kicked me out of the store :biggrin: - it is indeed wonderful stuff & is worth every penny.

If you live in the Vancouver or lower mainland area their web site gives a long list of stores that carry their product.

It is delicious!

Life is short, eat dessert first

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