Location: 1109 Hamilton St., Vancouver
Prices: Appetizers, $16 to $36; steaks, $17 to $179; other mains, $26 to $59
Rating System: Fine dining
The oven-roasted chicken at Elisa is a bird of uncommon beauty and extraordinary succulence. Organic, sourced from the Fraser Valley and weighing approximately 3.5 pounds, the whole chickens are piped under the breast with buttery, Burgundy truffle-tossed breadcrumbs so the puffed skin develops a darkly golden, crackling crisp. Basted until glistening in its own herb-infused roasting jus, the tender flesh bursts with rich savoury flavour. It might just be the best chicken you’ve ever tasted.
What’s interesting, however, is that Elisa is ostensibly a steakhouse featuring premium cuts of beef cooked over a showcase Grillworks Infierno wood-fired grill. And yet the oven-roasted chicken, which never even touches the heat of wood, is the one dish you shouldn’t miss.
This must pose cause for concern, at least to the owners at Toptable Group, if Elisa were really just a “modern” steakhouse with “feminine details” – whatever the latter means.
But let’s be honest, this 6,800-square-foot showpiece is more than a steakhouse. It’s an extravagant, long-anticipated, $9-million debut for Toptable – the first standalone Vancouver opening since the restaurant assets (Blue Water Cafe, CinCin, West, Thierry and Araxi) were acquired by Aquilini Investment Group five years ago.
Designed by the renowned Rockwell Group of New York, where Toptable will soon be expanding, Elisa is even more sleekly impressive than the recently renovated Il Caminetto in Whistler.
The long, airy dining room boasts wooden posts and beams, a high ceiling snaked in undulating light strips, herringbone floors, smooth leather seats, two original Warhols and wonderful acoustics.
One wall is dominated by what looks like a white glacier. The open kitchen takes centre stage across the back, with the Grillworks’ open flames flickering behind a hand-cranked flywheel.
A glass-encased wine cellar, filled with premium trophies, makes the perfect backdrop for selfies. The handsome bar and lounge overlooks the dining room and is perpetually packed. Even the bathrooms with their burled wood countertops and auto-raised toilet seats are stunning.
Over all, Elisa is grand, but not ostentatious; buzzy, without feeling crowded. A big city needs these sorts of upscale, splurge-night restaurants for preening and promenading. Elisa does the job very well.
As a steakhouse, Elisa has two distinguishing features. The wood-fired Grillworks, obviously, although it’s similar to the model that executive chef Andrew Richardson has been using for several years at CinCin.
More groundbreaking is the staggering choice of steaks. Elisa offers more cuts and sizes (20-plus) from more independent producers and marketing consortiums (nine) than any other steakhouse in Vancouver.
The Holstein dairy cow, very likely a first for any steakhouse in Canada, is the most compelling. Raised in Wisconsin, the meat comes from four-year-old bulls that are bred for beef rather than being diverted at a young age to veal or hamburger production. The cattle are finished on a combination of grain and corn, giving them good fat marbling, even the striploins (these cuts are actually graded USDA Prime), and a robust, almost gamey dry-aged flavour.
The Holstein is even more flavourful than the local Cache Creek grass-fed, 40-day dry aged rib-eye (also available as a striploin), which is exceptionally tender, but relatively mild tasting, with no discernible funk.
Skip the Blue Dot steaks from Prince Edward Island. They’re as bland as the potatoes they’re fed.
Elisa offers several types of Wagyu: A5 (la crème de la crème) from the Kagoshima Prefecture in Japan; Snake River Farm, from the Okanagan Valley in Idaho; and Brant Lake Farm in Alberta.
If you only try the Brant Lake (the most affordable), don’t miss the hanging tender. This grainy, textured butcher’s cut is quite lean, but oh-so flavourful. A tougher cut of meat (tough is relative, this is still wagyu), it melts marvelously into a sexy, brawny chew with a slow cook over the wood grill’s smouldering embers.
The embers are smoking hot, to be sure, but not as hot as the broilers used in most steakhouses.
And what you might notice is that the intramuscular fat doesn’t break down as fast. Even with a USDA Prime bone-in striploin cooked medium-rare, which should be tender as butter, the marbling was still thick and chewy. It hadn’t been rendered into the meat.
Four of the six steaks I tried over two visits were undercooked. Next time, I’ll order mine medium and I suggest you do the same. Unless you prefer your steaks well done. In that case, I suggest you eat shoe leather and save yourself some money.
But the steaks all taste, oddly, like sweet barbecue sauce. This is because they’re finished with a splash of red-wine demi and a slick of olive oil, which is a shame. Good steak should stand on its own and doesn’t need any seasoning except salt.
The graceful servers, and they’re all polished pros here, kept encouraging me to try to the burrata or the carpaccio or the mushroom risotto (delicious) or any of many composed plates – rabbit, sablefish, lamb rack, branzino.
Silly me, I thought Elisa was a steakhouse. After finally trying the chicken, I realized I was wrong.