Vancouver’s beauty is startling. From the bedroom window at our first hotel, the sleek Loden in Coal Harbour, we’re awed by glittering skyscraper after glittering skyscraper (not for nothing is it nicknamed ‘city of glass’). But beyond the expensive condos lies a panorama of natural beauty: the waters of the Burrard Inlet, mountains, green forests, the fertile land that encourages a vibrant farm-to-fork restaurant culture.
It’s such a young city, fizzing with energy. And, with over 40 per cent of its population of Asian heritage it’s an intoxicating collision of cultures. It’s hard to know where to start: the atmospheric cobbles of Gastown, all historical buildings and branch restaurants; Kitsilano with its yoga-moms and juice bars; Downtown where every second shop front sells sushi and the streets bristle with foodcarts; grungy Downtown Eastside which sprouts a new, forward-looking restaurant seemingly every five minutes?
Thank goodness for expat British journalist Nikki Bayley (‘I came here, fell in love with the place and decided to stay’), who whisks us to the West End, alive with izakayas, bubble tea shops, ramen-ya and Vietnamese bistros. She takes us to Zabu Chicken for triple-fried KFC – Korean fried chicken – hand-brushed in their secret sticky and addictive sauces: soy, garlic and chilli, and sweet and spicy. The chicken has been described as ‘transcendent’, and I’m not disagreeing. Then to a tiny BBQ joint, Buckstop for hush puppies – fried cornbread with honey butter, Memphis-style dry-rubbed pork ribs, sultry brisket. Buckstop is a labour of love: everything from ketchup to cocktail cordials is house-made and this late-opening joint is exactly the kind of place ‘where everybody knows your name’.
In Richmond, about half an hour’s drive from Downtown Vancouver, the percentage of Asians in the population jumps to 60. It’s like another country: signs are in Chinese and the hundreds of restaurants offer specialities from noodles to barbecued duck heads. Without a guide we’d have been lost; hooray for Chinese food expert Lee Man, who takes us to the hectically blingy – those jellyfish chandeliers – Chef Tony Seafood Restaurant. Lee does all the ordering and the resultant feast is quite something: lacquered little quails, their heads presented for sucking; a pork belly dish fragrant with preserved lemon; local crab – Vancouver seafood is sublime – cooked with egg white and Chinese rice wine, the juices tossed through noodles; curious, rubbery sugar cakes.
Then there’s Japan. Outside Tokyo, I’ve never known a city blessed with so many izakayas (Japanese eating pubs); our choice is Suika, raucous and rammed with an Asian audience, mostly young, hoovering up teeny bowls of everything from lotus root to what tastes like crackers and cheese; red, rich sockeye salmon carpaccio with wasabi mayo, garlic chips and yuzu.
At glamourpuss Miku, perched above the bay and the illuminated sails of Canada Place, the specialty is aburi sushi, the fish lightly flamed into an intensity of flavour. Our kaiseki-style menu is as beautifully presented as it is delicious: special mention for the pressed salmon aburi nigiri, and a prime rib, sous-vide for five hours (I know) with brown butter wasabi sauce.
Everyone says go to Granville Island, under the beautiful Art Deco Burrard Bridge, home to a huge, photogenic food market. But after admiring the beautifully arranged towers of produce, the busyness of the food court and wonderful Oyama Sausages (oyamasausage.ca), we don’t find too much to detain us in Canada’s second-largest tourist destination. Still, it’s massively worth doing for two things: the teeny-tiny ferries that shuttle us back and forth from Yaletown, puttering enchantingly over False Creek.
And the road home to our other lovely hotel, the Opus, right in the heart of Yaletown’s buzzing nightlife district, takes us via Long Table, the city’s first micro-distillery, just in time for their Friday night fish and chips and gin and tonic session.
But none of this is getting my posh restaurant quota under my belt. Gastown’s L’Abbatoir is a moody sexpot, all antler lighting, bricks and beams, with an intriguing ‘cocktail program’. The food is French-influenced, with West Coast ingredients: think a dense, gamey elk paté. Or superb Pacific ling cod, pearly flakes falling onto a bed of lentils and fried cauliflower with the odd sweet burst of grapes.
I adore the city’s beloved Chambar, which manages to fuse high fashion and haute cuisine in an entirely relaxed, Vancouver-ish way. With mussel dishes referencing chef Nico Schuermans’ Belgian background, the menu is alluring and sophisticated – I have particular admiration for a lamb tagine, heady with spices and rich with fruit. And kudos goes to sommelier Jason Yamasaki, who introduces us to some extraordinary British Columbian wines; move over Napa.
By now, I’m a new and fervent fan of chef David Gunawan, so we hit two of his restaurants in about as many days: Grapes & Soda – his natural wine bar in South Granville – and Royal Dinette, as quirky-stylish as if a Parisian couture house opened a diner. Both restaurants showcase vegetables in an unselfconscious way – in Dinette, a salad of cauliflower, broccoli, quinoa, apple, pecan and sorrel; in Grapes, wild mushrooms with bok choy, goat’s cheese mousse and sunflower seeds – proving that meat can take a backstage role without any loss of excitement.
But it’s not all gloss, there’s eccentricity in Vancouver too. At Salt Tasting Room down moody Blood Alley, I need advanced administrative skills to create our own wine-cheese-charcuterie flights from a dizzying and seductive list.
And of course, there’s the street food scene; we whisk round some of the best with Vancouver Foodie Tours: rare Kurobuta pork dogs topped with teriyaki sauce and seaweed from the scene’s pioneer, Japadogs; fluffy naan topped with fragrant butter chicken from Soho Road Naan Kebab; and fish tacos or devilishly-spiced chocolate cookies from Tacofino.
My apologies for the whistlestop tour – there’s just so much to love here. And despite doing my darndest to get through it all, I feel as though I haven’t scratched the city’s surface, even though – I’m blushing as I type this – we have the odd three dinners in a row. I wanted to go back to the wonderful, buzzy Medina for their breakfast cassoulet (yes!); I never made it to The Shameful Tiki Bar. I’ll just have to come back.
Marina O’Loughlin is The Guardian’s restaurant critic, and the Fortnum & Mason and Guild of Food Writers restaurant reviewer of the year. Double rooms at The Loden cost from £135, room-only and at The Opus from £145, room-only. Return flights from Gatwick to Vancouver cost from £363 (westjet.com). More info: tourismvancouver.com
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