From espresso to entrée
Vancouver's Bows & Arrows represents an innovative hybrid model that could be the future of the city's restaurants
The lamb ribs at Bows & Arrows, much like the establishment itself, are a finger food of uncommon beauty and complementary contrasts.
Thickly cut with fatty breast meat still attached to small nubs of bone, the riblets are slowly baked until meltingly tender, glazed with apricot poaching syrup that has been lightly licked with fermented-chili sauce, then smoked over smouldering maple wood until the edges crackle into a tooth-tugging char. The muscular caveman bites are finished with a scattering of airy puffed rice and delicate white flowers (grassy-tasting Queen Anne's lace). Succulent, crunchy, gamey and sweet with a lingering fizzle of darkly smoky spice, they are the perfect little snacking morsels. And probably the last thing one would ever expect to eat in a coffee shop.
Is Bows & Arrows really a café? How do you categorize an eatery that blends seamlessly from breakfast and brunch to happy hour and full-service dinner? What to make of a bar where the espresso machine sidles up to craft beer taps, a smartly edited wine list jumps out with several natural, organic and biodynamic wines that you've been dying to try (B.C.'s Bella sparkling blanc de blancs was worth the wait) and the Hemingway daiquiri is so well made you can't decide whether you want it as an aperitif or dessert?
Bows & Arrows – a bright, sunny, Scandinavian-styled, white-and-wood space where a stunning light fixture dangles with green vines over the span of a solid fir, 26-foot-long communal table – is not your typical café. But its innovative hybrid model could be a harbinger of things to come in a city where neighbourhood restaurants are rapidly being redefined and independent chef-owners are having a tough time competing with large groups and chains.
Most people will think of it first and foremost as a café because Bows & Arrows is a well-known coffee roasting company from Victoria. Their excellent beans can be found in discerning coffee shops all over town and beyond. And here, they certainly do serve incredible lattes – offering a choice of chocolatey Guatemalan or acidic South African blends – in lovely handmade ceramic cups adorned with frothy, steamed-milk hearts.
They also have a terrific in-house baker, an expensive investment and not all that common among local cafés. Athena Kyriakides's muffin-free pastry case is piled high with buttery biscuits, flaky strudels and glossy honey buns. She also makes superbly dense sourdough and seedy rye, which are used for excellent tartines (do try the honey-dripped roasted beets with fresh ricotta or whipped lardo with pickled cherries) on Kris Barnholden's brunch and dinner menus.
In a world where avocado toast has become more ordinary than peanut-butter-and-jam, Mr. Barnholden's smoked-chicken tostada with fire-roasted salsa and lobster-mushroom rice with soy-cured egg yolk elevate Bows & Arrows to another level.
You may remember the chef from Latab, a tiny yet ambitious downtown restaurant where almost all the ingredients were locally foraged, fermented, pickled, cured, milled, pressed and baked in-house. The experimental small plates were bold and often revelatory, but perhaps too avant-garde for its time and place. Unable to sustain a living wage, he closed his restaurant last year and took over at Bows & Arrows as a hired hand last month. Although this kitchen has restrictions similar to Latab (no exhaust ventilation, thus no grilling or frying) the cooking sings with more harmony and roundly balanced notes.
Oil-poached tuna conserva, for instance, is a vibrant Niçoise-like salad (minus the olives). Bits of extremely sour pickled eggplants are reminiscent of how he used to cook at Latab, and the salsa verde is very bitter. But the sharp edges come together with soft-boiled eggs, fresh heirloom tomatoes, silky tuna and salty white anchovies. His food here is somewhat more easy-going and neighbourly.
A compressed cucumber and melon salad is juicy and fresh, garnished with lusciously marbled coppa, creamy fior di latte and crunchy pumpkin-seed pesto. The pork and melon combination might remind you of prosciutto e melone, an old Italian-wedding staple, reinvented and lifted for modern tastes.
Almost every item on the dinner menu is thoughtful, delicious (although milky octopus with blood sausage might not be for everyone) and beautifully presented with dill fronds, edible flowers and palate-popping herbs. But the one dish that really stands out is the eggs Benedict on the brunch menu.
Eggs Benedict? It's not easy to take a classic – one that so often disappoints – and make it shine. In many ways, it is a litmus test for a kitchen. And everything about this one is perfect: the lush buttermilk biscuit with its toasted, crumbly base; the runny soft-poached eggs straddling a chewy slab of house-smoked pork collar; the tower of wilted greens smothered in pale, creamy, brightly acidic Hollandaise sauce; the thinly slivered medallions of radish as a colourful garnish. If I lived in Fraserhood, I would want to eat these eggs every single weekend.
A friend of mine, when describing his recent meal at Bows & Arrows, exclaimed that Vancouver is in a "golden age" of small, independent venues. I don't know whether Mr. Barnholden would agree, given that he had to close his own restaurant and is now cooking in someone else's kitchen. But I would say that we are certainly in an age of transition, one in which a small, neighbourhood café/cocktail bar/bakery/restaurant can deliver some of the best food I've eaten all year. The restaurant industry is changing and those that are successful will have to be creative and operate outside the box.