Vancouver, a bustling port city on the western edge of Canada, has one of the most diverse populations in North America. It also has one of the most exciting dining scenes: All those myriad cultures are reflected in the array of food and wine on offer, and made especially vibrant by the quality of the local produce. Seafood doesn’t have far to travel here before it hits the plate; the temperate climate allows for an array of produce to be grown nearby (much of it organically). Even wine can be local here: British Columbia’s industry is now nearly 300 wineries strong. There’s never been a better time for a visit, since recent legislation, allowing for previously foreign concepts like happy hour and lounges in distilleries and breweries, has invigorated the wine scene. Here are a few places the wine-minded could start.
Step into this cozy corner spot in Vancouver’s fringe-industrial Railtown, and go ahead, ask for Luigi. If there is a Luigi to be found, he’ll be busy tucking into plates of family-style antipasti or toothsome house-made pasta while downing a tumbler of wine poured from tap or tossing back a spritz or three. Who will most likely greet you is Matthew Morgenstern, the fellow with the corkscrew and that wicked I’ve-got-some-thing-up-my-sleeve-for-you grin. His unaffected and honest demeanor mirrors the food and wine on offer. In addition to the tap selections, he rolls out a small whites-focused Italian list, everything available by the bottle, half-liter or glass. When a new bottle is opened, a bell rings and knowing eyes watch the old-school plastic letter board to see what’s new. The 2015 Offida Deja Passerina from Domodimonti with crispy warm cauliflower and olives? Si, grazie.
If you rock up to Fraserhood’s Osteria Savio Volpe without a reservation and fate is your friend, chances are you’ll catch a seat at the sleek center bar. With a full view of the bar and salumi station, it’s one of the best seats in town, and the gathering place for the local food and wine industry. Everything is hand-crafted (from the cocktails to the pasta) or wood-fired (as in pizzas, rotisserie chicken and local seafood), and the adventuresome Italian wine list is among the city’s unpretentious best. Warm up with a Lambrusco, like Medici Ermete Concerto, while debating whether to go the new-Italian route, like Occhipinti SP68 from Sicily, or classic, like Pieropan La Rocca Soave Classico and Foradori Vigneti delle Dolomiti. Bonus points for a top soundtrack.
Newly opened in the city’s swish Pacific Rim hotel, Botanist is your go-to when you need to go posh. Grant Sceney runs the bar, and his drinks, presented in categories such as “Flowers + Trees” and “Berries + Vines,” aren’t cheap, but they are stunningly made. The Shepherd of Trees, for instance, a mix of Douglas fir-infused gin, oaked rye, cedar, birch sap and alderwood-smoked tea, will imprint the Pacific North-west on your palate for all time. Upstairs, in the dining room, the food does the same, in dishes like beet agnolotti with grilled sturgeon or butter-poached lobster with trumpet mushrooms. Jill Spoor’s wine list highlights the artistic, fine cuisine with terroir-ist wines from near, like Vancouver Island’s 2013 Averill Creek Pinot Noir, and far, like Stina’s 2014 Pošip-Brac from Croatia.
You’ll find the city’s sole all-natural wine program at Burdock & Co., a little Mount Pleasant restaurant run by Andrea Carlson, one of the pioneers of foraged cuisine in Vancouver. Last autumn, dishes like elk bavette with tomatillo-epazote chimichurri and chanterelle mushrooms competed for attention with Carlson’s legendary buttermilk fried chicken, which she serves with pickle mayo and a dusting of dill powder. Wine director Matt Sherlock’s tight wine descriptions make it easy to navigate the list, where Okanagan indie heroes like Lock & Worth shoulder up to icons like Movia from Slovenia; Cornelissen’s Susucaru, for instance, is translated into “hibiscus flowers, balsamic, raspberries, iron—cool-kid juice grown on an active volcano.”
The list isn’t large at this new Kitsilano restaurant, but wine lovers will want to make a visit to sommelier Roger Maniwa, one of the most thoughtful somms in the city. With a stint at a sake brewery in Japan and years working at local favorite Hawksworth, where his work garnered him Vancouver Magazine’s Sommelier of the Year award in 2016, his knowledge is as deep as his tastes are far-ranging. That’s an advantage when it comes to the complex French-Japanese-inspired tasting menus put out by chef Makoto Ono (Mak) and partner–pastry chef Amanda Cheng (Ming), and it also keeps things surprising. One recent night, fresh-caught Humboldt squid met its Pacific match in the silky Amamiduki Junmai Ginjo Sake while the scents of the seaweed oil and spruce tips in the poached-lobster course were picked up by Punica’s Samas, a Sicilian white. As with the food, you’ll never know what comes next—only that it will be esoteric and eye-opening.
It’s open only breakfast through lunch, but Café Medina is a must. Slide into a banquette along the wall of windows, facing the open kitchen and the bustling barista station, and take in the scent of merguez lamb sausage and espresso. Ingredients are local, down to the Canadian heritage grains, but the menu is as global as your mind can wander. Double that for the cocktails. I recommend starting with a Saman-yolu, a savory blend of gin, Fernet Branca, Odd Society crème de cassis, juniper-and-black-tea syrup that will spoil you for iced tea for life. Don’t forget to save room for house-infused crème de cacao–spiked coffee with your Liège waffles with salted caramel. Café Medina reinforces that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and breakfast cocktails are the best idea in the universe.
Vij’s has forever changed the discussion of Indian cuisine since its opening in 1994. Vikram Vij and his wife, Meeru Dhalwala, apply traditional Indian methods, spices and techniques to sustainably raised local produce, and present the results with wines that don’t shy away from the food’s complex flavors. The list favors mineral-spiced whites, such as Heidi Schröck’s 2013 Furmint from Austria, that can meet the layers of flavors in dishes like chickpeas with star anise, date masala and grilled kale. Reds are juicy and bright and ready for spice; the herbal and crunchy Green Room grenache-syrah blend from Ochota Barrels in Australia’s McLaren Vale is an inspired partner to lamb popsicles in fenugreek cream curry on turmeric-and-spinach potatoes. With Vancouver legend Jay Jones behind the bar, the cocktails are also stars in their own right.
For many Canadians, especially the French-speaking sort, “comfort food” refers to classically French, rustically haute Quebecois dishes like tourtière, a sort of pot pie, or la choucroute garnie. At St. Lawrence, chef JC Poirier presents them with a luxuriously all-French wine program. Start with le vrai French 75, made with Cognac, or an exuberant Vincent Caillé X Bulles pét-nat from Nantais, with steak tartare, chèvre noir and potato chips. When you get to the venison-filled tourtière, move on to a Clos du Tue-Boeuf Pineau d’Aunis or Clot de l’Oum Compagnie des Papillons. And then there’s the maple-syrup tin over-flowing with oreilles de crisse (deep-fried pork rinds) tossed in maple syrup and Montreal steak spice, paired with a Labatt 50 in a tall can. Whether you were raised a Canuck or not, it will make you sing “O Canada” en Français.
photo of Ask for Luigi by Christopher Flett; Osteria Savlo Volpe by Knauf and Brown; Botanist by Luis Valdizo; Burdock & Co. by Allison Kuhl; Mak N Ming and St. Lawrence by Glasfurd & Walker; Cafe Medina by Lili Watson
This story appears in the print issue of February 2020.
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