Oru in the Fairmont Pacific Rim is not surprisingly one of Vancouver's most expensive restaurants.
From the custom-made Fazioli piano in the hotel's marble-clad lobby to the 50-metre-long origami sculpture illuminating its haute-Zen flagship eatery, every gleaming fixture in this waterfront property screams luxury.
Extraordinary price points do however come with high expectations.
A $90 lunch for two (before tip, without drinks or dessert) should dazzle. It didn't. A subsequent dinner – at which I was served lobster so soft and mushy it had to be sent back (twice), a Japanese seafood hotpot grossly muddled with Béarnaise sauce, and an otherwise exquisite chocolate marquis marred by plantain chutney so unexpectedly raw and starchy my friend actually spat it out – was an unconscionable flop.
Oru may have had problems in the past, but its new direction is a turn for the worse.
When the restaurant launched three years ago, just days before the Winter Olympic Games began, David Wong was executive chef. A Bocuse d'Or top-10 finalist, he cooked up elevated street food from the Asian Pacific Rim. The house-made noodles in his Berkshire pork belly ramen may have sometimes fallen flat, but his almond butter chicken was out of this world.
Alas, homemade tofu was too cutting edge for this opulent hotel. Visiting guests didn't understand the modern Asian concept. Local foodies couldn't swallow the prices.
About 18 months ago, Mr. Wong was replaced by Darren Brown, a well-travelled Vancouverite.
Mr. Brown had spent two years cruising the Mediterranean aboard Merv Griffin's private yacht before dropping anchor in Las Vegas, where he worked his way up to executive sous chef at Mix Restaurant (owned by the renowned Michelin three-star chef Alain Ducasse) and later, assistant executive chef of the entire Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino.
Recruited from the Glowbal Group, with which he spent almost three years upon returning to Vancouver, Mr. Brown has expanded Oru's Pacific Rim repertoire to its broadest possible definition, adding Mexico, South America and Polynesia to the stew.
No longer just an Asian restaurant, although the tables are still oddly set with chopsticks, Oru is also a steakhouse (specializing in charbroiled angus reserve); an Italian trattoria (featuring ling cod puttanesca, veal osso buco and mushroom risotto from the hotel's casual Giovane Café); and a health spa, too.
(As with all Fairmont hotels and resorts, Oru offers an extensive lifestyle menu replete with low-carb, low-fat, vegetarian, vegan, Mediterranean, macrobiotic, gluten-free, heart-healthy, raw and diabetic options.)
In its attempt to be everything, Oru is spread too thin to excel at anything.
I did enjoy a few memorable dishes over two visits, which makes me believe the kitchen harbours some serious talent that could be fostered with a tighter focus. Best of all was the Hawaiian-inspired, maple-mustard-glazed kalua pork belly, thinly sliced yet thickly streaked with fat as silky as its pineapple-scented bed of lotus root purée.
Japanese-influenced cuisine would appear, at first bite, to be Oru's greatest strength.
Creamy salmon chowder, thickened with leek and potato in a bacon-dashi fish stock, was deeply sweet and smoky.
A lunchtime bento box was generously filled with Dungeness crab, lobster, scallop, steelhead and albacore tuna rolled around various forms of rice, a lovely piece of maple-glazed pork belly and the sweet bean curd skins. Mind you, at $28 – nearly twice the price of the average bento box – it should be good.
Just as I was wondering why Oru doesn't offer more Japanese dishes, along came the saffron nabemono.
A rarefied version of the all-in-one comfort hotpot, the bowl bobbed with mussels, and salmon and sablefish and tuna. On the side, looking like a a wannabe bouillabaisse aoili, was a piece of toast topped with crab smothered in Béarnaise sauce.
If I wanted a buttery egg-yolk steak sauce with my crab, I would have ordered the filet mignon Oscar, or a bouillabaisse. Besides the fact that that sauce wasn't even mentioned on the menu, it was just wrong for a delicate dashi broth.
It curdled into slimy clumps and overpowered everything else.
Poached coconut lobster was another disaster.
The shelled claws and tail arrived on a bed of overcooked Israeli cous-cous (insipidly infused with cilantro) looking shrunken and wilted.
There was no snap to the flesh. The waiter took it back, but the second order wasn't any better.
Chef Brown, who obviously hadn't tasted the lobster before it left the kitchen, didn't argue with me. He knew, belatedly, exactly what was wrong. There was too much lime in the poaching liquid, he explained. Even though the lobster was cooked for only 1½ minutes, the citrus acids had broken down the protein. "Not a great time to figure it out," he apologized. No, sadly not.
What else? Spicy coconut-corn chowder had no hint of jalapeno and the tomato-guajillo sauce served with gaucho steak frites was meek.
Meanwhile, chili-broccolini was a bludgeoning scorcher. In general, the kitchen's use of spice lacks balance.
Wagyu beef tartare was a disappointing attempt at innovation.
The under-seasoned, roughly chopped meat was bedecked with an oyster in place of the standard quail's egg. It had the right slippery texture, but it was warm and had no flavour. There was nothing in the mix to bind or brighten the meat. A watercress purée tasted like, well, water.
With only one white wine bottle listed for less than $60, we ordered individual glasses. Neither arrived until we had finished our two staggered appetizers and were working on our main courses.
If Oru were less expensive, it would merit a star. But at these prices – which rank right up there with the Bluewater Café and Cioppino's – there's no excuse for anything less than excellence. Oru is far from excellent and I cannot recommend it.
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