Lessons from the pasta
Inhabiting what was once a hot spot for wild nights, La Pentola has grown up, offering some of the Vancouver's best Italian
If these walls could talk … Oh, it's a good thing they don't. Back in my wild days, before I became a restaurant critic, the Opus Hotel was my favourite weekend stomping ground. I was there for the opening, 15 years ago, when Vancouver got its first chic boutique hotel and Yaletown transformed from a sleepy warehouse district to a bustling hot spot almost overnight.
I remember how quickly the cocktail set began spilling over from the lounge into Elixir, crowding around the brassy, stained-glass horseshoe bar and turning the French bistro into a de-facto nightclub.
I remember all the celebrities who used to sequester themselves in the velvet room and the paparazzi who hounded them. At one point, around the time Ben Affleck consorted with a stripper at Brandi's and all tabloid hell broke loose, the National Enquirer pretty much moved a temporary bureau into the garden terrace.
I remember the crazy pajama parties, the see-through bathroom scandals, the late nights, the raucous lineups that trailed around the block. Gosh, all this reminiscing is making me feel old.
More relevantly, I've seen the many changes that the restaurant has gone through. And, perhaps somewhat like me, it has finally reached maturity. Its current incarnation, as La Pentola, under executive chef Travis McCord, is the best it's ever been.
In 2012, La Pentola della Quercia opened as an offshoot of the West Side's excellent La Quercia restaurant, then co-owned by Adam Pegg and Lucais Symes. Replacing One Hundred Days – a contrived dive-bar pop-up for which the restaurant's beautiful wood panelling and marble fixtures were vandalized with neon graffiti and the joint sank to new depths of sordid late-night stickiness – it had nowhere to go but up.
A high-gloss makeover fitted the newly brightened dining room with tiled floors, creamy white clapboard and shiny copper pots. The polished service was exemplary. An all-Italian wine list was extraordinary. But the food, well, it was often hit and miss. In the busy early months, when I reviewed, a lot of the homemade pasta dishes were served cold. For one of the funniest excuses I've ever received from a chef, Mr. Symes tried to blame those chilly plates on the long distances they had to travel from the basement kitchen. As I later discovered, there was never a basement kitchen.
Within a few years, Mr. Pegg and Mr. Symes had split up as business partners. Mr. Symes, who had been running La Pentola, left to open a new restaurant, Cinara. Mr. McCord, who had worked in the kitchen from Day 1, was promoted from sous chef to executive chef. And the restaurant was taken over by Safe & Sound Entertainment, a hospitality-management company that operates several nightclubs around town, including Bar None, Hello Goodbye and Republic.
After dropping "della Quercia" from its name, La Pentola widened its narrow focus from a Northern Italian regional niche to a broader, pan-Italian menu. Over the past couple of years, I have eaten there several times. Mr. McCord's cooking, while competent, never really wowed me. Until last month, that is, when I attended a party for the Opus Hotel's 15th anniversary and the kitchen hit the hors d'oeuvres out of the park.
Instead of passing around dainty crostinis, the kitchen plated small portions of regular menu items. Smoked mackerel, slowly brined and torched to delicate crispiness, was served with pungently salty anchovy-flecked salsa verde. Wild mushroom risotto, as dank as a forest floor, has been lightly creamed in luscious veal stock. Tagliatelle Bolognese was richly eggy, perfectly al dente and voluptuously heavy with meat, butter, cheese and cream. Not a single bite was cold.
Wow, what happened? Did the chef fall in love or something? Suddenly, his cooking had been kissed with new passion. (As Mr. McCord later explained by phone, he is actually just out of a long-term relationship, but attributes the kitchen's smooth operation to everything he learned from Mr. Symes and his small, tight-knit team.) Whatever was going on back there, it seemed high time for another proper, sit-down visit.
Again, on a busy Friday night, I was highly impressed. Grilled octopus, served with spicy housemade sausage, chickpeas and moist panzanella-style bread, had been slowly simmered in aromatic white wine to a tenderly toothsome tug and chew.
Dungeness taglierini, bursting with more than two ounces of freshly picked crab, was drenched in butter and lemon, popped with basil and liberally sprinkled with briny bottarga and salty shavings of pecorino. The pasta, light yet nicely elasticized with gluten, was excellent. "This is going to be my new constant craving," a dining partner enthused.
Lumache Alla Amatriaciana was another spectacular pasta dish, smoky with tender pork jowl, spicy with chili and thickly coated with exquisitely balanced pomodoro. But after all that spice, a crispy-skinned arctic char tasted kind of bland. There was nothing wrong with the dish, which came with crunchy asparagus in a glossy pool of saffron jus, but it should have served before the spicier dishes.
Quail involtini, bite-sized bundles of sausage wrapped in roasted meat, were served on roman gnocchi (semolina pancakes) on a lovely, clean tomato purée. But the rapini (and I love rapini) was overwhelmingly spiked with chili, extremely bitter and infused with a whiff of ammonia, which makes me think it was old and off.
Even though the mains fell flat, I would still highly recommend La Pentola for pasta. This is some of the best in the city. Which makes sense, since Mr. McCord (who had never previously cooked Italian) learned from two of the city's best.
The service is polished. The wine list, while less ambitious than it used to be, offers some lovely pairings. And the vibe, well, it's a little sleepy. This is not a place to go and party – although I have rumours about Johnny Depp recently getting into some sort of naughtiness. Still, the Opus Hotel has grown up and La Pentola is much better for it.