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Whirlwind Vancouver Food Tour, Day 2, Lunch


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Joe Fortes is one of my favorite restaurants. Eating there reminds me of a sign that used to hang from the awning of the Al Buon Gusto red-sauce Italian restaurant on West 72nd Street in Manhattan: "Not Fancy, Just Good." Al Buon Gusto wasn't particularly good, but Joe Fortes is.

Ever since discovering Joe Fortes with Fat Guy aka Steven a few years ago I've gone every time I've been in Vancouver, sometimes more than once per trip.

The story of us meeting chef Brian Fowke (pronounced sort of like "folk") is best told in Fat Guy's National Post article from August 18, 2001. He starts by saying how great he thinks Vancouver is as a food city, and goes on to tell the story:

I came to this realization not at the standard luminaries -- Diva, Bacchus, Ouest, Bishop's, Tojo's or Lumière (I expect the ingredients to be good at those places) -- but rather at one of Vancouver's most unpresupposing restaurants: Joe Fortes Seafood & Chop House. A favourite local hangout, the cavernous and raucous Joe Fortes is exactly the kind of place my nitpicky restaurant reviewer's radar tells me to avoid.

Surely, I thought, upon being dragged to Joe Fortes at the insistence of a friend, this is at best a decent place to grab a beer. I may have raised an eyebrow upon seeing what appeared to be an atypically comprehensive wine list (this will happen to you almost everywhere you go in Vancouver), but it was not until I came face-to-face with one of Joe Fortes' multi-tiered seafood plateaus (called "Lifeguard Towers" for the restaurant's namesake, who was, among other things, Vancouver's first lifeguard) that I found I would have to set aside my preconceptions. For Joe Fortes' seafood is as good as can be, and certainly better than anything I've had lately in Paris. Each oyster was intact, having never -- it seemed -- lost a drop of its liquid, and the local spot prawns are surely the apex of that species.

Joe Fortes represented a turning point in my thinking about Vancouver precisely because it's not a top-tier fine-dining establishment. After all, almost any city can support a few good restaurants based on tourist dollars. The acid test of excellence is when quality penetrates the second tier -- when the local hangouts serve the best.

So impressed was I by Joe Fortes, that I took the unusual step of asking the restaurant's young chef, Brian Fowke, to take me fish shopping. After all, cuisine is only as good as its ingredients, and I wanted to see what Vancouver was made of. Too early the next morning, Fowke hauled me out to a nondescript industrial park to meet Mark Rossum of Seattle-based Ocean Beauty Seafood.

"You want to know what's going on in the restaurant biz, talk to suppliers," explains Rossum, who was annoyingly peppy given the hour. "Ocean Beauty wouldn't be growing its business here if Vancouver wasn't the place to be right now." After surveying much of Ocean Beauty's inventory, including nearly 20 varieties of oysters and the season's very first catch of Copper River salmon, I can say unequivocally that Vancouver is one of the world's best places to eat fish.

(reprinted with authorization)

Chef Fowke didn't know I was coming, but he was (as he often is) watching over the dining room when I arrived and, after a puzzled look and a "What are you doing here?", we quickly plotted a course of action: we wanted to have a small piece of each of the best things available that day, minus bivalves which I don't favor (which apparently is my loss, Joe Fortes being the top place in town for oysters in a town that is itself tops for oysters).

You don't expect to find a chef like Brian Fowke in a place like Joe Fortes but sometimes preconceived notions can be deceiving. I'm learning slowly that not all of the most gifted and talented chefs choose to work in "fine dining" restaurants. I bet Brian makes a really good living and has a lot of fun as Executive Chef at a big operation like Joe Fortes. He could I'm sure run a haute cuisine restaurant but he seems happy doing what he's doing. Don't be surprised, someday, to see him take over a really big hotel operation or something like that.

One of the delights of Joe Fortes is the way it can adapt to any level of experience. You can go at lunchtime and for $9.75 (Canadian) you can get one of the blue plate specials like the Tuesday special of Mediterranean fish soup, you can get basic dinner entrees (a piece of fish prepared and sauced any which way) for $20-$30 depending on the fish. Or you can push into the higher levels of product and variety, like a three-tiered raw-bar platter for $145 (which will feed several people) or the West Coast platter for $98 (grilled lobster, king crab legs, oysters, etc., for two people) or a customized creation based on availability and whim. Mind you the place is big, really big, so if you want to do something special it's best to call ahead and reach out to the chef so he can take care of you. Some of our friends from North Carolina were in Vancouver last year and followed that instruction, and had a very special meal.

The other delight of Joe Fortes is that it has always exceeded my expections (JJ Goode's recent article on expectations comes to mind). It's such a deceptively casual place that I don't exactly think of it when I think of "Vancouver's top tables," yet when I finish a meal there I always marvel at what I just ate. The thing is that unlike some fish house places Joe Fortes is not just selling commodities to which heat has been applied. There is real cooking going on in the kitchen, some of it very high level cooking.

This first platter (we did everything family style) contains sauteed Baja scallops from Ensenada, in Mexico. They weigh in at four scallops per pound (U-4 in scallop parlance) and are cooked with EVOO, butter and lemon oil. The sauce is a blood orange beurre blanc with sorrel, shallots, roasted garlic, leeks and a halibut-fennel stock. The garnishes are local hothouse grape tomatoes, fresh whole basil leaves (also local), and California grapes. The sauces at Joe Fortes are the big surprises because, while one might expect good seafood product at Vancouver's largest seafood restaurant (that's the way the market works: big players can demand the best, if they want to), one would not expect sauces of this level of complexity. A little more on technique later.

joes1.jpg

The scallops were really just a snack, because the kitchen needed awhile to put together the real meal in the format we had conceived it. I'll use Brian's words to describe the technique behind this dish:

I really went "old school" on this dish. I was lucky enough to meet up with Anton Mosimann when I was an apprentice. The Chef I trained under worked at the Dorchester Hotel in London. On our menu we had a seafood medley with a saffron tea, quark cheese, chive and yogurt sauce. Anton specialized in Cuisine Natural. He never used creams, alcohol or fats in his cooking. It was truly amazing to see the flavours he created with these limitations. He relied on enhancing the natural flavours and fortifying them with fresh herbs, citrus and savories. We used a lot of reductions of stocks for poaching, natural purees, etc.

I poached all the fish in a prawn stock court boullion for 2-1/2 minutes. The saffron/yogurt sauce was finished with fresh thyme, chives, sorrel, and tomato concassé, and thinned to consistency with prawn stock.

(About Anton Mosimann)

On the platter we have those same U-4 Baja scallops, Salt Spring Island mussels (I was forced to eat them and was pleasantly surprised), North West Territories arctic char, Yellowfin tuna from Hawaii, Texas gulf (pink) shrimp, PEI lobster, first-of-the-season asparagus from Aldergrove, BC, and local baby carrots.

joes2.jpg

Finally, for dessert, Alaskan king crab claws -- claws, mind you, not legs; I'm not aware of anybody else in the area doing this. The chef was inspired by the Florida stone crab phenomenon ("As a young cook I lived in Toronto. We would take road trips down to Florida every winter with a group of apprentice cooks. We would always end up at Joe's Stone Crab. The claws were inspirational. We would eat our fill and move on for oysters, chitlins and Andouille down the beach.") and wanted to create a Pacific Northwest equivalent. These were served with a sweet ground mustard mayonnaise and lime. The meat is tender, sweet, and briny, more enjoyable to me than the legs.

joes3.jpg

joes4.jpg

Life was good.

<< Click here for Day 1 -- Click here for Day 2, Dinner >>

Ellen Shapiro

www.byellen.com

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I think it's wonderful that Chef Fowke prepares these fabulous meals for you and the Fat Guy. Believe me the rest of us (the non beautiful people) get cold, uninteresting food, dirty cutlery and poor service every time we go to Joe Fortes. Bellieve me I have been many times over the years and found the experience less then inspiring.

I agree that "reviewers' can have a great experience in most restaurants when the chef and staff know that the "VIP" is in the room. Does this always translate to the experince the rest of us stiffs get? I don't think so.

This review makes my point. Even if the chef didn't know you were coming, maybe photographing the dishes could of been a clue that you were doing some sort of review.

I'm sorry but this in no way will change my opinion on what I think is Vancouver's most dissapointing restaurant.

Edited by Coop (log)

David Cooper

"I'm no friggin genius". Rob Dibble

http://www.starlinebyirion.com/

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It was only after dining there and being impressed with the restaurant that we sought to develop a relationship with the chef! We had a great, eye-opening meal and the rest was history. However I do agree that a restaurant the size and scale of Joe Fortes provides many levels of experience -- and also that cold, poorly prepared food would be a very bad thing and inexcusable (though I have never witnessed it). I hope I made very clear that everything I had was a customized dish (except the claws). But there is nothing to stop you or anyone else from making exactly the same arrangement. I'm not a reviewer; I am -- again I hope this was clear -- portraying a special meal that demonstrates what the restaurant is capable of at its best. But I doubt the international reach of Fat Guy is such that his wife would be indulged beyond the level of, say, a normal paying customer who expresses interest in having a special meal. Although it would be kind of cool if it was!

Ellen Shapiro

www.byellen.com

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I've never thought of Joe Forte's as a place to go for food, at least not when I was living in Vancouver. It was more of a "see and be seen" kind of place - women in short skirts trying to catch the eyes of men with fat wallets. I was never tall, blonde or skinny enough to feel comfortable there.

Nevertheless, Ellen's photos almost make me brave enough to venture into Joe Forte's next time I go home.

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Brian Fowke may not have been at the helm of Joe Fortes when you were living in Vancouver. I don't know the chronology or the exact details, but my general understanding is that a few years ago Bud Kanke, the owner, who at one time operated a whole bunch of restaurants, decided to move into sort of a retirement phase. He sold off all his properties other than Joe Fortes and brought in Brian Fowke in an attempt to make the place more serious. I'll try to find out the exact dates of all this.

As for tall, blonde, thin, and short-skirted, trying to catch the eyes of men with fat wallets, yeah, that's me alright!

Ellen Shapiro

www.byellen.com

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I swore I would never return to JF's a few years ago after an overpriced, very bad meal.

I had ordered grilled halibut that was to be served with potatoes. When the order came the halibut was about three bites large and the two bite size pieces of boiled potato were almost raw. All this for the amazing price of $20. Now I hardly ever complain in a restaurant, but for my $20 I figured that I should at least get cooked potatoes. I very nicely indicated to the waiter that the potatoes were not sufficiently cooked - I was not rude at all. In a very smarmy, condesending voice he explained to me that the chef does all his vegetables al dente and that perhaps I wasn't a sophisticated enough diner to appreciate potatoes cooked in this manner! Now, maybe it is just my taste, and while I don't like most vegetabes cooked to mush, I do like boiled potatoes with no crunch! Call me silly. Needless to say, I left hungry & upset vowing never to return.

Prior to that I must say that we had enjoyed many meals in the dining room - and I am not even tall, blonde or skinny. :biggrin::sad:

I must say the photos have made me want to try JF's again. Perhaps it is time to get over my sulk and see if the food and service quality have improved.

Life is short, eat dessert first

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The fact of the matter is that at many, many restaurants (if not most) there are distinct levels of experience available to customers, sometimes ranging from "superlative" to "totally sucks." There are three choices when dealing with such a restaurant, in other words when dealing with most restaurants: 1) Refuse to dine out, in solidarity with the oppressed; 2) Dine out, have "totally sucks" meals, and complain bitterly about it; or 3) Do something about it.

I hope everybody realizes that Ellen is trying to explain option number 3 in all her restaurant reports, and that much of the talk on eGullet is about exactly that: getting the best possible meal out of any given restaurant. Newspaper restaurant reviews, which target a mass audience, are written by anonymous (supposedly) critics and try to capture the consumer-protection angle of things: "This is the shitty meal I got when they didn't know who I was! Then I went back and they recognized me and gave me a great meal! How awful!" Well, maybe it is awful, but the thing is, here on eGullet we're not a mass audience. We're the people who are going to take the trouble to learn things like what to order at Joe Fortes in order to get a great meal, how to call ahead to arrange it with Brian Fowke, and who gives a damn what the tall leggy blondes (which, by the way, Ellen is, despite her pretense otherwise; strawberry even) and their fat-cat date-bait are eating down in the well? They don't give a damn about food anyway. We'll be up on the roof deck enjoying the best seafood the Pacific Northwest has to offer, because we know the secret code word.

And I'm by no means agreeing that Joe Fortes sucks unless you get special treatment. Under the Fowke regime, I can pretty much guarantee you that if you just order intelligently, you'll do very well. For example, if you go sit at the oyster bar and have a bunch of oysters, you will have fabulous oysters. Period. They are oyster geniuses. They know how to purchase the best. They have great relationships with suppliers. They preserve the liquid, which most places screw up. And their shuckers are the best, especially "Oyster Bud" who wins almost every oyster-shucking competition.

I think a lot of this animosity towards Joe Fortes has got to come from the old days before Brian and Bud got together and decided to make it a good restaurant. Not that Rome was built in a day, but Joe's has recently picked up the big Vancouver Magazine and Where Magazine "best seafood" awards (both in 2002, according to the Joe Fortes site), and has also held down a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence for something like 11 years (the wine program has always been great). Of course those awards can be won by crap restaurants too -- look at the success of "C" -- but people are liking Joe Fortes for sure. And since that squares with my own experience and that of the friends we've referred there, I'm quite sure I'm not hallucinating. I mean, sure, you can serve unsophisticated food and get the occasional award, but you can't rise to the top of the heap by offering "cold, uninteresting food, dirty cutlery and poor service every time."

Sorry for the interruption.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I don't believe I have any animosity toward the place I just have had terrible experiences over the years at Joe Fortes and I thought this might be the form to express them. I obviously don't know Steven's secret password so I suppose that I am doomed to just being the run of the mill consumer. This does not bother me in the least.

Most of my trips to Joe Fortes have been spur of the moment before a concert or a Saturday lunch so I would not have had time to call Bud and Brian to make me a special meal even if I was so inclined. I don't feel that I should have to work that hard to get a decent meal in a restaurant.

Btw my last experince at Joe Fortes was a Saturday lunch in January so I delieve the dynamic duo Fat Guy refers to were definetly in charge if not on site.

David Cooper

"I'm no friggin genius". Rob Dibble

http://www.starlinebyirion.com/

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  • 3 weeks later...

Thanks Fat Guy, I appreciate the words.

I also appreciate that not all the meals served at Joe Fortes over the last 18 years have been perfect. We are really working on it. As the food and reputation improves so does the level of cooks, chefs and servers who want to work at Joes. It is definitely a cultural thing. My number one priority is to build the culture of food and wine in the restaurant. I really enjoy the food we are serving at Joes. I enjoy my days (14-16 hours) and I know that all my cooks/chefs are striving to improve and develop the best seafood recipes on the West Coast. I am also aware that at 400 - 600 customers a night that there are going to be mistakes. We guarantee satisfaction at Joe Fortes. We will go everything we possible can to make every customer happy. If something goes wrong ask for the General Manager; Darren Gates, the Maitre'd; Frenchy, or me. One of us is always in the building and we will fix all problem to your satisfaction.

And if you want to live like a movie star for a night give me a call at the restaurant and I will arrange (if available) the fireplace table and a meal that will be the best seafood you ever had. Really, not only movie stars phone ahead and talk to the chef. I talk to dozens of customers a day getting ready for that special night out. Otherwise, Fat Guy is right, come to Joes and order oysters and fresh fish. We do it really, really well. And I have never had a complaint on the seafood tower on ice. Because of our volume no one in Vancouver purchases fresher or as many types (145 types of fish/shellfish and 46 types of oysters) of seafood as us. Enjoy and I look forward to personally talking and touring my kitchen with everyone at eGullet!

Chef Fowke

Chef/Owner/Teacher

Website: Chef Fowke dot com

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Chef Fowke, welcome to eGullet. It's great to hear you stand up and state your determination to build the food and wine culture there.

I'm sure you have much to tell us not only about your restaurant but seafood in general.

"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

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"T" that brings us to a good point.

It is people like Jason, my purchaser/AM Sous Chef that really makes a big restaurant run smoothly. Jason takes all the 'abuse' due to any sub-standard products that might have snuck into the building, spends countless hours procuring exciting, new products, maintains a huge perishable inventory, deals with all contractors and repairman, inventories and purchases all small wares and equipment, runs a lunch program that averages 200 covers a day and is in charge of training new cooks. Us Chefs look good because of our key employees (Sous Chefs) and the hard work they do for very little positive feedback and less pay then they deserve in a very hot and stress filled environment.

Jason has been working with me going on three years and he is the one of the icons in the kitchen. The culture started with the two of us. His passion, working directly in the trenches, with the brigade day in and day out is where the new momentum started. I could not have accomplished half of what I have achieved without his support and loyalty.

With that said, come to the restaurant at lunch but make sure to give Jason a call first! He is a brilliant Sous Chef who will do amazing food for you and he will guarantee you culinary satisfaction.

I guess he deserves a raise (next year)…

Chef/Owner/Teacher

Website: Chef Fowke dot com

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I didn't buy the code word on eBay, but whaddaya know, Chef Brian gave my partner Erin and I a fantastic experience at Joe Fortes tonight. I contacted him in advance and explained that we wanted the best seafood from the Pacific Northwest and figured he was the best candidate to provide it while we visited Vancouver. I got that idea from reading this thread...Steven and Ellen are right. I have never eaten fatter, meatier mussels, sweeter king crab, richer arctic char than we sampled this evening. We also enjoyed flawless service, including a few visits from the restaurant's beloved Maitre d', Frenchy, and plenty of detailed explanations of the fish from Chef Brian himself. (How does the guy make time for it in the middle of service on a weekend evening??) A tour of the restaurant finished the evening, with Chef Brian explaining the design and inspirations for the dining room at Joe Fortes.

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It is so easy to cook for people who love food! I understand that a lot of the details are lost on the average diner. It was great to have 'Malawry' in because she TASTED the food and enjoyed it for what it was. No sauce, no chutney and no ketchup. I have the best purchaser in the country buying fish for me. Not to mention one of the best brigades cooking it.

Malawry, we did 400 covers the night you were in. How did the room feel?

Chef/Owner/Teacher

Website: Chef Fowke dot com

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The room was only starting to really roll when we finished our meal and toured the restaurant. (My partner and I were dining fairly early.) The design of the restaurant makes it seem as if there are several small dining rooms in one large, open space, but the vibe definitely picks up as each of those spaces fills up. There's a combination of local big-shots, tourists, visiting movie folks (Vancouver having a bustling business in on-location filmmaking), and just ordinary folk packing the house. Nobody looks anxious, not even people waiting for their tables in the upstairs bar they use for overflow waiting, not even the buspeople running around trying to keep all those tables watered, breaded, cleared, and reset. Everybody's having a good time.

And yes, just about everything was simply grilled or simply steamed. This was a meal about the quality of the product and the pride in preparing it simply. I can completely see why that might be less interesting than the more experimental cuisine at a place like West, where we dined the subsequent evening, but for my partner and I the experience was captivating. We loved Vancouver and part of that is because we loved Joe Fortes.

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  • 1 month later...

Joe Forte's is a very loud and busy restaurant that serves some very good seafood IMO. I was concerned about the looks, it did look like a tourist trap.

There was a long wait for a table so the wife and I headed to the oyster bar to sit down and dine there.

Our caretaker/raw bar man was Oyster Todd (it said so on the check and his name badge). Oyster Todd was a cocky young guy who felt he knew everything about oysters and steered you to his favorites that were in season at the time. There were some varieties that I had not had before and Oyster Todd was not opposed to providing a free sample to sway me to his tastes. He did not disappoint, selections were great.

Wife and I both had fresh fish that were done just the way we requested and tasted delicious.

Although Joe Forte's may seem like a touristy trap restaurant, it proved a very rewarding dining experience on this evening

Joe Forte's

777 Thurlow Street

Vancouver, BC

Phone: 604.669.1940

"I did absolutely nothing and it was everything I thought it could be"
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Agreed. Joes has some of the freshest seafood I have had in a while. My father was a commercial fisherman on the West Coast so I ate seafood 6 out of 7 days a week whether I needed to or not so I feel I am a good judge of quality seafood and Joe's is it.

slowfood/slowwine

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