Ask chef Robert Belcham how he first connected with his fellow Popina Canteen co-owners and he might jokingly say, “We all met in a poker game.” But after getting to know this team of Vancouver’s culinary talents—also including Joël Watanabe of Kissa Tanto and Bao Bei, Hamid Salimian of Culinary Team Canada, and Angus An of Maenam and Longtail Kitchen (among others)—it certainly feels like Granville Island was dealt a lucky hand.
“This project has been sort of gestating for four-and-a-half years. Angus brought us all together,” continues Belcham, who runs restaurants including Campagnolo Roma and Monarch Burger, while the rest of the chefs echo in agreement. “He was probably the linchpin for us all.” It was also An who came across the Ancient Roman word for a working-class cafeteria, “popina,” and felt that it was a perfect fit for the name of their joint venture. He pitched the idea of setting up a place inside the Granville Island Public Market where these chefs could combine their diverse cuisines and fine dining experiences. While the stall they had their eyes set on was leased for another two years, the island approached the group with another idea—one that involved repurposed shipping containers, an empty chunk of pavement, and a waterfront vista. Immediately, they said yes. “We wanted to be involved because it’s one-of-a-kind,” says An. “It’s probably the best view on Granville Island.”
Part of a 2040 revitalization project aiming to bring more diverse, innovative food options to the area, the brightly-coloured containers of Popina (designed by local firm Glasfurd & Walker) pump out fine, fast, fresh food to be eaten on its open-air wooden deck (don’t worry, it is partially covered). “It’s sort of an all-star lineup of what people kind of crave,” says Watanabe. Think elevated favourites like crunchy fried chicken sandwiches, creamy lobster rolls, and juicy cheeseburgers. With the exception of bread (which is baked offsite but follows a house recipe), everything is made right here, from scratch.
Take the cheeseburger. A variation on Belcham’s Monarch burger, it boasts a 45-day-aged beef patty that has been ground and hand-formed with a comprehensive mix of local grass-fed tenderloin and ribeye. Or there is the East Coast Lobster Roll; unlike other rolls that are cut with crab or shrimp, Popina’s version boasts only the meat of a one-pound lobster. From the first bite, taste the large chunks mixed with complementary light mayo and punctuated by the crunchiness of celery. Held together by a nice soft bun, this dish demands a moment of its own—though costing close to $30 (without a side), it is not something to consider lightly.
For dessert, the Puffcream—soft serve swirled inside a cream puff—is missing a wow factor to help it stand out in Vancouver’s crowded ice cream market.
And as with all new ventures, Popina has experienced its share of challenges, including a lack of storage and kitchen space, along with inexperienced staff. “The team that we hired, most of them have never cooked in their life,” admits Salimian. From how to hold a knife to cleaning a lobster, Popina is doing its best to train a new generation of Vancouver culinary talent while at the same time staying true to its fine-dining standards. And that is no easy feat.
The eatery is notably open until 10 p.m., meaning that enjoying a nice beer or glass of wine (yes, Popina is licensed) as the sun goes down over False Creek is possible and even encouraged. “We want locals in Vancouver to understand that it’s okay to come back to Granville Island,” Belcham says. “Maybe they felt that there wasn’t something for them before, felt it was all tourist space, but we built this for Vancouver. The tourists are going to come and they are going to go, but we built this for Vancouver.”
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