I thought I’d start off the new era of this blog with something I find easier to write – a restaurant review. I have recently returned from a vacation to Vancouver. Only a couple hours after arriving in the city, I had no plans for meals – no restaurant reservations. I actually ended up not making a single reservation for the entire week out west. I generally would not advise this, especially if you are into fine dining as I am, but when you are only 1 person, it is generally a bit easier to squeeze in, especially if you are willing to sit at the bar if need be.
I arrived on a Thursday and, knowing Thursdays are not generally the busiest of days, I figured this would be the best opportunity to try and get a table at a top restaurant, especially if I went early. And I was able to get a decent table. Hawksworth is located in the Georgia Rosewood Hotel in downtown Vancouver, on W Georgia St at Howe St, only a few blocks from my hotel. This is one of the top rated restaurants in the city of Vancouver, and in this year’s release of the top 100 restaurants in all of Canada, Hawksworth came in at #11, second highest in Vancouver. Once I had a table, and especially since I wasn’t at the bar, I elected to go with the 8 course tasting menu, with full wine pairings. This would end up being my most expensive meal by far, though it was also the best. Prior blog readers might recall my descriptions of a tasting menu at the North Restaurant in Barrie, and I my review compared that experience to big city tasting menus, finding quibbles on execution, though the price tag was lower. So here is a review of a full, big-city, award-winning, restaurant tasting menu.
The opening course was fresh Dungeness crab served with a hibiscus granité and a hibiscus and elderflower consommé. This was paired with a Slovenian Muskateller (didn’t understand either of those last two words? Doesn’t matter. It’s a white wine from Eastern Europe). The wine pairing signalled the beginning of a trend that continued throughout the meal – very different and interesting wine pairings with more obscure wines from all over the world. All were great matches and the sommelier is obviously very skilled and works well with the chef. This first course was nice and light – a cold dish meant to highlight the delicacy of the crab. One slight misstep is I felt the iciness of the granité somewhat overshadowed the crab. However I did notice that the crab was the best I have ever had. I had never had crab that was quite that sweet and luxurious – though I should note this was also the first time I had perfectly fresh Dungeness crab on the west coast – I just wished I could have had a little more of it. Apart from that though, the dish worked.
|Dungeness crab with hibiscus and elderflower|
The second course was based on mushrooms. This was a King Oyster mushroom “carpaccio” with pine mushrooms, pesto, crème fraiche and green garlic. The wine pairing was actually not a wine at all, but a Japanese Sake, chosen for the mushroom notes in the sake that would pair well with the mushroom dish. The combination was exceptional, as the mushroom aromas in the sake were very evident, and the mushrooms were meticulously prepared and were well paired with the crème fraiche and the green garlic.
|The mushroom dish. the carpaccio is underneath the greenery on the right. The stalk on the left is the green garlic|
The third course was BC Halibut, wrapped in seaweed and served with more seaweed and other foraged greens and a seaweed dashi. It was also accompanied by a piece of the halibut skin deep fried and studded with black garlic puree. It would actually be somewhat long winded and difficult to accurately describe how this came together and was presented – fortunately we have the picture below. They curly piece with the little flowers is the halibut skin.
|Halibut with seaweed. The halibut skin is with the shells and rocks and has the purple flowers|
This was paired with a BC Chardonnay – this was actually the only local wine among the tasting menu pairings. It was a good match as most Canadian Chardonnays are somewhat lighter than the big, bold versions that are produced in California so do not overwhelm fish. This was fantastic – this was my favourite course to this point, and remained one of the best courses of the evening. I think the success of that dish had to do with the seaweed. Not only was there a salty/briny flavour from the seaweed that boosts the overall flavour of the dish, but seaweed also contains glutamic acid, a natural version of monosodium glutamate (MSG). This is an ingredient that gives a punch of both sodium and umami (that “fifth” taste that refers to the sense of savouriness).
Fourth course was a braised and crispy skin pork belly with pickled vegetables and a mead sauce. This was paired with a Chilean Cinseault. This is another unusual wine selection – this is not a variety usually associated with Chile, nor is it a grape that is frequently used on its own, outside of a blend. In fact, it is most often used in France to add deeper colour to red wine blends. Yet this wine has a mild flavour that was a good match with the rich but mild pork belly. While the pickled vegetables (carrots and radish) were quite nice and do serve to counter the fattiness of this cut of meat, I found the amount of pickled vegetables were a little out of balance with the amount of meat and sauce and that amount of pickling ended up a little bit harsh. Again, this is just a small critique of an overall good dish.
For the fifth course, came another contender for best dish of the tasting menu. This was a spring lamb dish. The lamb was served as two parts. The main plate featured a seared lamb loin served with a mint jus, fresh peas, mushroom puree, and morel mushrooms (the first morels of the season!) Then on a side board, there was a lamb rib, slow cooked and basted with a BBQ type sauce. That lamb rib was the best bite of the entire meal, and the rest of the dish was wonderful as well. The wine pairing was, by the standards of the meal so far, a little more expected, featuring a Syrah from France. Shiraz, the New World version of this varietal, is a very common pairing with lamb dishes, and this Syrah worked equally well as a wine pairing, even though there were two very different expressions of lamb in the dish and the wine was able to work with both.
|Composed lamb dish with the lamb rib served on the side|
Sixth came the palate cleanser. When I reviewed North, I talked a bit about the function of a palate cleanser and how their version(s) did (or didn’t) work. Here the palate cleanser was blueberry granité with lemon balm. The addition of the lemon balm, and the way it worked with the blueberry, helped this dish achieve something very difficult – to be a memorable course within the tasting menu, yet still effectively cleanse the palate in preparation for dessert.
Course number seven was the primary dessert course. This was interesting, and as you can see, a very beautiful dish. This was a bay leaf (yes, bay leaf) mousse set on a vanilla cake with a strawberry and bay leaf ice cream, served with a rhubarb consommé. While you do occasionally see savoury herbs (basil or thyme, for instance) accenting a dessert, I have never seen bay used in this way before. However it worked exceptionally well. The bay, together with the rhubarb, opened me up to a new way of balancing the sweetness of desserts. When a dessert is only sweet, it can be overwhelming and unpleasantly cloying to eat. This is why you want a contrasting taste or flavour to counter the sweetness. Sourness for instance is probably the most common way to balance sweetness, though you can also see bitterness used, or even saltiness. This is the first time though that I have seen astringency used to balance sweetness, at least in a composed dessert. Astringency is often linked with bitterness but is somewhat different. It is associated with a drying of the mouth. You will often find it the tannins from heavy red wines or in tea leaves. Bay leaves are also astringent, and rhubarb, while it is more noticeably tart, or sour, it also has astringent elements to it, especially when amplified by the bay leaf. With this dish also came the final wine pairing. This came from New Zealand and was a “Noble” Riesling. “Noble” refers to grapes affected by botrytis, also called “noble rot”. This is a fungus that can grow on grapes under certain conditions and, while usually you do not want fungus on your wine grapes, this particular strain, when used with the right wine (usually a sweet white wine but I have had a very successful botritized dry Chardonnay) produces a unique and excellent product. A French wine produced this way, called Sauternes, is very famous and desired, with one winery’s version one of the most expensive wines out there. So this was a Riesling, a different grape than is used in Sauternes, and was from New Zealand, but had some of the characteristics of a Sauternes, and paired very well with the dessert, as the bay and rhubarb kept the sweetness level of the dessert low enough to not detract from the wine.
The final course was a “chocolate box”, a selection of three small chocolates. There was white chocolate with raspberry inside, a chocolate truffle with cardamom, and honeycomb candy (a sort of toffee with the airy look of a honeycomb) coated with very dark (90%) chocolate. To prevent the chocolates from rolling around, they used cacao nibs, the roasted and crushed cacao beans before they are sweetened and made into chocolate. While they weren’t really meant to be eaten as part of the dish, I find them tasty and a nice bitter chocolate addition to the sweet chocolate candies that were served.
That was the entirety of the tasting menu, though the restaurant does add a final little bite along when they give you the bill – traditionally called “mignardises”. We made these at one restaurant I worked in (the fanciest of them). The mignardises were a mini chocolate cake bite and a grapefruit pâte de fruits (a fruit jelly). Both were excellent, especially the pâte de fruits, which is technically difficult to make as well as it was.
Throughout, the service was excellent. Sometimes, when dining alone, you can be somewhat overlooked by restaurant staff, mainly because you are bringing in less money for the time spent by that server. Also a single diner at a table that usually holds at least two people represents less money. This was not at all an issue at Hawksworth. The waiter serving me was very good, and I was also personally served throughout the meal by the sommelier for each wine pairing and even the maître d’ came over multiple times. Another strong point for the wait staff was that everyone was very well trained on the menu – and of course this was the tasting menu, which changes more often and is likely ordered less than the regular menu. This was all the way down to the bussers, who when they brought out dishes could all clearly describe each element on the plate in what were very complicated multi-component dishes.
And as for the price? Just never mind. Expensive. That’s all you really need to know. While prices are high everywhere in Vancouver, this is a particularly expensive restaurant, and a full tasting menu is going to be very expensive. In my mind though, it’s worth it. It is however the kind of place that if you are cost conscious, you would likely consider it too expensive for you. In part, you are paying for an exclusive experience, and that doesn’t come cheap. For those of you who read my blog before you would be aware that, when I was last writing, I was not exactly wealthy – in fact I was in deb t and living with my parents. Well, as later posts will touch on, plenty has changed since then. While I am certainly not making huge amounts of money, I am making far more than I ever was as a cook, most of my debt is paid off, and I am in a position where I can occasionally spend on indulgences, which I did plenty of during this vacation. Still want to know the price? OK, fine. For the 8-course tasting menu, with wine pairings for 6 courses, tax, and a deservedly generous tip, over $200 CAD for one. As I said. Expensive.
So that is my first full post of the re-start. I hope to have more coming.