UPDATED, Jan 16, 2014.
The Trouble with Dine Out Lists… Is that you’re guaranteed to miss not only a few worthy restos but likely many. So be it. However, here, in random order (i.e. as I think about them or hear about them from reliable sources), is my “Mea Culpa” list of add ons—that probably should have been there in the first place! Some of these I’ve reviewed in recent months …
Chicha Modern Peruvian ($28) How could I have forgotten these guys. Quite the best addition to Broadway and Main in recent years. I loved it (review here)—and their Dine Out menu looks really good.
Meanwhile, back at the beginning…
If you’re like me, maybe you find the annual Dine Out menu release can be pretty overwhelming—at least at first glance. It can take a while to wade through all those menus. In previous years I’ve picked my faves based on each tier of menu pricing. The same three course price options also apply this year. But I’ve decided to do things a little bit differently by just picking some pretty firm faves and obvious winners, regardless of cost, well, almost.
Dine Out-side the Box
How you choose is up to you. But part of the appeal of Dine Out is that it allows you to push some boundaries, be they literal (how about venturing into a new neighbourhood?) or culinary. No better way than to explore a cuisine with which you’re not familiar than have someone else prepare and explain the menu. Most exotic Dine Out option this year? How about Sol Sun Belt?
Bargain Bites and More
I like to think that the notion of Dine Out as purely a bargain based model, which it started out as, has changed somewhat. It has. But, to be fair, we’re all creatures of habit and (maybe more this time of year than usual) inclined to watch our wallets. For that reason alone, the mental graph I plot—where quality and creativity meets price—produces some head and shoulders above winners.
Dine Out had its genesis very much as a budget based promotion. However, I think it speaks to the maturing of our dining scene (speaking for both restaurants and diners): we’ve moved beyond that. You’ll find plenty of excellent values at all three menu levels—even though, (predictably) the $28 point is still the most hotly contested.
If you’re interested in checking out the value of a menu, you can always click on the ‘details‘ button which takes you to a description and (usually but not always) an average cost figure. Hint, if the average cost figure is close to the Dine Out menu cost, you’re probably not getting much of a deal…
The Power of Prix Fixe
What I find fascinating is that, prior to Dine Out’s inception, it was near impossible to find prix-fixe in Vancouver—except at the occasional French restaurant (such as then Café de Paris, or Bistro Pastis). Vancouverites were not quite so trusting in those days, for reasons known only to ourselves. Then along came the tasting menu (thank you, Rob Feenie and Michael Noble!) and everything shifted. All of a sudden, having somebody else choose your food for you was not only acceptable but de rigueur. Dare we say, it even made a whole lot of sense.
Personally, I find it pretty exciting that the place goes nuts for food at a time of year that used to be marked by the drabbest of evenings—and not a few restaurant failures. Not that times now are easy by any means. But the Dine Out Vancouver Festival, with its ever expanding array of special events, has breathed fresh air into what used to be our dining Doldrums.
Dine Out with BC Wines
I also like the involvement of BC Wines, as it really takes the notion of local flavours to the next level. However, I’m surprised more participants don’t catch on to this for Dine Out in the way that consumers obviously have. Most of my selections (no coincidence) have given careful thought to the wines paired with their menus. Let me be more candid. If you can’t be bothered to come up with the pairings to show on line, there are too many others who have: chances are your restaurant didn’t make the cut.
On a side note, I was gently whining to someone the other day about the lack of many of Vancouver’s excellent Chinese rooms. The reality is that Dine Out coincides with the lead up to Chinese Near Year. There’s a good chance, I suspect, that most Chinese restaurants couldn’t handle any extra business, even if they wanted it …
I’m sure I’ll be adding to this list in coming days and weeks. But to get things rolling, here are my initial top 10, or so, spots (in no particular order)—and why I’d be getting my resos in now, if not sooner… If you want to add your own picks or experiences (no restaurant ‘plants’ please), feel free.
Cork & Fin. Thoughtful $28 menu (with an interesting savoury twist) served in a relaxing and romantic setting. Intelligent wine picks across the board. A deal, for sure.
Gramercy Grill ($28). One of the West Side’s most consistent and under the radar performers.
Maenam ($28). What more to say about Angus An’s remarkable cuisine. You owe it to yourself to try his contemporary Thai flavours. Also lunch offered at $25.
The Parker ($28), sustainable vegetarian fare with flair (and plenty of gluten free options) from Top Chef Canada finalist Curtis Luk, formerly with Fable Kitchen.
PICA – Bistro 101. ($18) Lunch and Dinner. Arguably the best value of the lot. Not only can you play a role in the training of Canada’s next great chefs and sommeliers, you can do with impeccable tastes on an amazing budget. Book early! (Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts.)
Forage ($28) – I always have to check myself before making yet another recommendation on The Listel’s cutting edge, sustainable room, as it seems to be happening a lot these days. However, their DoV menu is among the best out of there, as it includes the superb Gelderman pork belly or Pacific Provider Spring Salmon, plus their Chowder Chowdown conquering seafood chowder, as well as some smart wine pairings. Better hurry though. I hear they’re close to sold out.
Le Parisien ($28). The calamari (calmars) is delicious, as is the lentil salad, the duck confit, and the dark chocolate mousse with caramelised almonds. There’s an interesting twist here in the budget wine offerings, $6-$7 a glass, Calona and Mission Hill. This is a truly affordable entrée to French cuisine.
Salt Tasting Room (Kits). If you’re not familiar with Salt’s small taste and pairing style, this $28 menu is worth a try. Highlights range from the Kale Caesar salad (we’re thinking from here), Mike Vitow’s corned beef with Guinness mustard (extraordinary) and local chevre with Similkameen honey. Added bonus is the Bartier Scholefield, Haywire, Bartier Bros flight of three wines for $15. One the best pairings we tried was the unexpectedly clever combo of the Bartier Scholefield Gamay Rosé with the D Original hot Ostraya sausage. Wicked!
Cannibal Café. Our big discovery on the media preview turned out to be this buzz-worthy burger-centric diner (1818 Commercial Drive, 604-558-4199), where you’ll find decent pints from Parallel 49, as well as a diet defying dessert donut. The Guinness poutine is tasty and fun… It’s really all about the house made burgers though. And the amazing wall of indie-band posters. Great value for $18. No wonder it’s hopping.
I almost ran out of room. Tough to pick just one $38 menu but it likely won’t be from the Keg… although you will still save some money there.
There’s no shortage of great values from some of the true top tier rooms at this level—along with a few pretenders. Caveat emptor!
I could be tempted by Oru, for the fact that there are no “hidden” costs (i.e. optional up-charges, that now appear on so many menus). I like the idea of a whole Cape Breton lobster. And it is top notch…
Bacchus at the Wedgewood is totally splurge-worthy and a no-holds barred menu that doesn’t cut corners. I’m salivating over the thought of Fraser valley duck confit and CedarCreek Pinot Noir. In fact, I’d be inclined to celebrate Valentine’s early. Book in for the night, including valet parking, continental breakfast and the Dine Out dinner, for $241, for the two of you.
Check all menus and make reservations for most at dineoutvancouver.com
By the way, I have no problem recommending any of last years picks, which can still find as follows, almost all with current links to the 2014 menus