It is noon on a Wednesday in Vancouver’s Yaletown. You might think, given that the place does not open its doors until 5 p.m. (okay, 4:45; there are some urgencies in clients’ schedules), that it would be calm, quiet. But no. There is a fresh, line-caught halibut from the icy waters west of Vancouver Island to be broken down. There are Thiessen Farms pheasants being adorned with house-made lard strips and then trussed, made ready for the Rotisol rotisserie, 35 minutes at 600°F, which will render them crisp, lovely, delectable in their chive and cherry dressing later that evening. Repairmen catch the ire, easily, of the chef as they meander through the wrong doorways, taking up precious time. There is studious elbow grease, little chit-chat, other than the discussion of items that may or may not make the grade for that evening’s dinner service. It just depends. Is it perfect? Si, it will go. Is it less than perfect? No, it will have to await perfection on another day. And so it goes at Pino Posteraro’s iconic Cioppino’s Mediterranean Grill & Enoteca.
Parmesan cheese is being ground, by hand, from a wheel. Pasta is being made by hand also, being rolled, stretched, placated by earnest hands. Everything from scratch, including the sublime baccala ravioli, but we get ahead of ourselves. Chef Posteraro has been in this place for 15 years now. He previously did yeoman work in Vancouver, but had already made his bones in Michelin-starred restaurants in Europe, and to this day is at the forefront of Canada’s technically advanced chefs. “I knew early on, to learn the techniques would be important,” Posteraro says. “But it was never about showing off. I always, always kept in mind the things my mother taught me, and the most important of those things was that being true to the actual ingredient was the most important thing.” He pauses, smiles. “And of course, through their trends, the fashions of food, that has never really changed. To this day, I know that when I use a new technique, I always make a checklist in my mind that leads me back to one thing: the food has to be real.”
This is Vancouver, so sustainable, fresh, and local are mantras. Here at Cioppino’s, that does apply, but there is something more at work. “This beautiful wild striped sea bass, which I will break down in a few minutes, arrived fresh from Virginia. They do it right, and the fish is perfect. It is something we can be proud to serve.” Halibut, also recently arrived, is from local waters, caught by line, and looking sensational. “It is a fairly big fish, right? But this will get us through perhaps two services at most. It is always a part of the regular menu.” Posteraro moves through the restaurant, observes someone polishing the stemware for the evening, stops, and says, “Treat these glasses with love, my friend. They are delicate and beautiful.” Somehow, it is not so much practical advice, nor poetry, as it is an avowal that no detail is left unattended.
Those stems are made for wine, and Chef Posteraro has hand-built his list over time into one of Canada’s deepest and finest. “Things have changed, radically,” he says. He is seated in one of several wine rooms varying in size from six seats to 20, one themed for Dom Pérignon, another for Antinori, yet another for Batasiolo, and one called Mama Paola. All this, in addition to the open-concept main dining room and the adjacent Enoteca, makes the restaurant perfect for virtually any kind of gathering. But about that wine list: “I used to buy the big wines and keep up with vintages. But at some point, the prices simply got to a level where it did not make sense any more. And add to that the fact that by the end of 2008 our guests were just not buying those big wines much anymore.” So he adapted, and now the list is studded with great finds from Italy, but also from Spain, Portugal, France, and Argentina, for starters. And British Columbia, of course. “The whole point is to make the dining experience the best possible, so I work hard at the wine list, finding wines that will complement my food.”
The food. Mama Paola has a place of honour for very good reason. “My mother’s cooking informs almost every single thing I do,” says Posteraro. “She was an expert, great attention to the finer details, and I learned a lot from her.” He also learned a lot in some of the world’s great kitchens, and the ease with which he whips up an amazing, profound yet simple pasta dish belies formidable culinary technique. “Technique is important of course, but it cannot run the show,” he says. “I am all for adventure and experimentation, but at the end of the day it has to be great flavours, appealing dishes, not simply a challenge in deconstruction.”
Examples abound, every evening. That sea bass, served as a ceviche, with lighter-than-air lemon foam and a light dash of chilies. Succulent calamari with chickpeas, almost rustic but for the beauty of it on the plate. A ravioli that is a revelation: stuffed with homemade baccala and sprinkled with bottarga, true Southern Italian style. “I mashed the potatoes this morning, and the cod comes from local waters,” he says. “It can’t be any more fresh.” That translates into vivid flavours that are clearly the famous baccala profile, but with delicacy and finesse. Just sensational.
The pheasant, done with its spit-roasting, is served in a light sauce flecked with fresh local cherries, chive and cherry jus, and fresh vegetables. Again, delicate yet profound flavours, all clearly differentiated on the plate, are the order of the day.
Service is tireless, seamless, not cloying, but not at all casual or even what we know as “casual fine dining”. There is a crispness to it, and an attention to detail, that denotes fine dining in every way.
“Yes,” says Chef Posteraro. “It is fine dining, and there is a cost to all of it. But when guests come here to eat and to have a great experience, we look at it as a challenge, to give them the best we can, every day. That way, they really get their money’s worth, and we never cut corners. It is all about putting out the very best dish possible.” Even a casual look around the main room indicates clearly that those high standards pay off in meeting all those high expectations. There are only happy faces in the dining spaces of Cioppino’s Mediterranean Grill.