Anyone who has had the privilege of living in London can attest to its vibrant, impromptu underground nightlife. The iconic city is known in particular for its pop-up dining experiences, which often comprise longtable dinners found in unexpected corners of the city—be it in a brick-walled warehouse, a dimly-lit wine cellar, or come summertime, an Oxford Street rooftop. For Joanna Owen, founder and operator of Vancouver’s own pop-up dining series Vin Van, it was the London trend that inspired her to start the concept after moving from England to Canada three years ago.
“It was definitely a passion and a desire to bring the pop-up scene that’s in London to Vancouver,” she says. “In London, the pop-up scene is massive, and I missed it and wanted to do something similar here.” Inside ceramicist Janaki Larsen’s Mount Pleasant studio (fun fact: it was originally built to be an urban winery), Owen speaks eloquently as guests enter through the adjoining storefront of The Wild Bunch, taking their seats at a long wooden table lined with flickering candles and elegant flower arrangements. Since launching in April 2018, Vin Van has popped up in the city’s cafes, back rooms, and warehouse spaces, offering a taste of high-class gastronomy from around the world at family-style, multi-course dining events (and also more traditional monthly Sunday Roast dinners with all the fixings). Past installments include an Italian night, a Portuguese event at Spade on Commercial Drive, and a Chilean wine dinner in collaboration with Rabbit’s Foot Supper Club.
Tonight, though, it’s all about Canada: a four-course meal that Owen describes as “informal-formal,” presenting the best seasonal Canadian ingredients with wines from across the country. Cooked by past MasterChef Canada contestants Eugene Cheng and Michael Varga, the menu is paired with Owen’s own wine selections. “I love wine, so that was always going to be the focus,” she says, painting a picture of life back in England, where the self-proclaimed oenophile was inspired by her family to develop a palate for good reds and whites at a young age. After moving to Vancouver in 2016, she became certified with her Wine & Spirit Education Trust levels two and three while working full-time in finance.
“Instead of doing typical Canadian dishes, we’re using seasonal ingredients that are from Canada, just to highlight what great Canadian ingredients are about,” shares chef Cheng after a crisp Blackberry Gin Fizz cocktail is consumed. Then comes the first course: a fall seasonal salad with five renditions of beets on a bed of ricotta mousse with orange dressing. “There’s a beetroot powder, there are pickled beets, there are roasted beets, there is a beet gel, there’s also a beet chard,” explains chef Varga. This is paired with a 2017 gewurztraminer from Indigenous World Winery, and then comes a coastal seafood and corn velouté. “We have a tenderloin which has been sous vide for an hour and a half, and it’s very medium-rare. And then we’re going to sear it off it finish it so it has a nice crust,” Varga says of the third course—an Alberta beef filet mignon with celeriac parmesan puree and local spinach, as glasses are filled with Cassini Cellars Pinot Noir 2016. There is also a crème brûlée for dessert, which “reminds people of their childhood,” says Cheng, and was inspired by the “very last drops of milk on the bottom of the [cereal] bowl.”
Owen addresses the room between every course, describing the story behind each wine. “They leave it on the vine until the last possible moment, until the grape raisins, which concentrates the fruit and sugars—so that’s where you get the sweetness and the really concentrated fruit flavours,” she says of the Gehringer Brothers Late Harvest Riesling 2017, while James Hearn of local Save On Radio show Thrift Stores Selects fills the room with tunes. Between bites of food and sips of wine, new friends are made at every edge of the table. Vin Van brings a refreshing concept to Vancouver when it comes to wining, dining, and socializing, encouraging people to go beyond the usual after-work activities.
“It’s just something a little bit different,” Owen says. “It’s just about bringing people together with amazing food and wine, in cool locations around Vancouver.” Anyone who has had the privilege of living in this city is sure to see its value.
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