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A high-stakes grill-off between Vancouver steakhouses

Wood smoked Jerk Chicken with sam's secret island recipe on the rooftop patio of Black & Blue Steakhouse in Vancouver, British Columbia, Wednesday, May 22, 2013.

rafal gerszak The Globe and Mail

The Roof at Black + Blue

1032 Alberni St., third floor,Vancouver 604-637-0777, glowbalgroup.com

Prices: Appetizers, $9 to $18; skewers, $22 to $34; steak, $39 to $59

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Hy's Encore

637 Hornby St., Vancouver 604-683-7671, hyssteakhouse.com

Prices: Appetizers, $6 to $20; seafood, $32 to $55, steak, $40 to $57

Be it resolved: The taste of a steak grilled over charcoal is far superior to a steak grilled over gas.

Summer is almost here. It's time for the great barbecue debate to commence. To me, the choice is clear. Charcoal makes a better-tasting steak because it bathes the meat in smoke. Seriously, have you ever heard anyone rave about the amazing flavour of propane?

True, charcoal is messy and the heat is inconsistent. It's much easier to push an ignition button than it is to light a stack of charcoal, let it burn down to white coals, spread the smouldering ash evenly over the grate and keep the heat stoked while the beef sizzles. And if you live in an apartment, as I do, charcoal isn't even an option.

That is why, when I want a great steak, I go to Hy's Encore. Until recently, it was the only steakhouse in Vancouver that used charcoal, as it has for the past 50 years.

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Mad Men aficionados rejoice. Although the furnishings were refreshed for its golden anniversary, Hy's looks pretty much the same as when it opened in 1962. The windowless interior is dimly lit, panelled in dark wood and adorned with Renaissance-style paintings of nobles and knights.

Drop your jacket at the coat check (yes, that endangered species from a more genteel age is still alive and kicking here) and peer down a long, brick-lined tunnel. At the end of the dining room you will spy the restaurant's pièce de résistance: a glassed-in mesquite-fired grill spitting fire and smoke that current codes (mostly) prohibit, but was grandfathered because it's so old.

Here we need to pause and explain that all charcoal is not created equal. Cheap commercial briquets from a corner store are bound with sawdust, glue and additives for easy lighting. The flavour of their smoke is akin to the acrid stench of burnt hair. Serious grillers use lump, which is basically real pieces of hardwood burned down to charcoal.

And that's what you'll find in Hy's flaming temple to carnivores: 100-per-cent mesquite lump, which infuses a fireplace-scented finish into dark-seared cuts of prime-grade Canadian beef (the top 3 per cent) wet-aged for at least 28 days.

Chanelling my 10-year-old self – who still salivates over the memory of pink, plastic cows stuck in her sirloin – I ordered a 10-ounce green-peppercorn New York strip with French fries. Thirty-some years later, I must admit the brandy-flecked sauce is a bit salty for a grown-up palate. My dining companion's filet mignon was much more lusciously tender (which floored me, since I've always considered this lean cut as the bovine equivalent of a chicken's flavourless white breast).

But where else will you find scrumptious baskets of cheese toast, garlicky Caesar salad tossed tableside and creamy double-baked potatoes (stuffed with as much thick sour cream and bacon bits as you want)?

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Well, you can actually find most of these nostalgic greatest hits at Black + Blue, the Glowbal Group's flashy downtown retro-nouveau steakhouse. Truth be told, I don't appreciate tableside steak tartare mixed with a soupçon of irony. And I don't love the taste of gas in my steak, no matter how hot the broiler or how crusty the sear.

Be genuine (as Hy's is) or go home, I say.

But the new Roof at Black + Blue is a whole different story. If the restaurant downstairs is an ostentatious ode to a bygone age, this third-floor, rooftop deck emulates the laid-back casualness of a backyard barbecue party.

It's an upscale backyard, to be sure. Only in West Vancouver or a Coal Harbour penthouse would you find such a swanky patio appointed with bronze bullhead sculptures, palm trees, fireplace walls running the length of the open-air room and leather sofas strewn with zebra-print pillows.

The main difference is in the kitchen. Whereas Black + Blue uses a pimped-out double char-broiler exuding extreme heat that reaches internal temperatures of 1,700 F, The Roof is equipped with a state-of-the-art Josper charcoal broiler oven by Wood Stone – the first of its kind in Canada.

The Josper burns as hot as the oven downstairs, but it's fired with mesquite lump (the same as at Hy's). And because this type of grill is so new, it took more than a year for the folks at city hall to do their due diligence and approve the permit.

The wait was worthwhile. Barbecue experts might argue that the wood smoke from quality charcoal can be detected only if the meat is cooked long and slow and that there is no scientific difference in the breakdown of protein. But I would counter that charcoal's blue wisps, even if they're just placebos, infuse the meat with a dark, smoky scent that is so undeniably delicious we humans must somehow be imprinted with a primordial craving.

Black + Blue offers a wider variety of steak than The Roof, which serves only PEI Blue Ribbon tenderloin, New York strip and bone-in rib eye (the highest grade of Canadian prime raised on the seaside fields of the provincial co-operative). Cut in-house, the meat is dry-aged for 40 days (except for the tenderloin, which is wet-aged for 30 days).

Although I didn't taste the upstairs/downstairs steaks side-by-side (next time), I have a fairly reliable eating memory. And I will honestly say that the difference is night and day. Both steaks are beautifully seared with a dark, high-heat crust. But the charcoal-grilled seems so much more tender and flavourful. While I've enjoyed the steaks I've eaten downstairs, I absolutely loved the meltingly juicy, sliced tenderloin I was served upstairs.

I loved it even more than the jerk chicken skewers, which is saying a lot. This was one of the best jerks I've ever devoured. Made with skin-on, dark thigh meat doused for four days in an authentic marinade brewed with allspice, clove, nutmeg, thyme, scotch bonnet peppers, parsley, malt vinegar, brown sugar, soy sauce and who knows what else, the charred, roasted morsels bring you right back to the Caribbean.

The Roof's side dishes – crispy kale and garlic-mashed quinoa salads – are as wondrously light and virtuous as Hy's cheese toast is fatty and sinful. The pineapple carpaccio, drenched in sweet rum syrup and studded with candied ginger, is almost as addictive as Hy's old-fashioned cherries jubilee.

On a hot summer night, I'd choose the Roof's al fresco breeziness over Hy's. But in the dark days of winter, you will definitely find me back in my favourite Mad Men steak cave.

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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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