eTap burger: worth a bite, Tim Pawsey photo

UPDATED, August 27th, 2012.

Sadly, Dale Mackay has had to close both Ensemble and Ensemble Tap. Here are the pertinent excerpts from today’s press release…

“I learned quickly that opening a restaurant in the heart of Vancouver is something I should have done after building my business and expansion capital in markets that support my restaurant business plan.  As it is in the Vancouver core, with the rents being so high and the market saturated with fabulous restaurants, I’d have to subsidize both operations far longer than makes good business sense – plus I have a young son to raise and he remains my priority.”

Ultimately, it’s about overheads … including those ridiculous Robson rents that have forced out even such stalwarts as Hervé Martin and not a few others.

(Release continued)

MacKay admits that, he should have started in one of the lower rent districts on the margins of the city, where many new restaurants are springing up and where the edgy qualities of transition create a more relaxed culture. “I’m willing to fall on my own sword and admit I was wrong.  If seasoned restaurateurs like Daniel Boulud find it unprofitable to compete in Vancouver, it was bold of me to think I could make the math work any better.  As the ‘for lease’ signs started going up all around me on Robson, I saw the writing on the wall and had to ignore my ego and make the best decision for myself and for my son.”

Too bad. Indeed.


Chef MacKay will remain a major culinary presence in Vancouver.  MacKay can’t comment yet on what the near future brings but he will keep followers informed via his Facebook Pageat or personal website (going live this week).


Let’s be right up front here. We can probably count the number of burgers we eat in a year on one hand or, at most, both. Even then, a few of those fingers would figure for some cooked on our trusty mini-Weber Q100 (the best-ever, veritable propane-sipper of a barbecque).

When we dropped by for a quick look at Ensemble Tap (990 Smithe St., Vancouver; 604-566-9770) the other day, we weren’t anticipating to be wowed by Dale MacKay’s take on America’s favourite comfort food.

The Hired Belly was all set to test drive, say, the home-made sausage trio, the clams and chorizo, the Reuben sandwich—or just about anything else on this globe trotting, casual list—when our friendly server says, “Do the Tap Burger. It’s great! Plus it’s today’s feature and it comes with a glass of Ensemble lager for $18.”

“Who makes the lager?”

“Big Rock.”


The first thing to understand is that this sibling within Scotiabank Theatre complex offers a deliberate contrast to owner-chef Dale MacKay’s small-plates driven, original Ensemble, barely a couple of blocks west of here.

A good range of taps

Ensemble Tap lives up to its name with a worthy cavalcade of a dozen or more craft taps, ranging from Phillips Blue Buck and Russell’s Black Death Porter, to Driftwood Farmhand, Howe Sound Father John’s Winter and Gouden Carolus—for which a group of us returned to do due diligence this past Friday.

If you can’t find anything to tempt you there, or just want to wander further afield, there’s a line-up of serious bottled beers (about 40), which will no doubt continue to grow.

But back to the house-ground Tap burger. It arrived, pretty simply, with a smallish but just-right sized pot of medium bronzed Kennebek fries, beside a substantial dill pickle on a chequered paper.

Moist, sure, but super tasty, Tim Pawsey photo

The only thing possibly missing was a paper bib… While definitely one of the tastiest, this was also just about the most moist assembly we’ve encountered in some time, mainly thanks to the patty.

Never mind. It was perfectly cooked, still flavour packed and yes, really juicy, mingled with caramelised onions and mushrooms, stacked with Swiss cheese, Bibb lettuce leaves, just a couple of red onion slices, and tomato, and with a piquant swath of house-made horseradish sauce to top things off. The bun, not sweet or too crusty, was fresh and puffy. It was a truly tasty flavour combo—so much so that I was tempted reorder it when we returned.

Ensemble Tap house made sausage trio—even more nutritious with Russell Black Plague Porter; Tim Pawsey photo

As mentioned, we did go back with friends for a broader sampling—including the house-made sausage trio (of caraway, Thai, and smoky barbecue spices). It’s a hearty, simple platter on a board, with lashings of grainy mustard and a perfectly baked, nicely dense giant pretzel. While three nicely textured sausages are good for sharing, my preference would be for two with a small salad added in. But I’d order it again the way it is.

Tapped out with a few TVs …

A few quibbles: it’s draughty (especially when the door opens). The feel is unabashedly industrial—clean lines but a lot of hard surfaces make the room’s acoustic really unforgiving: Even when not full, it can be shout-worthy loud. (Some judicious baffles would go a long way to making the space more user friendly. Upstairs seems quieter). And if you’re even remotely allergic to TVs (14 in all), you’ll want to sit facing the wall on the opposite side from the bar! But for Canucks fans with taste it’s a great spot to catch a game, with some good brews. Guaranteed, you won’t miss a play!

Overall, though, I like Dale MacKay’s more casual take at his new place—a room that’s been a challenge for others to-date. There’s no shortage of down-to-earth, moderately priced ($8-$28 but mostly under $20) good dishes here—and the beer selection has upped the ante in a part of town that definitely needed more.

Here’s a quick menu summary from the opening release:

“Other Modern Comforts include Slow-Braised Pulled Pork Nachos with Housemade Aged Cheddar Cheese Sauce and Sweet Corn, Jalapeno Peppers and Cilantro; Dry Thai Chicken Wings with Kaffir Lime and Chili Oil, served with an exotic and otherworldly Dipping Sauce; Full Rack of BBQ Pork Back Ribs braised in Dale’s signature BBQ Sauce and Beer until falling-of-the-bone-tender, then grilled and served with Honey-buttered Cornbread and Crunchy Apple, Cabbage and Carrot Slaw.  Dale’s much-loved and Top Chef Canada Challenge-Winning Pulled Pork Sandwich – so popular on the ensemble restaurant and bar menu – appears on the ensemble Tap menu also – growing proportionately and adopting a side of Baked Beans and a cup of trademark ensemble Kennebec Fries.”

Worth noting—though not part of Dine Out—Jan 20th to March 4th, Ensemble Tap has an all-day and evening ‘Taste of Tap’, three course $29 menu (with $15 optional beer flight, three 8 oz. pours) that should be worth a visit.