Taxidermy is cool. Once confined to formal Victorian sitting rooms and white-trash trailer parks, stuffed animal skins are suddenly soaring in all their feathered, furry, antlered glory from the pages of shelter magazines, art gallery walls and the window displays of posh fashion boutiques.
Hip restaurants from New York to Nashville and, lately, Vancouver have flocked to the trend. And in these new dining-room settings, the mounted animals occasionally serve a useful purpose – giving patrons a talking point to distract them from the cud-chewed dreck on their plates.
Mamie Taylor's, a new "modern American" restaurant in Chinatown, has a lot of taxidermy. It says so right on the website's home page, presumably as a warning to delicate stomachs who might not enjoy hogging down on pork chops, corn bread and grits under the intense gaze of variously gunned-down birds and beasts.
Yet the restaurant's vast collection of yellow-billed ducks and sharp-toothed boars does make a handsome complement to the warm room's exposed brick, hunter-green walls and studded-leather bar stools.
And it fits right in with all the other esoteric collectibles – antique plates (no two are the same) and old family photos (hung in the front foyer's Great Wall of China).
The menu, filled with modern interpretations of throwback dishes, is similarly quirky. And when executed well, some are extremely satisfying.
Take the smoked veal tongue Monte Cristo, for instance. The French toasted sandwich, served between fried slices of egg-coated Wonderbread – with a mound of house-made Thousand Island dressing on the side – might sound revolting. But the counterpoints of silky, salty tongue, sliced as thin as Montreal smoked meat, crispy bread and tangy sauce are fantastically addictive.
Fried chicken, thickly battered around the bone, is a crunchy pillow of down-home bliss served with buttermilk biscuits and country gravy.
But when that same chicken-fried batter is wrapped around sweet breads, the moist gland meat gets lost in the mix. And the curried gravy underneath is oddly bland.
As is the snow pea salad. Even with truffle oil and chicken crackling, these greens are limp and lackluster. Oxtail fondue is another flavourless dish. The braised meat disappears in its gooey pool of blended Swiss and goat cheese.
But better bland than bad. The bacon-wrapped oysters are so bad they're inedible. The bloated bivalves are streaked with bitter green gunk. They're served with a butternut-squash purée so salty it has to be spit out and an apple-walnut tartar sauce that's cringeingly tart.
Did chef Tobias Grignon even taste this dish? I doubt it. Professionally trained at Vancouver Island University (formerly Malaspina University) and groomed in the Fairmont hotel circuit, the chef has a good pedigree. But like many chefs who have just busted out of classic kitchens (the Vancouver Club and Bistro Pastis, in this case), it sometimes tastes like he's on an out-of-control mission to break as many boundaries as possible.
This is his philosophy, as explained on the Mamie Taylor's website: "True culinary expression is a symbiotic balancing act between cathartic exaltation of the duality of life, and a thoroughly grounded understanding of the biodynamic forces that penetrate the very 'soil' of our existence. It's only through an intense and provocative relationship with nature's primordial forces that we are able to channel them into perfect gastronomic simplicity."
Uh, sure. Pass the doobie. And while he's at it, he might want to rechannel those thoughts on simplicity because there's nothing remotely balanced about sweet-and-sour meatballs wrapped in bacon, stuffed with dates and showered in coriander. They're intensely awful. As are deviled eggs dressed with sweet romesco and briny white anchovies.
When the chef sticks to the standards, his cooking is quite comforting. But when he tries to experiment, the food is like a disco queen on acid.
So, what do you think of that deer head? At times like this, taxidermy is a welcome distraction.
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