World-class city, eh?

Sampling Vancouver's best restaurants.


2551 W. Broadway, Vancouver, B.C., 604-739-8185 Tues.-Sun., 5 p.m.-close AE, DC, MC, V / full bar OUEST

2881 Granville, Vancouver, B.C., 604-738-8938 5:30 p.m,-10:30 p.m. daily AE, DC, MC, V / full bar MONSOON

2526 Main, Vancouver, B.C., 604-879-4001 dinner 5 p.m.-midnight daily; brunch 11a.m.-3 p.m. Sat.-Sun. AE, DC, MC, V / full bar VIJ'S

1480 W. 11th, Vancouver, B.C., 604-736-6664 5 p.m.-10:30 p.m. daily, no reservations AE, DC, MC, V / beer and wine WHEN I HAVE a hankering for demerara-sugar-and-tamarind-marinated beef tenderloin in blackened-cumin-seed curry, when I'm longing for banana-stuffed French toast with coconut-cardamom syrup, when only organic butter from Jersey cows will do . . . I know it's time for a trip to Vancouver. O Canada! For foodies, a trip across our crowded border-to-the-north is well worth the three-hour wait at customs—and not only for the remarkable $1.50 value of the U.S. dollar. (By and large we found the prices listed on Vancouver menus commensurate with ours . . . and that's before we figured in the exchange rate. Tally ho!) No, foodies have long known that for its sheer number of terrific restaurants, its sure hand with classic techniques, its fearless pioneering of unheard-of fusions, and its exhilarating breadth of world cuisines, Vancouver is a world-class eating destination. Armed with good advice from a couple of local gourmands, I went up to see what's new and worth knowing about. The current buzz is all over the new bar at Lumiere, the oh-so-cool adjunct to hotshot chef Rob Feenie's haute sensation on West Broadway. The restaurant is stark and expensive, and its patrons suggest why Vancouver is considered the L.A. of Canada. (The weekend we were in town so were Al Pacino, Charlize Theron, Robin Williams, Laura Dern, Mandy Patinkin, Angelina Jolie, Terrence Stamp, Kevin Bacon, Stockard Channing, Cybill Shepherd, Hilary Swank, Malcolm McDowell, and over 30 other household names.) Lumiere, with its pricey prix fixe menu, is there to serve them. And now the bar at Lumiere is there to serve the rest of us. For about $8 (all prices given are in U.S. dollars) bar patrons can sample one of Feenie's little plates: maybe maple-syrup-and-sake-marinated Chilean sea bass with mousseron mushrooms, braised short-rib meat, and soy/hijiki sauce; maybe pan-seared foie gras with rhubarb foam, grapefruit-and-rhubarb salad, and pink peppercorn. Feenie is a classicist who clearly isn't afraid of playing around with large flavors. We ordered a lamb shoulder in a ratatouille-white bean ragout ($8) and were pleased with the robustness of the dish, particularly welcome in a setting this minimalist and precious. (The barroom is narrow and cloaked entirely in chartreuse tiles, with a glowing chartreuse bar and frisky cocktails that glow in any number of other colors.) Better still was the ravioli of red kuri squash and mascarpone ($8), whose brave sweetness and sensational texture was intelligently offset by truffle butter. A splendid chocolate mousse ($5.50) finished us off nicely. The nosh 'n' slosh, celebrity-safari portion of our trip complete, we headed Ouest-ward for a proper dinner. The most formal outing from the restaurant group that brought Vancouver the critically acclaimed CinCin and Blue Water Cafe and Raw Bar, Ouest is contemporary French cuisine from star chef David Hawksworth. It's a sleek, sophisticated room in Vancouver's stylish residential Kitsilano district that, open all of six months, has already won a slew of popular and critical awards, including the Vancouver Sun's best new restaurant of 2000. It took us one sip to know why. A gratis amus饼/I> of chilled watercress velout頳tartled us down to our bones with its purity of flavor, then buckled our knees with its glorious finish of cream. Hawksworth, who in Europe reportedly earned two- and three-star ratings from Michelin, is a wow of a chef—flawless in his classical technique, maestro of the inventive tweak, and invested to the minutest detail. The only butter he uses, for instance, is an organic sort from Jersey cows. And the house salad ($7.50) was scattered with herbs and crowned with a garden of frizzled root vegetables, small gestures that were nonetheless intelligent and meaningful. Another starter, a tarte Tatin of carmelized endive ($14), was topped with a halved Baja scallop and poured over with a 50-year-old balsamic vinegar as robust and sweet as port: stunning. A plate of guinea fowl ($22.50) was done in herbs and its own juices, along with a nice tart drink of lime. Salmon nage ($22) was also splendid, its broth aromatic with herbs and brine and generously scattered with all manner of shellfish. Hawksworth is clearly interested in fish—his menu features it prominently—and can be entirely trusted with its preparation. Heck, I'd trust Hawksworth with my last meal on earth. THOUGH WE ROLLED out of Ouest vowing to never eat again, the next morning found us hungrily heading out through Chinatown to a hip haunt on its far side called Monsoon. It's in an emerging neighborhood just starting to be known as South Main, or SOMA (since every city apparently needs one of these), and my source had advised me to wear black. The neighborhood has the raggedly transitional feel of one that will be solidly fashionable in 10 years and pass頩n 20, plastered with poster boards (how I miss them!) and pocked with secondhand shops. Amidst all this sits Monsoon, with walls the color of toucan feathers and a menu exalting the cuisines of the Asian tropics—sort of. I mean, how else can you classify the sensationally munchable, subtly Indian-spiced masala fries with banana ketchup ($2)? Or the spicy, delicious lamb sausages with mint chutney ($3)? Or the nicely fried corn cakes with chili, coconut, and cilantro ($4)? (These were wonderful when dredged in banana chutney and raita.) An array of zingy morning drinks— from guava-sweetened champagne to Vietnamese coffee (we had orange juice thickened with mango puree)—makes Monsoon a great brunch destination, but dinners here, decidedly Indian, are reportedly original and tasty. Our only quibble was with the aforementioned baked-banana-stuffed French toast ($4.75), which wasn't grilled on one side. (Great coconut-cardamom syrup, though.) The service was as personable and accommodating as only young hippie chicks can be. Indeed, we were set to check out a Chinese place that evening, but said engaging hippie chick reset our course to what she claimed was the best Indian food in town. That's high praise in Vancouver. And that's how we found Vij's, which is just the sort of joint you want to happen upon in a city like this: sophisticatedly arty, with the soul of a hole-in-the-wall; culinarily exotic, with obvious populist appeal (they were beating customers off with sticks on a Sunday night); bizarrely inventive, yet anchored in tradition. Vikram Vij's place is an enigmatic world of contradictions and was utterly enchanting, from our first sip of complementary chai to our reluctant goodbyes. Samosas stuffed with a luscious cream of garlicky ricotta came kissed with fenugreek ($5.50) and were fluffy and delectable, afloat in a moat of Bengali curry with mint chutney. As for the aforementioned beef tenderloin, marinated in demerara sugar and tamarind and served with a blackened-cumin-seed curry ($16)—this was the most flavorful, impossibly tender beef I've ever tasted. Charry from the grill, oozing their sweet marinade, dripping curry sauce, these fork-tender bites were simply extraordinary. Served with a potato-cauliflower puree and decorated whimsically with fiddleheads, this dish was a revelation. Meanwhile, unfolding around us was some of the most remarkable choreography of service I've ever seen, with fleets of servers and hosts and busers managing the overstuffed room with graceful finesse. This included passing gratis platters of cumin-flecked naan and potato poori to the happy masses, who were using them to dredge up the final traces of Vij's remarkable curries. I should have stuffed my pockets for the long drive back to my country, but instead I made a mental note to come back soon. For curry like this, I'd wait days at the border.

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