- Le Bistro de Paris
It was 8 p.m. when she stepped into Le Bistro de Paris, a cozy room appointed in the traditional French style with red leather banquettes, brass railings and polished parquet flooring.
An older waiter formally suited in black vest, tie and knee-length apron led her to a small table for two beside lace-curtained windows. Despite the cheerful atmosphere, there was something dark and mysterious about the restaurant.
Several tables were occupied, but a quick glance was enough to tell her which one had the regular customers, whose conversation everyone else tried to overhear.
"A woman," muttered another waiter as the six male diners sadly shook their heads.
"Mafioso," someone else whispered. She couldn't catch the rest.
If this real scene experienced a few weeks ago sounds like a page out of a French detective novel, that's because it very well could be.
The story goes back to 1977, when a debonair gentleman by the name of Maurice Richez opened a charming bistro called Café de Paris. In the provincial barrens of Vancouver, its elegance stood out as a beacon of sophistication.
Over the years, many now-illustrious French chefs and restaurateurs - Michel Jacob (Le Crocodile), Alain Rayé (La Régalade), Andrey Durbach (Pied-à-Terre), John Blakeley (Bistro Pastis) - made Café de Paris their home.
The restaurant switched hands several times, but remained virtually unchanged. Until recently, it was highly regarded as a quaint, very French, dependable local favourite.
Then, about seven years ago, Jon-Michael Preece bought the restaurant.
Friends describe him as a likeable fellow, though somewhat eccentric, with a solid career as a script supervisor in the film industry. He came from Los Angeles, where his father was a director of many legendary television shows ( Dallas, Falcon Crest, Knots Landing, T.J. Hooker).
Café de Paris began to slide under Mr. Preece's ownership, especially in the past two years, after he was diagnosed with stomach and colon cancer.
Unfortunately, there is no happy ending to report.
Mr. Preece lost the restaurant to the sheriff in October, 2009, and vanished without a trace a few weeks later.
"It's like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," said Bruno Huber, a friend of Mr. Preece and new co-owner of the restaurant, now called Bistro de Paris. "Nobody knows what happened. I hope he's okay, wherever that is."
If there's a silver lining to the tragedy, it's that Mr. Huber (who knew Mr. Preece from the film industry) and his partner Aftab "Mario" Khan (who also owns Ciao Bella, a popular Italian restaurant a few doors down on Denman Street) have reopened and reenergized the establishment in his honour.
They changed the name, gave it a quick nip and tuck and opened two days before the Olympic Games began.
Long-time regular customers, who are now apparently returning in droves, will be happy to note that the best aspects of the restaurant are still the same.
The food is traditional bistro fare offered at very reasonable prices (especially at lunch - the $14 steak-frites special is a steal).
The wine list includes many decent French and New World bottles with minimal mark-ups ('04 Gabriel Meffre Gigondas la Payouse at $55, for instance, and Naramata's Vivacious Pinot Blanc for $35).
In the dining room, the owners threw out the dusty stuffed pheasants, covered the walls in a new coat of mustard-yellow paint and rolled butcher-block paper over the white tablecloths to make it feel less stuffy. The only major change is a new, recently approved patio in the alleyway, which is claimed to be a first for Vancouver.
The new owners seem like genuinely good guys who are trying to do the right thing. They're certainly not gouging the area's bountiful tourist trade. If you dine there on Wednesday night, all main courses are discounted by 50 per cent. And should you drop by on Thursday Sept. 9, 100 per cent of the proceeds from food sales will be donated to the Red Cross to benefit the Pakistani flood victims.
The smartest decision the new owners made was to hire chef Michael Riley, who had worked at Café de Paris from 2001 to 2002. He left when Mr. Preece took over and moved to the Sunshine Coast, where he ran The Club in Gibsons and cooked at Bonniebrook Lodge.
Mr. Riley isn't doing anything fancy. His menu is old-fashioned bistro fare. But he cooks it very well, with care and great ingredients.
His signature pâté de campagne ($9) is a rustic pork pate, thick with liver and back fat and bursting with brandy and port. The terrine is lined down the middle with seared duck tenderloins and studded with pistachios. Served with tangy red onion marmalade and a warm, crusty baguette, it's an appetizer worth going back for.
Moules Provençales ($9) are tastier than most. The bowl is heaped high with more than a dozen fat, fleshy, impeccably fresh Salt Spring Island mussels. They loll about tantalizingly in a pool of rich white wine broth laced with tomato, saffron and tarragon.
You may have to order up a second basket of bread to sop up all the liquid. Or, if you prefer, dunk your frites - which are excellent and also served with the house's compliments to each table.
Some purists might sneer at the fries, which are not as skinny as the McDonald's gold standard. But girth hardly matters when they're perfectly golden on the outside, soft in the centre and cooked this exactingly - blanched at 310 F for three minutes, drained and cooled, then flash-fried for three minutes before serving at 360 F.
Later, by phone, Mr. Riley spends a good 10 minutes explaining his method and why he uses Kennebec potatoes instead of russet (it's the sugar-starch ratio). His frites are not to be missed.
I recommend you order steak poivre ($24 at dinner) to go with them. The eight-ounce entrecôte is a pan-seared premium cut smothered in a creamy, classical peppercorn sauce full of piquant flavour.
The cassoulet ($24), alas, didn't live up to the rest of the meal. Dry pork belly made a poor substitute for Toulouse sausage, which the kitchen was out of that night. And a spoonful of ratatouille over the top hit a discordant, sour note.
"A digestif to go with your crêpes suzette?" the waiter asked at the end of the night. The dessert ($7), prepared in the kitchen and drenched in Grand Marnier, was fine.
But to be honest, all she desired by that point was another order of those phenomenal frites.
There was no ambiguity or mystery about that. Case closed.