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Vancouver’s Cacao defies all expectations, for better or for worse

Chef Jefferson Alvarez stretches his experimental chops with dishes such as sturgeon chicharron: charcoal-coated fish topped with liver mousse and puffed ‘chicharron’ made of fried fish skin.

Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

3 out of 4 stars

Name
Cacao Progressive Latin
Location
1898 W. 1st Ave., Vancouver, British Columbia
Phone
604-731-5370
Website
cacaovancouver.com
Cuisine
Modern pan-Latin
Rating System
casualDining
Additional Info
Open Tues. to Sun., 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Wed. to Sat., 6 p.m. to 11 p.m.; Reservations recommended for dinner

Rice and beans are many things: a sturdy peasant food, a complete protein, a common staple in myriad cultures around the world. Rarely, however, is this humble dish transformed into a texturally intriguing, brightly zingy showstopper capable of making me and my friend (a seasoned global traveller) drop our forks, swoon in unison and immediately hit up the chef for the recipe.

This artfully composed Venezuelan pabellon – the best rice and beans ever – is mounted on a pressed and lightly toasted square of jasmine rice that has been aromatically boosted with sautéed onions, jalapenos and garlic. The rice is topped with a duo of flank steak: one part softly shredded and stewed with fresh bay leaf and tomato sofrito; the second part, a tangled spray of the same beef dehydrated into crunchy tendrils of shattering floss. On the side are golden-seared medallions of sweetly ripe plantain. A richly concentrated black bean stew, the beans still fibrously firm, is spooned tableside.

We give our heads a shake. They're just beans, after all. But the lusty juice in which they're gently simmered – a heady mix of red pepper, poblano, garlic, onion, cumin, cilantro and wild culantro (spicy, long-leaf cilantro) – does an extraordinarily sexy tango on your tongues.

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Some might balk at the $28 à-la-carte price tag. For rice and beans? But these aren't any old rice and beans. And when portioned in a smaller size for the $45 three-course tasting menu (which actually comes with five courses, including a wild-mushroom-filled maize arepa as amuse-bouche and moist coconut-rum cake for dessert), it's a bargain.

Cacao Progressive Latin is a new restaurant from Jefferson Alvarez, one of Vancouver's most experimental chefs. We almost lost him. After flitting around from Fraiche to Secret Location to a series of pop-ups, he was ready to pack up and move to Amsterdam this fall. Through a friend of a friend, he met Marcela Ramirez, the "Martha Stewart of Mexico," as he refers to the former Monterrey-born television celebrity and cookbook author.

Ms. Ramirez and her daughter, Andrea, who had taken over the old Epicurean Caffe in Kitsilano, hired him as a consultant and then quickly offered him a partnership. After a simple renovation that included opening up the kitchen and tearing out the deli case, the aging breakfast joint reopened as a "progressive" pan-Latin eatery that hopscotches various Latin cuisines with modern techniques and local influences.

The daytime menu is a casual affair, offering the usual assortment of gluten-free waffles, eggs and quinoa bowls with a few Latin-inspired twists – arepas (spongy pita-like maize cakes stuffed with avocado and peas), deeply satisfying masa-dumpling chile-chicken soup and an amazing two-tiered chocolate flan cake – all made by Ms. Ramirez.

Dinner, however, defies all expectations, for better and occasionally worse. The best dishes are the ones, such as the elevated pabellon, that are strongly rooted in tradition. There is also an excellent branzino, its silver scales seared in hot oil to a fine crystal-thin crunch, served with zesty pico de gallo and green plantain.

Then there are the more avant-garde dishes, reminiscent of Mr. Alvarez's fashion-forward experimentation at Secret Location. Sturgeon chicharron, for example, is laudable for many elements. He uses several overlooked parts of this giant fish (which is farmed on the Sunshine Coast for caviar), including the skin, which is dried and fried into puffed "chicharron," and the gelatinous spinal marrow (whipped with the liver into a mousse). The meat is coated in activated charcoal and ash made from burnt lemon rinds (leftovers from the bar's freshly squeezed juice). He sprinkles the plate with crispy shallots and dots it with colourful bubbles of paprika aioli and creamy salsa rosa. It's stunning in appearance. But if not eaten with a little bit of everything on the fork, the charcoal-coated meat can taste rather slimy and the liver mousse very fishy.

The two dishes – one so humbly traditional, the other so cutting-edge – are slightly jarring on the same menu. They come from two extremes.

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Most of the dishes, mind you, land comfortably in between, loosely stitching the old together with the new. Albacore ceviche lightly cured in ginger-citrus marinade is garnished with what looks like a fried slice of lotus root (but is actually a hole-punched sweet potato). Shaved chayote salad is compressed with cucumber in eye-squintingly tart scoby (the blobby bacterial culture used for making kombucha).

Bison, rolled in a leek-ash crush, comes with beautifully fluffy cassava, which is boiled and frozen before frying, giving its bloomed fibres the buttery, airy consistency of a croissant. Braised lamb leg – Christmas on a plate – is dusted with cocoa powder and coffee, served alongside white sweet potato creamed with tonka beans and a sweet annatto sauce mixed cocoa nibs and cinnamon.

Mr. Alvarez is returning to his South America roots while incorporating the modernist twists and more holistic local trends he has accumulated along the way. It's a humble start. The modest dining room, with its unadorned white walls, hard wooden benches and tiny wine list, is by no means fancy. And the journey, with its unexpected bursts of jolting acidity and slimy bits, is still a little rocky.

But there is an awful lot of magic to be found along this whimsically meandering path. When it all comes together in a more natural progression, such as those extraordinary rice and beans, Cacao should be quite spectacular.

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About the Author
Vancouver restaurant critic

Alexandra Gill has been The Globe and Mail’s Vancouver restaurant critic since 2005. She joined the paper as a summer intern in 1997 and was hired full-time as an entertainment columnist the following year. In 2001, she moved to Vancouver as the Western Arts Correspondent, a position she held until 2007. More

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