It's Saturday night in Kitsilano and Yew Street's beachside promenade is in the grip of early spring fever. The three-block stretch of casual brunch spots, wine bars and beer joints is ablaze in patio lanterns, thrumming with catcalls and stewing in the mounting frustration of would-be car parkers endlessly circling.
Then you step into an unassuming corner restaurant, slip through grey-felted curtains and leave all the brouhaha behind.
Well, well, well. What is this? It looks like a tiny temple to West Coast modern architecture with its walls wrapped in warm-wooden slats and a slender branch of origami cherry blossoms suspended from a raw concrete ceiling.
A server smiles, puts down a bottle of wine to greet you and probably says something welcoming, although it doesn't quite register because you are too captivated by a sunken ice well. An ice well? You are not usually the type who goes gaga over interiors, but this edgeless sink filled with silver buckets of sake, plum wine and other cold-sweating libations is carved out of a solid marble counter on a central-island cart, under which crystal glasses and decanters are stored. What a clever design (by Scott & Scott) for a 28-seat dining room that is too small for a bar.
Easing into a high-backed bench that looks like a long, slanted plank but is actually covered in stretched leather and is quite comfortable, you peruse the hardcover menu, another elegant design (from Glasfurd & Walker) in white, gold and forest-green: Mak N Ming.
He is Makoto Ono, the wunderkind from Winnipeg. Son of a renowned sushi chef, he burst onto the national scene by winning the first Canadian Culinary Championships in 2007 (when the Gold Metal Plates meant something), then went on to open Makoto in Beijing for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games and the celebrated Liberty Private Works in Hong Kong. In 2012, he came to Vancouver to open PiDGiN in the Downtown Eastside, but didn't last long, depressed by the location and a longing to create a more refined French-Japanese restaurant. For the past two years, he worked as a fishmonger on Granville Island until the right location came along.
She is Amanda Cheng (her Chinese name is Ming), a pastry chef whose star also rose rapidly. After studying at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, she apprenticed with one of the greats, Richard Leach, executive pastry chef at Park Avenue Café. Returning to Vancouver, she opened Fraîche with Wayne Martin (and pretty much stole the show) then moved to Hong Kong, where she made a large splash with a diminutive dessert bar, Riquiqui, and met the man who would become her husband.
Two chef-owners, two menus: one, a six-course chef's degustation for $78; the other, a three-course demi menu (sometimes overlapping, but not always) for $54. No à la carte options, no shared plates. This is a bold move in a city that seems to have forsaken fine dining, and even more daring for this neighbourhood, the laidback land of Lululemon drenched in Coppertone.
You are already impressed with their clarity of vision when along comes the amuse-bouche, a shatteringly crisp, intensely salted nori wafer daubed with a squeeze of creamy trout mousse and adorned with three sorrel leaves, lending the briny-buttery power duo a fresh, tangy pop that epitomizes spring. That one memorable morsel, the chef's voice distilled to an earth-shattering squeak, is paired with a sensational cocktail – shiso-steeped kombucha topped with Nino Franco's toasty, fruity sparkling prosecco.
A long-forgotten shiver tingles up your spine. This is the one you've been waiting for. This is what it feels like to fall in love at first bite.
The rest of the meal keeps hitting all the right notes with unexpected, yet exquisitely refined, pleasures. Raw lamb cubes bathed in togarashi-spiced lamb fat are sprinkled with dried baby anchovies and paired with a perfect parmesan crisp. It's Japanese carpaccio.
A golden, buckwheat crepe frilled with crispy edges is folded over greens and a crunchy, granola-like matcha panko. Served with espuma, a foamy fried-egg-white cream and shaves of salt-cured yolk, it's breakfast for dinner.
Lobster is served two-ways: a classic, butter-poached tail with spiralized potatoes tossed in seaweed vinaigrette and spruce tips, followed by thick bisque poured over split-pea porridge and studded with roasted sunflower seeds (a luxurious play on East Coast mashed potatoes and gravy).
Ms. Cheng's desserts are no mere second fiddles. Rhubarb tartlet in a buttery pastry cup crowned with ribboned brunost (a brown whey cheese) actually takes your breath away. It's such a simple, but sublime combination of savoury and sweet. A sake kasu parfait with tannic rose-petal jelly and sweet-pea-dusted meringue is almost as divine as her butternut-squash-cranberry mont blanc (served on the generously portioned demi menu).
From that first amuse-bouche to the final crumb of mignardises, every single bite elicits wide-eyed wonder and appreciative murmurs of "wow." The food is creative and playful, yet restrained with skill and respect for the ingredients.
The wine pairings by sommelier Roger Maniwa (formerly of Hawksworth) are composed of juicy natural reds, crisp chardonnays, floral-bursting plum wines and sweet moscato. They're intriguing without getting too esoteric; complementary without being too showy.
Falling in love, whether with a restaurant or fellow mortals, is a funny thing. That first flush of endorphins makes everything brighter and shinier. You know there are bound to be cracks and flaws that you can't yet see. But that instinctual feeling of having found a missing link cannot be denied.
Mak N Ming is the bright, glowing yang to Vancouver's waning yin: small yet serious; formal but not stuffy; ambitious without overreaching; familiar and still exciting. It's modern fine dining for people who truly adore dining, not just going out to see and be seen.