Vancouver's tumultuous romance with French bistro fare is getting hot and heavy in a small, steamy room on the seedy side of town.
Bistro Wagon Rouge is the love child of Red Wagon, a wildly popular brunch joint. Both have a certain je ne sais quoi charm. But if the latter is a spunky ingénue, famous for her all-day pulled pork pancakes slathered in Jack Daniels maple syrup, the former is a vampy lady of the night attracting salivating hordes to the city's edgy new "it" neighbourhood.
The East Village – the name coined for this still fairly bleak commercial stretch in the port district – is sparsely populated by auto-repair shops, storage warehouses, a few cafés, several microbreweries and a craft distillery. If going to dinner by bus after dark, you may not want to walk alone. And be prepared to wait up to an hour. The new bistro, opened in October, is already as popular as Red Wagon.
Chef-owner Brad Miller knows his way around a French kitchen. Trained at Ferrandi, the school of culinary arts in Paris's Latin Quarter, he was the long-time executive chef at Bistro Pastis and briefly helmed the kitchen at Au Petit Chavignol.
There's something undeniably comfortable about falling back on the familiar. Mr. Miller primarily sticks to the classics. His steak frites gives a warm embrace to a tender cut of hanger that is quickly grilled, darkly charred and carefully trimmed to remove the tough membrane down the middle (you wouldn't believe how many times I've choked on that sucker). The sauce could be a touch thicker and the peppercorns more finely cracked. But the golden, fresh-cut fries are salted to addictive satisfaction.
Moules (again served with habit-forming fries) are meaty and meticulously scrubbed without a single closed clunker in the bowl. The broth changes daily. We had an elegant marinière invigorated with an abundant splash of white wine and silky from heavy cream.
But the chef impresses most when he tries new tricks. His deconstructed cassoulet, for example, is a sharply textured delight. Rather than stewing all the ingredients into a big pot of mush, he dotes on each one – a crisply roasted leg of supple duck confit, a robustly herbed link of house-made Toulouse sausage and a blackened hunk of Chinese-spiced pork belly – and mounts them on a crusted pedestal of lemony navy beans.
Beef bourguignon made with meltingly tender cheek instead of typically chewy chuck makes this old chestnut fresh and exciting. The slack braise could, however, use a goose of acidity.
The special board changes daily, but always includes a few tartines – small open-faced sandwiches on toasted baguettes that are slathered with rich spreads – creamy salt cod brandade tarted up with capers, for example, and luscious confit pork belly rubbed with a spicy blend of black pepper, clove, allspice and cinnamon.
Wait a minute. Wasn't that pork belly already trotted out for the cassoulet? Yes, and it makes a third appearance on the regular menu with Manilla clams.
For such a small menu, there is an awful lot of repetition. Croquettes, to take another example, were squeezed across two specials in a single night – as a solo appetizer, filled with escargot, and a short-rib-stuffed accoutrement to grilled beef tongue.
That grilled beef tongue, by the way, bore a gummy resemblance to thick-sliced bologna (replete with a rubbery casing) and sported noxiously acrid char marks. Octopus, also grilled in a cast-iron pan, had a similarly bitter char fighting against its fragrantly spiced chermoula paste.
The kitchen, which you must cross to get to the washroom, is admittedly tiny. Making the most of its limited space, Bistro has a busy garde manger tucked at the end of the bar, where the delightful Dorothy Cheung composes beautifully towered butter lettuce salads vibrantly dressed with shallot vinaigrette. If lucky, you'll order steak tartare after she has already run out of the evening's pre-cut portions. Although hand-chopped just before service, raw beef looses its buoyancy in a matter of minutes as the milky protein begins to leach. The fresh tartare is miles more succulent.
Bistro Red Wagon has a lot going for it. The service is warm and friendly. The room is cozy. The wines are very reasonably priced. But it seems a bit early to be taking shortcuts and stumbling over off-tasting char.
Love, alas, must be blind – because those lineups aren't getting any shorter.
No stars: Not recommended.
* Good, but won't blow a lot of minds
* *Very good, with some standout qualities
** *Excellent, well above average with few caveats, if any.
*** *Extraordinary, memorable, original, with near-perfect execution