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Restaurant Reviews French cuisine doesn’t quite fly at Café Ça Va in West Vancouver

While the rest of the menu may be hit and miss, the showstopping whole roast duck, dry-aged for 14 days and coated with a mouthwatering spice mix, is sure to turn every head in the restaurant.

Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

1 out of 4 stars

Name
Café Ça Va
Location
1860 Marine Dr., West Vancouver, British Columbia
Phone
604-925-2503
Website
cafecava.com
Price
Dinner appetizers, $12 to 18; mains, $24 to $37; whole roast duck, $82
Cuisine
French
Rating System
casualDining
Additional Info
Open Tuesday to Sunday 9 a.m. (10:30 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday) to 3 p.m.; dinner from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m; reservations recommended

I knew right from the start that there was something fishy about Café Ça Va. Perhaps it was the imported sardines, which had been awkwardly stuffed into a white-ceramic can. No, it wasn't a long, rectangular sardine-tin replica with a rigid ring-pull tab. That might have worked. This dish was shaped like a short soup can – round and squat with a cantilevered, saw-toothed lid. It was a chintzy, dollar-store-type vessel that would be appropriate for condiments, or cotton balls, but not these soft, silvery, oil-packed fish that had been squished inside atop eggplant "caviar" (a bland mash filled out with fibrous winter tomatoes) and were falling apart in a frayed, dumpy mess.

Across the table, a slice of pâté en croûte had shrunk away from its puff-pastry crust. The fudgy pink forcemeat mottled with chunks of fat, jellied consommé and pistachios looked like a sad, shrivelled island of boiled pork separated from its stale and soggy golden ring by a dry, airy moat – a gaping hole of poor technique.

My dining partner stared me down with a quizzical frown, as if to say: "For this, you dragged me across the Lions Gate Bridge?"

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Take a look inside West Vancouver's Café Ça Va

Oh, West Vancouver. I know I've neglected you for years and rarely review your restaurants. Glancing around Café Ça Va – at its fine custom millwork, marble counters and tan-leather banquettes gaudily tarted up with King Louis bar stools, oversized crystal chandeliers, snowflake-painted windows, flashing scenes of the French countryside on mounted flat-screen TVs and gilt paint everywhere – I remembered why I so seldom come. Because I always end up in places trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.

This time was supposed to be different. This was touted as the exciting comeback round for culinary heavyweights Alain and Brigitte Rayé.

By Vancouver standards, their story is epic. It goes back to France, 1986. Brigitte, who had grown up in Burgundy and gone abroad to work for the Roux Brothers at Le Gavroche in London, had returned to Paris and was the maitre d' at a bistro called La Dariole, off the Champs-Élysées. Alain, fresh from Chez Uginet in Albertville, where he had become the youngest French chef to earn a Michelin star, moved to Paris, bought the bistro, elevated the food to haute cuisine and renamed it Restaurant Alain Rayé.

"I was part of the package," Ms. Rayé now jokes. They fell in love, got married and ran the restaurant for six years. It didn't win any Michelin stars. (Interestingly, the local critics complained about the bare walls and "sad" décor that detracted from the food.) Yet it was renowned enough to garner a story about the snub in The New York Times. In 1992, they moved to Versailles and opened La Belle Époque, which did, in its second year, earn a Michelin star, one that was maintained until it closed in 1998.

Then the Rayés set sail for North America. In 2002, they opened La Régalade in West Vancouver, a beloved, rustic, country-style bistro that fired on all cylinders – until the couple divorced five years ago. Ms. Rayé later opened La Cigale in Kitsilano with her son, Kevin. Mr. Rayé, alas, spread himself too thin by opening a second La Régalade in the Philippines and assisting their other son, Steeve, with the short-lived Café Régalade. By the time he shuttered the original La Régalade last winter, it was sputtering on Groupon fumes.

In swooped Amin Leo Sabounchi, a real-estate developer and owner of Café Ça Va, a confused café, bakery and piano bar that had gone relatively unnoticed by anyone outside the neighbourhood. Last fall, he lured Mr. Rayé out of retirement and convinced Ms. Rayé to close La Cigale and take over the front-of-the-house. "There aren't many managers that can handle Alain," Mr. Sabounchi explains. "For lack of a better word, I brought them back together."

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Word spread fast. It was a magnificent Rayé reunion. "A sublime new chapter!" my food-writing colleagues enthused. "Chef of the year!" "There is nobody who cooks like this in all of Vancouver!"

Oh, really?

I fondly remember Mr. Rayé's hearty country feasts at La Régalade – the richly braised daubes, the silky rillettes, the ethereal floating meringues. Those clunky sardines and that dried-out pâté en croûte bore little to no resemblance.

Ms. Rayé certainly does run a graceful floor, discreetly attentive and full of charm.

But the food? Braised short ribs in a standard black-peppercorn cream sauce were merely competent, hardly the bold chef reinvention I had heard so much about. Lapin à la moutarde was a disaster – the rabbit meat barely browned with red streaks of carpet burn stretched over withered flesh that had been roughly handled, given all the sharps bits of small broken bones. The poor beaten-up bunny had nowhere to hide since the broken sauce was so thin and grainy.

What was going on? As I later discovered, Mr. Rayé is no longer working in the kitchen. Although he is still executive chef, in title, the long hours were taking their toll and he decided to step back. Behshad Zolnasr, a young chef who most recently worked at Italian Kitchen in Park Royal, took over the line. Last month, he was joined by Dylan Draper, previously head chef at Avec Bistro in Calgary.

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So that explains a lot. Reluctantly, I returned for a second visit – and was moderately pleased.

Salade périgourdine was heaped with glistening hunks of tender duck confit, slippery shaves of luscious mi-cuit foie gras and thick slices of peppery duck sausage generously flecked with tarragon.

An exceptionally fluffy sweet soufflé, whipped high into the sky with three egg whites and grounded with an herbaceous drizzle of chartreuse, was heavenly.

The whole roast duck was a show-stopping dish for two that made everyone else turn and ask, "Oh, what are they having?" The Fraser Valley duck, dry-aged for 14 days, is rubbed with honey and coated with lavender, cumin, caraway, coriander and peppercorns. After being presented at the table in all its golden-glazed glory, the duck was returned to the kitchen and prepared two ways.

First, the breast meat, carved into thick magenta-red slices with the spiced skin attached. The whole-seed mix was a bit heavy-handed, crunchy, and could definitely benefit from a rough grind. And the 30-minute roast was too quick for a dry-aged bird that, although robustly flavoured, has already been sucked of moisture. The fat cap under the breast meat was thick and chewy.

The second course, roughly chopped leg meat, was served over a stodgy button-mushroom duxelles, adorned with chanterelles and draped in a dark, glossy duck jus.

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The restaurant may be improving, slightly, or at least regaining some momentum after Mr. Rayé stepped back. But if that duck dish sounds familiar, it is likely because it is not "unique" to Café Ça Va. It is actually the signature dish of Daniel Humm, executive chef at the three-Michelin-starred Eleven Madison Park in New York. This rendition, much like the entire restaurant, is a nothing more than a knock-off that delivers far less than it promises.

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