I am partaking in a journey where I will appraise every non-franchise restaurant in town and review their food as well as their service. It is an attempt to expand my mind and appetite. Simultaneously, I will also be taking what I learn from these establishments and attempting to remake them with my extremely limited skill.
I realized, sitting visibly but inaccurately melancholic at my table in Chambar, staring intently into my water like I’m checking it for neutrinos, that I’ve fallen into a cliché probably inevitable given the empty seat across from me. I was that lonely man unaccompanied in a French restaurant, a prime source of comedy open for improvisation by the likes of Robin Williams and John Ritter (not kidding, they actually did that). I imagined the waiting staff were sympathetic, wondering who stood me up. They knew that the reservation was for two and can only wonder what kind of an ass would not show for a dinner at Chambar, one of the best reviewed restaurants in Vancouver. In truth, I had no companion; I only asked for two in case I did. I admit most of my friends down here wouldn’t appreciate first-rate French cuisine, asking for ketchup to top their sherry-braised rabbit cannelloni. I jest, in actuality, my friends were occupied that day, but if there was one restaurant where I badly needed a dining buddy, it was this one.
I’ll return to a previously used metaphor where I compared a restaurant to Doctor’s Who’s TARDIS, only in this case, it’s not irony. Chambar’s front fascia is barely a car’s width but extends from a congested lobby and bar to two more dining areas, each one slightly brighter than the last. It was like Chambar broke down walls and found more dining areas to take over. The lobby was dark and moody, followed by a traditional banquet hall lit only by candles and massive windows encompassing the distant wall. My table was past this one, into a final room where untreated brick walls shifted to painted boards. The aged wood floor paneling shifted in color the moment I crossed the threshold.
So I shouldn’t have been upset with the waiting staff when they proceeded to ignore me for damn near twenty minutes. I was sitting the farthest in the most distant room at a table with two place settings obviously waiting for a companion who would never arrive. I still hadn’t ordered any food when the family next to mine received their appetizers. I finally informed my waiter that my companion was never going to show and that the experience could begin.
I also never felt more like a pariah for not ordering wine. If my sister or mother were here, they’d polish off a quart of Canalicchio di Sopra ‘06 which would double the bill but cut their chances for cardiovascular disease by half. It’s called the French Paradox—why that fluky country manages to down wine by the barrel, eat meat like they’re extras in an Italian splatterpunk film, and still live longer on average than anyone in North America. I’m sure it has something to do with stress. I’m sure. I’m practically a teetotaler (one who abstains from all alcohol), like I’m choking on a Eucharist at a Christian Scientist convention—you could measure the irony with a dipstick. I closed up the four-page wine menu and opted away from my predilection for water in favor of a cola. Non-diet. No ice. Wild man. The coke includes free re-fills, which you may think is typical but isn’t.
Immediately upon browsing the dinner menu, I locked on a specific appetizer like a grey owl on an unsuspecting squirrel, the foie de canard—spiced foie gras terrine, port reduction, Kriek granita & truffled brioche French toast. To those loyal readers out there (Mom), you’ll remember that last time I enjoyed foie gras with brioche was in Gordon Ramsay’s Savoy Grill. I’ll give credit for Chambar’s presentation—they easily topped Savoy in the panache of their plate, though Savoy’s brioche was offered in a miniature bread pan which could best Elmo in face-contorting adorability. Savoy does edge out in flavor—their foie gras was creamier—but Chambar sent it home with the inclusion of the Kriek granita pallet cleanser. Kriek is a brand of Belgium beer made from fermented cherries. When I mentioned my foie gras history with the waiter, he commented on the coincidence given their head chef had worked at the Savoy Grill before coming to Canada. This was repeated with the maitre d, leading me to suspect that the kitchen was following my progress. When weighing such tempting starters as lime & chili rubbed beef striploin and grilled asparagus with white spring salmon & saffron mayonnaise, who would order the goose liver pâté? This patron must have taste?
Or I’m simply arrogant. Probably the latter.
I followed this astounding starter with the canard et chèvre—spiced rubbed duck breast, Okanagan herb goat cheese, roasted hazelnuts, ricotta gnocchi, and sauce bigarade. Barring the bite off my mom’s plate at the Savoy Grill, I’ve only enjoyed duck three times, all in the last two months and all in high-end bistros. I’m starting to think that duck could be my baseline in fine cuisine. I’ll certainly never try it at home, as it would surely never measure up. This plate goes down as the best of the bunch, which reveals an ocean’s-worth given I’ve never had bad duck. The platting was exquisite, with crunchy nuts, diabolical herb gnocchi, and a cream sauce I would drink like Red Bull if given the choice. It makes heroine look like a heaping bowl of orange jelly beans. There was a cracker that topped the plate, and if it was boxed, I would clear the store shelf.
With two courses like that, you know I’m not leaving without dessert. With so many options, I decided upon the le camping—graham cracker ice cream with salted chocolate cremeux and toasted meringue. What that doesn’t tell you is that they smear the meringue on the plate and torch it in place. I am so doing that at home to impress my dinner guests.
By the end, any complaints I had about the misunderstanding about my lack of a dinner guest had been disregarded. This came after Vij’s but I can’t compare that with Chambar. Chambar is intended to be a fine dining experience, with exquisite platting and elegance. Vij’s is unique, avant garde even, breaking rules you shouldn’t break because they can, where Chambar is the best example of a French restaurant still painting within the lines.
Is that a criticism? These experiences are what I supplant for sex, so I think not.
OVERALL: 9.5 out of 10
If I had two days free in Vancouver, I would revisit both locations over trying something new. If I had only one…well…I guess Chambar would edge Vij’s out, but only just.
And as I left, I found a $40 parking ticket on my car. Cosmic balance can go fuck itself.