Friday, December 20, 2013

Wildebeest - Vancouver, British Columbia

While our visit to The Willows Inn was the most exceptional meal of our trip to the Pacific Northwest this past summer, it was certainly not the only good one. I was particularly excited by a couple places we tried on the front end of our trip, in Vancouver. First up: Wildebeest.

Wildebeest is a new-ish place in Vancouver's Gastown neighborhood with a rustic, vaguely steampunk aesthetic, an offal-centric menu, and a naturalistic, unfussy style. The brick walls, bare bulbs and rough wood are in perfect sync with Chef Wesley Young's cooking style, which is dominated by meat and smoke.

Snacks and cocktails help set the stage. Crunchy hazelnuts are infused with seawater; buttery, bright green Castelvetrano olives are smoked. They're both great nibbles to go along with an intriguing Tequila Sazerac, served up in a little flowered granny glass. This was a delicious reinvention of the classic cocktail, using reposado tequila and mezcal in place of the rye, and a green Chartreuse rinse in place of the absinthe.[1]

Though Wildebeest has made a name for itself with its meat offerings, they don't neglect vegetables either. I particularly liked a starter that combined a variety of different radishes, served in a puddle of fresh, creamy cheese, along with a bright carrot sorbet and a crumble of toasted hazelnut "soil." Even more delicate was a slow-poached farm egg, served over a celadon-hued green pea tapioca with fermiere cheese, pea tendrils, and a thin sheet of crispy bread for dipping and scooping.

But obviously, a place called "Wildebeest" is really about the meat. And it's great stuff here - prepared simply but thoughtfully and presented essentially ungarnished. Quail is hay aged, and then smoked, brought to the table with a wad of still-smoking straw protruding from its carcass. The intense flavor of the tiny bird's flesh, still rosy-hued, belies its size. Served with little dipping bowls of a fermented wild berry honey and a salt and pepper mix, and just begging to be eaten with one's hands, this was one of the best birds I ate all year.

A big slab of beef short rib gets a similarly minimalist treatment: slow roasted on the bone, then carved into large hunks to reveal the pink meat concealed by the darkly burnished exterior, served with a sprinkle of smoked salt and a hay jus.

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The "Haida Gwaii" salmon unfortunately paled in comparison. The line-caught fish, either poached or cooked sous vide, paired with various cucumbers, soft bread crumbs, a nasturtium emulsion, and a dollop of salmon roe, was too delicate to compete with the big flavors of the quail and short rib.

A daily vegetable dish potentially could have suffered the same fate, but didn't. Instead, the bowl of blistered shishito peppers and romano beans was emboldened by a ruddy, romesco-like smoked tomato sauce. And a poutine topped with fat batons of pork jowl and a drizzle of bourbon barrel-aged maple syrup would have been hearty enough to stand up to any table companion.

You can finish your meal with a cheese course, which is as pure and minimalist as most of the other plates: chunks of bright orange "Extra Vieille" Mimolette, Maigre du Nord (a firm raw goat's milk cheese from Belgium), and Maroilles, a softer washed rind cheese from northern France, served with a preserved plum and some candied nuts. Or for a sweeter tooth, there's fragrant tonka bean ice cream, plated with house-made nutella, chocolate cookie crumbles and hazelnut brittle.

Unfussy but not lacking style, hearty but not lacking refinement, Wildebeest reminds me of Chris Cosentino's Incanto in San Francisco, minus the Italianate bent. But that kind of comparison doesn't really do it justice. There's a singularity of vision here that I really appreciate, a feeling that everything - decor, drinks, ingredients, preparations, service style - all fit together.

120 W. Hastings Street, Vancouver, British Columbia

Wildebeest on Urbanspoon

[1] There were lots of really smart sounding cocktails on the list here, which is thoughtfully divided into "apertifs" (subdivided into "lighter, cleaner, refreshing" and "complex, unusual, bright") and "cocktails - with food" (again subdivided into "thoughtful, subtle, herbaceous" and "bolder, darker, richer").

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