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Vancouver - day four


malachi
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It is hard to know where to start with this review… I guess I’ll explain that it was not simply a meal. It was a meal to celebrate Valerie’s birthday. And it had an element of surprise as our friends Mitch and Catherine had flown up to Vancouver from San Francisco unbeknown to Valerie. I had set the meal up in advance, had requested (and been given) the Chef’s table and had arranged for Mitch and Catherine to be seated early so that when we were walked to the table Valerie would suddenly see them. The staff at West were incredibly accommodating and helpful when it came to suggesting the best day and time, figuring out how to seat Mitch and Catherine first, etc.

So Valerie and I arrived, to discover that the room had been redone since we were there last year. It’s a big improvement. The room seems more welcoming and open while also seeming more luxurious and “serious” in tone. Very nice changes in my opinion. Anyway, the surprise worked brilliantly I’m glad to say. Valerie was surprised, overjoyed… a perfect beginning to the meal.

And speaking of the meal… we were offered the opportunity to have a tasting menu that Chef Hawksworth had created for us (with wine pairings) – or we could order from the menu. Obviously we chose the menu Chef had created! We began with a little treat (a “pre-amuse bouche” of sorts) consisting of a shared dish of eggplant caviar with Yukon gold potato chips. It was quite lovely. The chips were perfectly salted and not overly crispy, allowing us to actually taste the potato in the chip. The salt and earth flavours of the chips married very well with the sweet ripeness of the smooth eggplant caviar. I love the fact that this was served first as it carried us through the initial “conversation” phase of the meal smoothly. It was, in essence, a canapé served in the perfect scenario for such a dish.

After this, the meal began in earnest with the amuse bouche – a lovely single Malpaque oyster served with a Japanese inspired dressing and finely julienned Japanese radishes. This was presented on the half-shell, balanced on a “dressed” mound of rock salt. It was paired with a Hawthorne Mountain Brut, Dosage Zero. The oyster was truly perfect. As one of the guests remarked, “this would convert those poor people who think they don’t like oysters.” The brine and mineral notes of the oyster were perfectly complimented and balanced by the sweet crunch of the radishes and the very mild acid bite of the dressing. Not only was this a lovely dish, it was a near perfect amuse bouche. It cleared and cleansed the palate, built expectation and led naturally into the next dish. The Hawthorne Mountain was a lovely sparkling Riesling – ideally suited for the dish. It was very crisp and clean, without excessive butteryness but with a fine and balanced structure. This wine was carried through into the next dish – Gazpacho with molded Dungeness Crab and Avocado. The presentation on this dish was wonderful – a wide, shallow bowl was set before you which contained the molded crab and avocado (crab on top of avocado). The chilled gazpacho was then poured from a pitcher into the bowl. As a result of this presentation, the flavours of the soup changed both over time, and bite to bite – allowing you to experience the full range of flavours, as well as the combined and integrated dish. This was a truly great dish. The gazpacho was very strained and thin, close in colour and texture to a tomato water, but with an incredibly full and complex flavour. It was almost what one could call an “essence” of gazpacho. The acids and spice bite of the broth provided a foundation for the incredibly sweet crab. I’ve had far too much watery Dungeness crab – and have nearly reached the point where I’ve stopped ordering it. This dish restored my faith. The crab was meaty, with wonderful texture and a far more concentrated and rich flavour than what I’ve had of late from this shellfish. The smooth unctuousness of the avocado was a perfect foil and balance for the other ingredients – combining the create a dish that seemed at once both refreshing and hedonistic. This dish was a triumph, and immediately after it I commented that if the high level of cooking could be maintained throughout, this was going to be not a very good meal – but rather a truly great one. Not surprisingly, the Hawthorn Mountain paired ideally with this dish as well. As a side note – one of our party is, sadly, allergic to tomatoes (along with a number of related ingredients) and Chef Hawksworth was incredibly accommodating about this. For the most part the menu was entirely geared to address this, but with the gazpacho he chose to instead serve her a different dish. Not only was this a great thing for us as it allowed us to experience the aforementioned gazpacho, but we were also allowed to taste an additional dish as well. In this case, he gave her a lovely tuna sashimi dressed with sesame oil and with (I believe) crispy fried scallions and garlic. The quality of the tuna was on par with the best sushi restaurants I’ve been to, and the preparation was flawless.

For our next course, Chef Hawksworth again chose to serve one dish to three of us, and a separate one to our poor allergic member. Again, this couldn’t have worked out better for us. Three of us were served a hot foie gras dish, while the fourth was served a cold foie gras terrine. The terrine was a gorgeous dish of foie gras and chicken livers with a gelee that tasted like green apple, served with toasted brioche. This was perhaps the second best cold foie gras dish I’ve had in my entire life. The terrine was smooth and creamy, with a rich and dense flavour that had far more complexity than your average foie gras mousse terrine. The depth of flavours in the terrine was astonishing, and the gelee was a perfect light, crisp and fruity foil for the sinful mousse. The other three of us were each served two pieces of foie gras which had been breaded in Pain D’espice (spiced bread), fried and then served over hot local apricot slices. This dish was simply incredibly. It was astonishing, simply astonishing. It was a huge dish, tasting almost like (as one diner said) “hot gingerbread foie gras.” The texture of the foie gras was perfect, with the crunch from the breading providing foundation for the rich, smooth foie gras. And the spicing was perfect – complex and powerful, but always subservient to the flavour of the foie gras. The fruit flavours from the apricot balanced everything out, adding the sweet into the play between the earthy, the rich, the oils and the spices and the homey yeasts and grains… A symphony but not Mozart – no nice manners but rather kettle drums and cannons and the entire string section covered in sweat from their exertions. As I said before – astonishing. These dishes were served with a 1998 Chateau Doisy Daene. This Barsac was a delightful choice, a bit more rustic than many Sauternes, and with the sort of backbone needed to hold up to this kind of a dish. The fruits and honeys added their own notes to the symphony (perhaps a brief aria by a wonderful French Tenor if I’m to continue the metaphor).

The fourth course was interesting as the employee who had been acting as sommelier (more later on this) came to use before the course and told us that the course would be served without wine as he was simply incapable of pairing anything with it. We, of course, took turns trying to guess what the dish could consist of, but he simply said that if this dish had been on an exam, he would have simply given up and walked out and that it was the most difficult pairing situation he’d ever faced. We were, of course, dying to find out what it was. The dish turned out to be a ravioli of artichoke and ricotta, served with shaved parmagiano, basil oil and a Barigole garnish. Upon hearing the description, we all thought “wow – that would be hard to pair.” After tasting it, however, it became clear that the description did not do justice to the actual challenge. The dish consisted of a single ravioli with a filling of ricotta and artichoke heart, dressed with a very acidic basil oil, shaved parmagiano and pieces of artichoke hearts. In addition, there were some whole coriander seeds in the dressing. This was a dish that, to me, clearly indicated that this was a Chef operating at the top of the game. It was risky – and it was a total success. The delicacy of touch required to make this dish work was astonishing and rather intimidating to be honest. There were so many strong flavours, and so many of them were in conflict with each other. This was not a dish of complimentary tastes, but rather one where antagonistic tastes were all suspended in an incredibly complex state of delicate balance. I’d guess that some people would not have liked this one – it was not comforting, it was not easy. It was a challenging dish – and we loved it.

Right about here was where the staff started asking us, between each course, how we were doing and if we wanted more courses. This was a lovely thing – and something that I wish more restaurants would do. I’ve had more than a few great meals ruined by simply being served too much food. Anyway, we, of course, said “can we have more please.”

The fifth course was Crispy Roasted Ling Cod with local Golden Chantrelles, a garlic puree and Mushroom foam. Again, the “sommelier” came to talk to us beforehand and said that he was debating on what wine to serve with this and had decided to pour two wines and let us tell him which one we felt paired better. The first was a local BC Pinot, the 2001 Nk’Mip Pinot Noir. The second was a 2002 Yalumba Viognier from Australia. Now, I’m a huge fan of Ling Cod so I was really looking forward to this dish. I was not disappointed. The cod was crispy, but still deliciously moist and firm. The pairing of the subtle sea flavours with the subtle earth flavours of the chanterelles and (very gentle) mushroom foam was really lovely. The garlic puree was nearly non-existent and came across simply as a slight bite in the front-palate. Another stellar dish, and probably my personal favorite at this point in the evening. Sadly, the wines were the one disappointment of the evening. While the Yalumba was a very nice wine (crisp, a bit grassy, but very balanced and firm and refreshing on the palate) it was not an ideal pairing with the dish. It tended to be a bit jarring and the combination emphasized the acids in the wine that was not complimentary. The Pinot, on the other hand, was simply not a great wine. It was weak and thin in the middle, and came across as too soft and nearly insipid. It was obvious to all of us that a Pinot would be the correct pairing, but sadly not this particular Pinot. To be fair, my guess is that we would have found this less noticeable in a meal with more flaws – but where you’re this near to seeming perfection… a single small flaw become large by comparison.

Regardless, we were now on to the sixth course… and what a course it was to be! We were poured an inky, near black 1999 Dona Paula Malbec from Argentina and the waiters served us simply beautiful looking Roasted Suckling Pork Chops with Nutmeg Gnocchi, confit Cipollini Onions and a Pork Jus. The chops were incredible. About the size of a small lamb chop, they were served bone in and with the skin still on. Amazingly enough, the shops combined the meat, the bone and the crackling… all in one piece. I’d never had this serving before – and it was eye opening. The meat was delicate and moist, with a simple subtle flavour that was lightly perfumed by the spices on the exterior of the roast. The crackling was crisp and flavourful without being tough or overly fatty. The gnocchi had been quickly pan-seared and were that perfect balance of pillowy and fluffy with dense and chewy that you long for in gnocchi – and so rarely receive. There were Five-Spice notes in the seasoning that married perfectly with the nutmeg in the gnocchi. This was then counterbalanced by the sweet bite of the confit onions. And it was all brought together in the sauce – a marvelously concentrated but smooth combination of pork, spice and some more obscured flavours in the backbone (which turned out to be, among other things, reduced chicken stock). This was yet another truly great dish – which was then pushed beyond expectation by the wine pairing. The wine had lovely dominant flavours of Plum, Prune and Clove which pit into the overall taste of the dish like a perfect puzzle piece. The wine was wonderful in and of itself. The dish was great in and of itself. But the combination of the two achieved that goal of all sommeliers – a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts. For all of us – this was the course of the night. For all of us – it was also one of the top single courses we’d had.

We were then asked if we wanted cheese before desert or if we wanted to go straight to desert. Again, of course, we said “cheese me please.” The cheese course consisted of three cheeses – a lovely Canadian Camembert, a Canadian 5-Year Cheddar and a French soft cheese that, to be honest, I simply cannot remember. These were paired with an East India Lustau Solera Sherry. While the forgotten cheese was quite lovely, the stars were the two Canadian cheeses. The cheddar was rich and buttery, with a slight crumble and that mix of sweetness and funk that one finds in the best cheddars. The Camembert was dense and buttery, with a smooth and everlasting mouthfeel and flavour profile. And the sherry… well… I love good sherry. It’s a shame, in my opinion, that more restaurants don’t provide this option. So I’m biased, but all of us agreed with my rapturous comments on this fortified wine.

And finally… we arrive at desert. We were served two desert courses, which I will lump together in my description. The first was a Cherry Fritter with Sambuca Ice Cream and the second was a dense slice of Chocolate Raspberry Cake with Ice Cream and late-harvest local raspberries. The Cherry fritter was a lovely folly – it had been formed into the shape of a cherry, with an actual stem inserted, and then fried. It brought a smile to all our faces. The sambuca ice cream was not only surprisingly good on its own – but was a shockingly good counterpoint to the cherry fritter. The cake was lovely. Simply and serving as a showcase for the last of this year’s local raspberries.

I’ve commented a few times about the quality of the service. To be fair, this is not doing it justice. The best way I can think to compliment the service we received is to say that it was appropriate and up to the standards of the food. And that, my friends, is some heady praise indeed. Our waiter was professional, polished and charming. The meal lasted for nearly three and a half hours, but it never felt like we were waiting. In fact, the pacing of the meal was perfect – deliberate and unhurried but never slow or inattentive. Our waiter was knowledgeable about not only the restaurant and our menu, but the ingredients and even the cooking style and philosophy. We were also waited on by someone who we all took to be the sommelier for nearly half the meal. Only upon questioning him did we discover that, in fact, he was a senior manager for the parent company of West and its sister restaurants. He had, in fact, been a sommelier prior to that (in addition to be a general manager at one time). This, of course, was a treat that was probably not normal – but which we appreciated greatly. Neil was incredibly knowledgeable, helpful and charming – but perhaps more importantly, he shared our obsession with food and taste and did a wonderful job of communicating Chef Hawksworth’s passion to us verbally. Overall the service was on par with the service at any of the best restaurants in New York or the Bay Area.

I’ve also mentioned that we were seated at the Chef’s table and I think this demands some discussion. This table would probably be undesirable to some, and unappreciated by most, but if you’re a food freak it is the only table in the house. The table is situated right next to where all orders are picked up by front of the house staff, and looks directly into the semi-open line. You can not only see everything that is going on in the kitchen at all times, you can even hear every comment or bit of conversation.

And speaking of this – it is also clear that anyone in the kitchen can hear what you’re saying as well. Chef Hawksworth was obviously listening in to our conversations as, at one point, one of the diners held up a small seed from the dish and said to us, “I wonder what this is” and Chef answered “coriander seed.” Chef Hawksworth was a wonderful host who took time out of his cooking to talk with us, and clearly enjoyed discussing the details of the creating and execution of his dishes.

Overall… what can I say? This was one of the best evenings of my life in addition to being one of the best meals I’ve had. Is it cheap? Of course not – but to be honest there is a level of experience and quality where I truly believe price ceased to matter beyond “can you pay for it or not.” The food was truly stellar – creative, exciting, balanced, perfectly executed… the sort of meal that would have sunk me into a deep depression back when I was cooking as it would have demonstrated the folly of my believing that I could be a true Chef. The service was polished, appropriate, professional, accommodating and adaptive. The room is lovely – and the Chef’s table an experience I’ll never forget. To say this is the best restaurant in Vancouver is truly damning with faint praise. I’ll simply say that West is among the best restaurants I’ve had the pleasure of eating at in North America. Thank you Chef Hawksworth, thank you Neil, and thank you to all the BOH and FOH staff that made this dream a reality.

fanatic...

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I just re-read this and have to apologize for the ten million typos, gramatical errors and examples of poor writing style. I would edit it, but the problems are too numerous so I'll simply have to content myself with this apology.

fanatic...

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Malachi: I thought it was a fine review. My wife and I had a similar experience in January. It actually ruined other restaurants for me. They just didn't come within a 100 yards of West.

We have since been twice for lunch which is a more casual experience, but well worth it. I don't really have a great list of places to compare West to, but it certainly is the best place I have dined.

David Cooper

"I'm no friggin genius". Rob Dibble

http://www.starlinebyirion.com/

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A big tasting menu like that at West tends to run $78 (Canadian!) per person. Then there would also be the cost of the wine, which is whatever it is.

Thanks for this excellent report. I'm glad to see that the restaurant formerly known as Ouest continues to impress so many eGulleters. Of the restaurants in North America that play in this league in terms of overall level of satisfaction among serious well-traveled foodie customers, West is surely the best value and significantly underappreciated.

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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A big tasting menu like that at West tends to run $78 (Canadian!) per person. Then there would also be the cost of the wine, which is whatever it is.

Must be the Fat Guy discount. :biggrin:

When my wife and I had a comparable tasting menu at West, it was, as Coop says, around $95 CDN. One of the truly great dining values I've ever experienced.

Most women don't seem to know how much flour to use so it gets so thick you have to chop it off the plate with a knife and it tastes like wallpaper paste....Just why cream sauce is bitched up so often is an all-time mytery to me, because it's so easy to make and can be used as the basis for such a variety of really delicious food.

- Victor Bergeron, Trader Vic's Book of Food & Drink, 1946

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Thanks for the very informative post malachi. It makes my mouth water just reading it. It is several months since I have been to West and it has always been one of my favourite restaurants in Vancouver. Time to return :biggrin:

If I can be so bold to ask - 1) do you pay a premium price for the Chef's table or is the price the same as on the tasting menu? 2) Also, is the food at the Chef's table the same as on the regular tasting menu, or it specially prepared?

Thanks again.

Life is short, eat dessert first

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I do not believe we paid a premium price, but to be honest I could be wrong as I didn't really examine the menu.

I would guess that the food served at the Chef's table is most commonly from the menu, but again I could be wrong.

fanatic...

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$78 is what it says on the Web site, but certainly there can and should be premiums imposed for extra courses -- I'm not 100% sure how they count the courses, for example the desserts. But the $78 menus are quite large and do include foie gras and such.

The chef's table is just a table in the restaurant. No special menu status.

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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For my wife and I in January Chef Hawksworth prepared 9 courses. We washed it down with 2 Cocktails( Kir for Mrs Coop and Pernod for me) and a bottle of $60 wine and finished with coffees. The total came to about $325.00 before tip. I think this was very reasonable for the kind of meal and service we were given.

Would I do this weekly, monthly, or yearly. This kind of meal is a once a year experience. I have had follow up visits but have stayed under $200.00. This is also a great deal. The standard appetizer, entree, and dessert sort of thing with a bottle of wine.

David Cooper

"I'm no friggin genius". Rob Dibble

http://www.starlinebyirion.com/

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