As most gourmands, fine diners, and even ‘foodies’ realize, dining out on a major holiday is often a situation marred by high prices, limited menus, rushed service, and a subpar experience aside from the intrinsic special nature of the holiday yet as a frequent traveler over the period between Christmas and New Years I’ve often found myself trying to make the best of a bad situation – and most times with great success including my last two attempts with meals at Picasso Las Vegas and Picholine New York, a trend I hoped to continue in Vancouver with the oft raved L’Abbatoir – a reservation I secured months before we flew out west and a restaurant serving its standard menu at standard prices even on one of the busiest restaurant days of the year.
Seated in Gastown amongst the hottest clubs in the city (and ironically at the site of Vancouver’s fist prison) our arrival to L’Abbatoir was planned for 8:00pm so as to precede the east coast New Year that we are all so accustomed to celebrating and although traffic was heavy, the weather was rainy, and both my mother and I were feeling rather poor we surprisingly not only arrived on time but also managed to find free parking literally 100 yards from the restaurant – a huge bonus as my aunt remained in her walking boot, yet strangely ironic as we made our way through the door only to realize that all but the bar seating was located at the top of a steep metal staircase – an obstacle overcome through the help of the strikingly beautiful hostess and a young busboy who would assist her both up and down without a moment’s hesitation.
With the Kings and Canucks playing at the packed bar downstairs but the sound and setting upstairs much more subdued our quartet settled into our seats where we would soon be greeted by a young man named Romano who would present and describe the menu and cocktail list before leaving us to our decisions – a daunting task as everything on the menu sounded great despite my stomach still not being up to par from the night prior. Clearly a restaurant with a purpose since its inception I was particularly intrigued by how the menus ‘fit’ the room and vice versa – both showing off classical ingredients and technique serving point and counterpoint with industrial flare and modern accents…a balance that is difficult to achieve without feeling contrived yet something Chef Cooper and team somehow blended seamlessly from food to cocktails to furnishings.
With a few specials in addition to the daily menu noted by Romano on his return and myself knowing early on that anything beyond a couple small plates would be pushing my limits we each made our selections with our server’s guidance about portions and once we had settled on a couple of courses each plus a pair of cocktails for my sister and aunt Romano disappeared briefly only to return moments later with our first bites of the evening, a bread basket on par with the very best I’ve ever had at such an establishment featuring house made Bacon Brioche, Seasoned Flatbread, and Cheese Twists – each of which I tasted and enjoyed but am sad to say I could not indulge in nearly as much as I’d have liked given my condition.
With cocktails poured, a Clover Club for my aunt and Aviation for my sister, it would not be long before our appetizers would arrive and just as the menu descriptions and space seemed a modern update on classical stylings so would be the presentations, the first of which was the “Dungeness crab and chickpea toast” consisting of a rounded cylinder of thinly sliced crispy chickpea-flour brioche filled with whipped garlic custard, pickled carrots, and plenty of handpicked crab. Overall flavored something like a traditional crab cake but certainly more interesting in texture my favorite part of this dish was actually the custard – clearly from an ISI whip and an example of modernist cuisine used for taste and texture, not just style.
Moving next to my sister’s appetizer, a dish simply titled “Confit of albacore tuna” but far more interesting due to its compliment of “smoked pork fat, egg, and crispy bits” this lovely preparation would feature line-caught pacific tuna slow cooked in oil as its base and with each piece textured like fine crudo (but warm) what made this dish truly stand out was the greens, the cracklins, the eggy hollandaise, and most notably these little white cubes – a veritable bacon flavored meringue that perfumed the palate for a moment and then disappeared as though you just caught a whiff of the grill during a cookout.
With my mouth and brain unable to resist foie gras even when my stomach says otherwise the final appetizer of the meal would be the least elaborate yet being a nicely prepared terrine of duck liver it would obviously be the best (at least to me.) Titled “Terrine of duck foie gras – Toasted brioche, quince, yogurt” and featuring the rich terrine nicely lacquered with just a touch of sweetness, black pepper, and sea salt atop a slice of buttery brioche the plate was completed with a circular accoutrement of sweet quince puree, tangy yogurt, and coconut gelee each highlighting a different note of the liver and only the yogurt – far too sour – failing to impress.
With mother having elected to forgo an appetizer but tasting a few along the way while enjoying the bread it would be just a little under an hour after seating that we would make our way to the balcony to watch the live feed of the ball drop in Time Square before returning to the table just in time for our main courses to arrive; for her an entrée sized (at no extra charge even though it was technically an appetizer) salad of “Marinated North Arm Farm beetroot – Tellagio custard, pears, pumpkin seeds” that would serve up no less than five different varieties of earthy and aromatic beets alongside at least three styles of pears (Asian, Bartlett, and D’Anjou,) crunchy salted pumpkin seeds, and a savory cheese pudding that gently melded everything together. Still dizzy but better after a couple of Antivert my mother claimed this to be one of the best beet salads she has ever had and from my small taste I’d tend to agree.
With my aunt following my lead and opting for two appetizers instead of an appetizer and a main course her “Chicken Canneloni with Fennel, Sauce gribiche, Mushrooms” would arrive next as a pair of thick noodles stuffed with spicy chicken sausage swimming in a pool of rich, savory sauce gribiche. Much more a fan of mustard than I my aunt unsurprisingly really enjoyed this dish while I personally found it to be the weakest of the evening – an overhand smash of the mustard and caper flavors that overwhelmed the rest of the dish and noodles that should have been thinner or at least less doughy so as not to distract from the fibrous mushrooms and heady sausage.
For the only “main course” item of the evening my sister let me talk her into the Boneless quail and crispy chicken sausage roll with roast foie gras, mushrooms, and cauliflower – the dish I’d have invariably ordered had I been feeling better – and just as expected it turned out to be fantastic. Beginning first with the quail, a similar presentation to that of Joel Robuchon with the lean bird’s skin crisp and overlying a layer of foie gras, the flavors were intense yet nicely balanced by the tender mushrooms and crisp cauliflower while a layer of cauliflower puree and pan jus lined the plate for added style. Moving next to the chicken sausage roll, I can honestly say the plate did not need it, but with the same fennel tinged sausage as my aunt’s dish highlighted much more impressively by a crispy shell flecked with sage I certainly wouldn’t have turned it down either – and the same can be said for the nicely seared lobe of foie gras that sat at the front of the plate that went beautifully with the cauliflower puree and mushrooms both.
For the final savory of 2011, another appetizer and the sort of dish anyone who knows me would have assumed I’d order, “Poached egg with black trumpet mushrooms – Potato gnocchi, leeks, pecorino sabayon” would arrive in a shallow bowl with the gnocchi pan crisped but tender forming a little nest for the poached egg that was subsequently topped with shredded mushrooms, the intense cheese fondue, and crispy leeks. Combining two of my favorite things in gnocchi and a poached egg along with the textural contrast of the cheese and the leeks the only thing that could have made this dish better would have been replacing the trumpets with truffles and even though I really wasn’t feeling it at this point I can only say that the taste on the palate justified the pangs in the stomach and I finished every bite knowing full well that doing so would render dessert an unlikely option.
With Romano returning to check in on us and another young man helping him to bus the table we were next presented with dessert menus and much to my dismay four of the six items sounded outstanding but knowing better than to push my luck I again tried to convince someone to order what I would have ordered and was met with great success when my aunt assented to the Caramelized apple bread pudding with Candy cap mushroom ice cream and honey crisp apples. Presented as two thin slices of layered brioche seemingly dipped in applesauce and custard before baking the bread pudding itself was an admirable example but certainly not the star of the plate – not by a long shot. Moving past the pudding, the accoutrements to this dessert would start out simple with sliced apples and apple gel and then move into the realm of “wow” with crunchy sugar coated mushrooms and a quenelle of what can best be described as the flavor of a mushroom amplified by five yet tucked behind a layer of sweetness that I’m almost certain came from maple syrup – truly an “experience” ice cream every bit on par with the basil sorbet at Eleven Madison Park or Richard Rosendale’s mustard seed version during his days in Ohio.
For the final bites of 2011 a light dessert was sought and delivered in the form of “Trifle with Berries Preserved in Rum, Ricotta Pound Cake, Lemon Cream, Dark Chocolate” – a lovely layered dish where everything was in a nice balance with no component seemingly out of place. Sure it wasn’t as avant-garde as much of the night’s cuisine, but it was every bit as satisfying and very gentle on the GI tract.
With the Kings topping the Canucks on the strength of their strongest offensive output in ages and the New Year yet to arrive in the Pacific Time zone we sat for a while chatting after Romano collected our plates and with the upstairs now filled and the bar really beginning to bustle we decided to take our leave – my aunt again assisted down the stairs by a server and a busser where we were met with our coats and a short walk in the brisk air to the car; an aunt in a walking boot, a dizzy mother, myself recovering from food poisoning, and my sister who somehow managed to make it into 2012 alive and well – certainly not the ‘ideal’ end to a stellar year of eating yet at the same time a memorable evening thanks to my very favorite foods (foie gras, gnocchi, and bread pudding) and my very favorite people.