Forage restaurant in the Listel Hotel is serious about sustainability. Reopened in June, the Robson Street room has been overhauled and fitted top to bottom with energy-saving appliances and fixtures.
Even the plateware, by Dudson, is said to use 79-per-cent less energy to mold and fire than conventional china.
The new restaurant is completely unrecognizable from its past incarnation as O'Doul's, a live jazz bar. It's slightly smaller (the former atrium is now an art gallery), with a long, centrepiece bar hewed from eco-friendly hardwood.
In the dining area, the walls are covered in soft wool-felt strips dyed with vegetable ink. The chairs and corner banquettes are upholstered in Spinneybeck leather, made in Italy without any volatile organic compounds (to protect the workers from gaseous fumes, one presumes, not the dead animals and their hides). White-oak tabletops are appointed with tea lights in moss-filled Mason jars.
The background music is quiet and no one turns to shush you for laughing too loud.
It's all very earthy and earnest, even the water-saving glass washers under the bar counter and other parts you can't see. The kitchen, for instance, has new electric induction griddles, on-demand ventilation hoods and an extra LEED-qualified walk-in cooler to more efficiently store all the house-made sauces, creams, jellies and pickles that chef Chris Whittaker preserves (and often picks) himself.
His goal? No can opener will ever tarnish his pristinely green kitchen; nor will any industrial-produced condiments sully his food.
Like many ardent crafters (think of Aunt Jane and her walk-in closet of knitted socks that will take a lifetime to gift), Mr. Whittaker is enthusiastic about his wholesome pantry items and eager to show them off. I can't blame him, but a little restraint might be in order.
Take smoked albacore tuna, for example. Besides the fact that the tuna was cut too thick for flash-searing and inevitably served cold, the plate looked like an overgrown forest draped and dripping with every blackberry-fir jelly, foraged chanterelle, organic hazelnut, puréed squash and hand-rolled brown-butter gnocchi the chef could find in his locavore treasure chest.
The cold tuna and jelly (more sweet than coniferous) did nothing to enhance the other warm, autumnal flavours. It was a poorly composed, two-in-one dish. And unfortunately, it wasn't an anomaly.
I'm not opposed to farm-to-table or nose-to-tail dining. I agree with Mr. Whittaker when he says in his bio: "Diners want to know where their salmon was caught and by whom. They want to know that the hazelnuts they're eating are from Agassiz and the apples from Summerland."
True. But when ordering a plate of oysters, they might also like to see their server stick around long enough to explain which are the kusshi and which are the miyagi.
That one hurried delivery was an exception. The servers here are generally very friendly and eager to talk your ear off about suppliers and ingredients. But it's a communal service operation (I counted two servers, three runners, a manager, the chef and a cook all waiting upon our table in a single night.)
It must get awfully confusing for the staff, because there doesn't seem to be any agreement as to how a meal should be paced. One evening, all three sharing dishes were plopped down at once. We were in and out within an hour. On another night, we had four distinct courses leisurely stretched out over 2 ½ hours.
The menu is another irritating confusion. The snacks are labelled as such and easy enough to decipher. I do recommend the addictively greasy cracklings and popcorn or spicy kale and apple chips. The flavourful finger foods go down swell with a craft-beer taster trio or glass of B.C. wine on tap. The beverage list is overwhelmingly local.
But after snacks, you might need help navigating the menu. The categories are labelled by serving vessel: boards, irons, bowls and plates. Fanny Bay clams are not cooked in the cast-iron skillet that comes to the table. The Rangeland game burger needn't necessarily be served on a board. There's no rhyme or reason to the categories. It just makes it difficult for the diner to order when perogies are listed under plates, yet ravioli is lumped in with bowls.
Our first bowl was Chef Whittaker's award-winning wild B.C. spot prawn chowder, which swept the Vancouver Aquarium's Chowder Chowdown, taking both the people's and critics' choice. I've seen the pictures of his chowder from the contest, and it did look very glossy and enticing. Not so much the chowder at his restaurant. Someone in the kitchen was cutting corners, because it was obvious that the cream hadn't been slowly tempered in the roux. It was lumpy and floury tasting – and contained barely any prawns.
Mr. Whittaker is an ambitious chef. He sources interesting ingredients (bull kelp, sea asparagus, Douglas fir) and attempts to incorporate plenty of contrasting flavours and textures in his dishes. When balanced, it all works out very well.
Tamely pickled cipollini onions made a nicely tangy counterpoint to the greasy crunch of double-fried pork cutlet. A tangle of slivered bull kelp is an inspired nod to nori in this Japanese-inspired dish. Softly shredded bison tongue in jumbo ravioli gets a crispy lift from thin fried parsnip chips.
But too often, the food is overwhelmed by a dominant sweet or sour note. Does pink salmon really need pickled huckleberries and pickled sea asparagus? Meanwhile, the birch syrup vinegar reduction on the squash perogies wasn't tart at all. Combined with the sweet squash, they were as sweet as syrup-drenched pancakes.
The limited desserts are also hit-or-miss. Is it possible that the same pastry chef who created the divinely silky pain perdu with candied caramel and brie Anglaise was also to blame for an apple pie on black-pepper short crust that was so tough with overdeveloped gluten that it couldn't even be cut with a knife.
Sustainability is all fine and dandy. But when working it into a restaurant concept, you can't forget the basics. Forage gets an A for vision and a B for effort and an overall fail for its negligible Cs: consistency, flavour composition and culinary technique.
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