When it comes to Vancouver, “Canadian” food is less poutine and maple syrup, more seafood and international influence. As such, Kitsilano’s newest offering, the delightful AnnaLena, represents a modern take on Canadiana, and a good one at that.
Led by executive chef Michael Robbins, formerly of Glowbal Group and the Oakwood Canadian Bistro, AnnaLena is refined, simple, refreshing—for Robbins, it is about taking modest ingredients and ever so slightly pushing the envelope. The result is designed to impress and surprise while remaining approachable and down to earth. “We make simple dishes and do them perfectly,” he says, a testament to the kitchen’s focus on flavour. “Sometimes chefs get so carried away with pushing the boundaries that they forget to make it taste good.” A dish of grilled octopus with fingerling potato, sauce gribiche, and lobster mayonnaise embodies forward-thinking West Coast fare; tamari marinated grilled pork belly with beet two ways, pickled mustard seeds, and farro verde is as comforting as it is delicious. The buttermilk fried chicken with horseradish maple aioli and salt & vinegar chicken skins is a must, as are the kushi oysters with compressed apple, jalapeno mignonette, and shaved foie gras. The menu changes with the seasons, although individual plates are reworked often and as needed, Robbins and sous chef Mark Singson always open to improvements and experiments.
The kitchen takes pride in presentation as much as preparation; as Robbins, who grew up in East Vancouver, says, “every day we challenge ourselves: what can we do with a spoon?” AnnaLena is already a neighbourhood staple, full and lively during the week—“It’s a great issue to have: we’re busier than we thought we would be,” says Robbins. Even downtown dwellers are making the trip across the bridge to join in the fun, and iconic Toronto-based chef Susur Lee had such an experience that he visited the establishment twice during his one week in town. Not bad for a restaurant only two months in.
AnnaLena is named after Robbins’ two grandmothers—Anna and Lena. Conjuring this sense of family, AnnaLena’s dishes are designed to be shared, with Robbins encouraging small groups to come in and sample the whole menu. Pair courses with delicious cocktails by bar manager Kevin Brownlee (West, The Pourhouse), such as the Long Goodbye (Calvados, Bulleit, Drambuie, Green Chartreuse, Angostura Bitters), or a fine selection of wine, including a standout Sea Star “Blanc De Noir”.
The space is minimal and whimsical, with LEGO lamps built by Robbins, bar shelves shaped like a Tetris game, and large, colourful Bearbrick replicas, all designed to be reminiscent of childhood, a time when anything was possible. Plate of dreams: cook it, and they will come.
Photos by Allison Kuhl Photography.