Black + Blue
1032 Alberni St., Vancouver
$250 for dinner for two with wine, tax and tip
It was a Friday night in early March. Downtown Vancouver was abuzz with a huge dental conference. At about 11 p.m., a clutch of boisterous out-of-town visitors (presumably dentists or dental-related professionals) wandered past Black + Blue, glanced in the windows and stopped dead in their tracks.
Within seconds, the owner of the high-end steakhouse had swung open the front door and was leaning out to the sidewalk. "Gentlemen, would you like to come in?" asked Emad Yacoub, president of the Glowbal Restaurant Group, which also counts Glowbal, Italian Kitchen and Coast among its stable of sexy dining rooms.
What was the scene inside that so captivated the conventioneers? Well, they probably heard the 1970s pop tunes reverberating off the front wall of glass. And they obviously saw a crowd of expensively suited silverbacks dancing with middle-age bottle blondes around the large central bar. (There isn't an actual dance floor in the restaurant, but when has that ever stopped a good party?)
Hanging from the soaring atrium above, a spectacular etched-brass pendant light installation shimmered against a sleek backdrop of glossy marble, mirrors and dark wood. And even from the sidewalk, the visitors would have seen an assortment of odd shapes lined up against a glowing pink wall at the back of the room and may have wondered what it was.
That would be the Himalayan rock salt meat locker, a 12-foot x 12-foot, glass-encased cooler lined with a wall of pink, dramatically backlit salt bricks that look like marble. The blue-scabbed carcasses inside are dry-aged cuts of premium beef that hang there for anywhere from 28 to 45 days to dehydrate. The salt allegedly helps suck the moisture from the meat and concentrate its natural ferrous and mineral flavours. But as executive chef Josh Wolfe has previously confessed, the salt probably does more to mask the smell than impart any detectable seasoning.
But it sure is showy, just like everything else in this $5-million luxury restaurant. Economic downturn? What economic downturn? There's no penny pinching at Black + Blue, where Penfolds Grange (a feature on the regular wine list) sells for $200 a glass.
If you don't want to join the revellers by the bar, a glass elevator will glide you up to the high-ceilinged mezzanine (and eventually, a rooftop patio still in progress). The second floor is a quiet oasis of deep, tufted leather banquettes and two-top tables for voyeurs who just want to peek over the glass railings at the party scene below.
The menu is comprised of old steakhouse classics – oysters Rockefeller, prawn cocktail, French onion soup, crab Louie, lobster bisque. The sharp-shirted waiters prepare tableside Caesar salad, taking the time to ask how creamy you would like it. (If you like zing, ask for extra anchovies and garlic.)
If you're a celebrity – or ask politely – chef Wolfe or chef de cuisine Jason Labahn (who was recruited from Las Vegas) will also prepare steak tartare beside the table. Is that ketchup he's folding into the perfectly diced meat held together with quail's egg and brandy? Yes, it is. And in the recipe, the tangy condiment makes a nice creamy impact. It's not so nice in the house steak sauce, which tastes more like Heinz than cabernet.
The menu offers several seafood options, including an old-school lobster thermidor, but steak is really the only way to go. There are four main types of beef – USDA prime from the Double RR Ranch in Michigan, (cut into a 60-ounce Tomahawk for $129), Canadian Reserve Angus, Canadian Prime fed on potatoes from the P.E.I. Blue Ribbon consortium, and U.S. Snake River Wagyu (also fed potatoes, from Idaho, along with beer).
While you can certainly have your steak cooked black and blue – a burnt, cast-iron sear on the outside; cold and raw in the centre – the more common method here is char broiling at 1,700 degrees. The extreme heat gives the heavily salted steaks a crunchy, brown crust. But it can also easily overcook the interior flesh.
We tried a sampling of Reserve Angus, Blue Ribbon and Wagyu. The rich, irony flavours of the latter two steaks were practically indistinguishable (which says a lot for the PEI beef, considering it costs less than half the price.) But surprisingly enough, the least expensive Reserve Angus was actually the most tender – likely because it was still red in the centre, where the other two were pink throughout. (All were meant to be cooked medium-rare.)
It was on our way out that we ran into the gape-mouthed conventioneers. "This looks like the liveliest place we've seen all week," one of the tantalized gentlemen exclaimed while the group piled.
Black + Blue might not be to everyone's taste. But it obviously serves a niche.