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Roasted beet salad with Okanagan goat cheese and burnt apple vinaigrette at Forage

Roasted beet salad with Okanagan goat cheese and burnt apple vinaigrette at Forage

It’s always great to get away on a long holiday weekend and, in our minds, it’s a bonus when the place you go to doesn’t celebrate said holiday so you don’t have to deal with the usual masses of people using the it as an excuse to get drunk and light fireworks. Since Memorial Day weekend coincides with Craig’s birthday, we used it as an excuse to make the quick trek up to one of our favorite weekend get-away locations: Vancouver, British Columbia. Other than some dinner reservations, we didn’t have much planned for the weekend, which allowed our mood and the weather to dictate the rest; and what we ended up with was reasonable weather that didn’t force us inside, along with some outstanding and memorable meals.

Our first night found us taking a stroll down Robson Street for a reservation at Forage – a sustainable, locavore restaurant that is part of The Listel Hotel. As we were led to our seats at a comfortable corner table, our noses were tantalized by delicious smells. The menu at Forage is divided into Snacks, Land, Soil, Sea, and Sweets, and we leisurely worked our way through each category, ordering and savoring just one dish at a time. We started with a snack (which happened to be the very last order of the night) of elk jerky, the likes of which I never could have imagined. It was incredibly tender. I had no idea jerky could be a texture that didn’t make you feel like your teeth would fall out in the process of eating it. It was simultaneously sweet and savory, and could have worked just as well as a dessert. We next cleansed our palette with a colorful and lively roasted beet salad topped with local, creamy goat cheese. Perfectly buttery halibut with stinging nettles and fiddleheads was our sea dish. And we finished up our main courses with duck breast accompanied by arancini – stuffed rice balls – with duck confit sitting atop duck liver mousse, complemented by cherry preserves and grilled asparagus. Completing our meal was a light panna cotta with jellied rhubarb served in a jelly jar; which was good, but maybe the least interesting thing we ate that night.

Service was very good, and our waiter could not have been more friendly. However, he wasn’t able or willing to give definitive suggestions, and essentially told us everything was good whenever we pressed him with a question. While that may be (and was) the case, we really like to hear what the staff favorites are – more so than customer favorites – but he wasn’t divulging. On the other hand, he was very excited about the restaurant’s concept and made us feel completely welcome to take our time, even on a packed Friday night.

After a walk back to our hotel – the gorgeous and lush Rosewood Hotel Georgia – we stopped into the 1927 Lobby Lounge to spend time with our favorite bartender, Joe, someone we always pay a visit to regardless of where we stay. And, by the way, no other place ever comes close to the Hotel Georgia. I ordered my favorite drink, the Canadian Old Fashion. “Canadian” because of the addition of house made maple syrup. Craig started with a Side Car, based on Joe’s suggestion, followed by a much stronger cocktail involving absinthe.

The next day we walked around trying to get into one popular brunch spot after another but the waits were atrocious; as if we should have expected anything less. We finally stumbled on The Elbow Room Café, which had just a short ten minute wait. The food was decent – I would beg to differ with their “world famous” claim – but it’s all about the ambiance and the staff. It felt like I was back in 1980s San Francisco, as our waiter was trying his best to see if he could shock any of his customers. Whether he was disappointed or not I can’t say, but everyone around us – gay and straight, couples, friends and families – played right along with his suggestive, bawdy talk. The other notable thing is that if you don’t finish all of your food, they “require” you to make a donation that goes to A Loving Spoonful, a charity that provides meals to homebound people living with HIV/AIDS in the Vancouver area. It almost makes you want to leave some food on your plate.

Bruschetta at Ask for Luigi

Bruschetta at Ask for Luigi

After a nap and some shopping, we headed over to Ask for Luigi, which is a wildly popular two-year-old restaurant that recently won Vancouver Magazine’s Best Restaurant of the Year, in addition to Best New Restaurant of the Year, Best Casual Restaurant, and Best Italian Casual Restaurant. And here’s the thing to know: it’s a tiny thirty-plus seat restaurant, and they do not take reservations. But don’t let that stop you. Ask for Luigi opens at 5:30pm, with people lining up on the sidewalk outside well over an hour beforehand. The first thirty-plus people get in. Everyone else is told an approximate wait time and can go wander off, have drinks, window shop, or take a nap until they get a text telling them their table is ready. It’s not a bad system, as long as your night is flexible and you don’t have to be anywhere at a particular time. The host was definitely hoping to scare off at least a few people with the “two-to-three hour wait,” but he was very personable; especially when we told him we didn’t scare easily. The restaurant is a little off the beaten path but within walking distance of Gas Town, so we headed down the street and found somewhere to plunk ourselves down for a while to have a drink and snack. A little over two hours later, we received our notification that our table was ready just, and found ourselves seated soon after.

Ask for Luigi has a concise menu with a selection of antipasti and pastas that are meant to be shared. We started with the bison tartar and tuna aioli bruschetta. Was it meat? Was it fish? It was absolutely delicious! Creamy, fresh, and bright, the bison and the tuna were a match made in heaven. We then selected two pastas to share: tagliatelle with chicken liver ragu, and saffron risotto with lamb sausage and peas. Both were fresh, interesting, and tasted like Italy. Lightly sauced but packed with flavor, they were rich without being heavy. But we didn’t stop there. We completed our meal with the chocolate budino – the lightest, most delicate flourless chocolate cake I’ve ever had – complemented by an even lighter olive oil cake, all washed down with a relatively delicate grappa. It was a great meal.

The service at Ask for Luigi could have been terrible – it’s packed, cramped, and hot, and we were seated next to the restroom – but it was just the opposite. Service was genuinely nice, casual, helpful, and friendly. However, the big question: is it worth a two, three, or even four hour wait? The food is more than very good, the overall experience was great, and I’d have no hesitation to go back. However, if I actually had to stand in line for hours, I probably wouldn’t do it. But the system they have makes it completely worth it as long as you come mentally prepared.

The Whistle Punk at Liberty Distillery

The Whistle Punk at Liberty Distillery

The last time we went to Granville Island Public Market, we made the mistake of eating before we got there and were too full to enjoy the beautiful bounty the market has on offer. We told ourselves that next time we would visit on an empty stomach and eat our way through the market. Well, it didn’t quite work out that way. Before we even stepped inside the market hall proper, we saw a tempting bakery called A Bread Affair, serving all organic, non-GMO baked goods. We were hungry, so we each ordered their egg, ham, and heirloom tomato brioche sandwich. And that was our mistake. We could have, and should have, shared one sandwich, but the damage was done. Although we walked up and down the aisles admiring all the goodies on display, we just weren’t able to go on the food bender we envisioned. If the third time is the charm, then we will do it right on our next visit.

We spent some time wandering around the shops on the island that sell artisan goods, and found ourselves walking past a local craft distillery. We peeked inside and then started to walk away, but it continued to beckon to us even though we weren’t really feeling ready for hard liquor just yet. After some hemming and hawing, we took the plunge and stepped inside, and were so glad we did. The Liberty Distillery is a craft distillery brewing vodka, gin, and whiskey with local, organic ingredients. They’ve only officially been open a year, while waiting patiently since 2010 for British Columbia’s liquor laws to change to allow a legal craft distillery.

We each chose a cocktail off of a wonderful menu with some unusual concoctions. As we were sipping our libations, we noticed a sign for tours and the next one was coming up in just a few minutes, so we signed up. When you go behind the lounge where the distilling takes place, you might think you’d be in and done in five minutes, but we were provided with a forty-minute tour that was both informative and thoughtful. I would highly recommend it to anyone that has an interest in craft spirits. We also got to sample some more of their creations, which then led us to making an extensive purchase followed by concerns about how we’d get it all across the border. We will definitely go back to the Liberty Distillery the next time we’re in Vancouver.

Our final dinner of this trip was at the elegant Hawksworth Restaurant, located in the Rosewood Hotel Georgia.  Hawksworth has won Best Upscale Restaurant in the Vancouver Magazine Restaurant Awards for the past four years in a row, and this year also saw their wine director, Bryant Mao, win Sommelier of the Year. Hawksworth’s dining room is modern, elegant and glamourous, but not stuffy at all.

We started off with a cocktail while perusing the menu. Wanting something light and refreshing, I went with a classic Moscow Mule and finally learned why they are traditionally served in a copper cup. The short answer: a marketing gimmick from the 1940s that worked then and has stuck until present day. The restaurant has an a la carte menu but offers an optional tasting menu we simply couldn’t resist. We also couldn’t resist the wine pairings.

Sablefish with chanterelles and grapefruit at Hawksworth Restaurt

Sablefish with chanterelles and grapefruit at Hawksworth Restaurt

We began with an amuse bouche, and one that might have been my favorite dish in an overall stellar dinner. It looked like sushi made up of yellow fin tuna and prawn covered in black sesame seeds, topped with green papaya and served on a light-as-air toast. It tasted divine. This was followed by a scallop ceviche that received some heat – actually, quite a lot of heat – from a cucumber jalapeno nage, topped with sliced jalapenos. A warm garlic cake with morels, potato, and parsley foam tasted like spring and fall combined, while the buttery, velvety halibut with baby artichokes got a vivid punch with a grapefruit saffron barigoule. An olive-crusted veal shoulder with sweetbreads, white onion puree, fennel, and a nettle emulsion completed the savory portion of the meal. We opted to share a cheese course, because we can’t say no to cheese, and ended the extravagant meal with a dark chocolate peppermint concoction that was a perfect finale.

The food at Hawksworth was delicious and beautifully presented, but what really made the evening stand out was the service. It was very relaxed and the menu was well-paced. The banter was jovial and fun, and I think our server could see we were having a good time and that we really appreciated our meal. As we were nearing the end of the menu, he asked us if we’d like to take a tour of the kitchen. Of course, we jumped at the opportunity! The kitchen was winding down at that point, so it didn’t feel like we were too much in the way, and it was fun to walk through and see where the magic happens, briefly meeting the chef and some of his kitchen staff, thanking them for a great meal. It was a great way to end the meal and a weekend full of amazing food and drink.

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