- Adesso Bistro
If I had a dollar for every dish ever described by a food writer as "melt in the mouth", I'd never need to work again.
Of course, I'm as guilty as everyone else for overusing this tired phrase. So please forgive - and try to believe - me when I say that the chickpea frittelle at Adesso Bistro is the genuine, melt-in-the-mouth article.
These tantalizing tongue teasers, which accompany the Berkshire pork ($19), are shaped into two rectangular blocks that have been gently fried in very fresh oil to an unblemished hue of Riviera golden brown.
The first bite is a firm crunch through a fragile crust. But then poof! The thin, crispy coating dissolves around its centre - a simple blend of chickpea flour, water, a dash of pepper and maybe a little parmesan - that comes oozing out in a gush of thick, smooth creaminess.
When such a small side dish impresses as much as the main course - a flavoursome (nearly melt-in-the-mouth) slab of pork short ribs slowly braised in a potpourri of herbs and white wine - you know you're in the hands of an excellent chef.
His name is Sean Sylvestre. We haven't met face to face, but I'm head over heels for his food.
It tastes somewhat familiar. Mr. Sylvestre spent eight years as second in command at Cioppino's, which shows in the meal's flawless execution, the menu's respect for lightness on the plate, and an unremitting attention to detail that extends right down to the fritters.
But the flavours are new, at least for Vancouver. This is Ligurian cuisine from Italy's small yet splendidly diverse northwest region. Spanning sea to Alps, Liguria offers an abundance of seafood and red meat, lots of nuts and legumes, herbaceous olive oils and the most vibrant pasta sauce ever created - pesto.
Co-proprietor Luciano Loi tried to bring the regional concept to Vancouver before. Perhaps it was ahead of its time (five years ago), or in the wrong place (Kitsilano). The original Adesso Bistro lasted less than a year. I really hope this one stays.
You may find fritto misto di mare ($12) at other Vancouver restaurants, but not as good as this. Here, an impeccably fresh assortment of clams, prawns, halibut, scallop, calamari and squid is dredged through a whisper-thin coating of flour that is barely perceptible to the eye and flash fried for no more than a few seconds. On the plate, it's sprayed with lemon, sprinkled with anchovy salt, joined with artichoke that has been given the same treatment and married with few crackly fried sprigs of parsley for a little extra something.
Mixed seafood ($20) is a similar selection prepared in a whole different way. Here, the fresh catch swims in a shallow bowl of light broth infused with the sweet, smoky heat of Espelette pepper. I wish every young, know-it-all chef in Vancouver could go taste this dish that looks so simple yet isn't - if only to see how aioli is properly made.
Heading inland, Mr. Sylvestre shows just as much talent with charcuterie. His pork terrine ($13) interleaves succulent hunks of various meaty cuts between thick veins of milky lardo. To leaven the richness, he serves it in very thin slices over a pool of creamy green vinaigrette. On its own, the sauce would be almost offensively tart. With the fatty pork, it's a brilliant balance.
There's a similar, pleasing symmetry between the front and back of house. Service was excellent, but not just because our waitress knew the menu inside out, was extremely attentive and made us feel relaxed without being too chummy.
Underneath the casual vibe of the room lies a formal level of old-school service. Sections are small and staffing is high. There are runners to serve the food when it's still hot and busboys to ensure that plates are cleared promptly. Pasta is always served with a dessert spoon, wine is not poured from across the table and water glasses never drain dry.
Mr. Loi runs a tight ship that sails all the more smoothly because it doesn't show any strain. And it's such a lovely West End locale - the garden room underneath the Buchan Hotel that formerly housed Parkside - you'll want to linger over three or four courses. (The plates and prices are small enough to accommodate that many.)
If you have just one pasta dish, do try the linguine Genovese ($12/$18) tossed with tender potato slices, slivered green beans and a basil pesto so fragrant you can smell it across the room. (It would be nice to see some of the specialty pastas like trofie, an eggless gnocchi twirled into long squiggles, for which Genoa is famous.)
If you have room for two, the risotto with stinky gorgonzola, freshly shelled walnuts and wilted radicchio is an excellentchoice. On second thought, this dish is so rich you may want to save it for dessert.
Desserts are Adesso's weakness. Jason Pitschke aims high with several modern variations on classic pastries. Some of his flavours - spiced bitter orange and dark chocolate cream - are stunning.
Texturally, though, the dishes are a mess. Profiterole pastry should never be spongy. Canoli is a fried crepe, not a wafer. Ricotta cream doesn't taste good when it's lumpy.
The wine list could also use some fleshing out.
There are lots of familiar labels from big commercial producers in the cellar and very few surprises.
But these are small complaints. Trust me, I'm not being the least bit hyperbolic when I tell you that this was one of my very best meals this year.