The restaurant scene (we could call it an industry, a community, a culture) in Vancouver is at a zenith these days. Sustainable? No reason to think otherwise. In fact, with the opening of Boulevard Kitchen & Oyster Bar, in the Sutton Place Hotel, back some months ago, there is if anything more reason to be optimistic.
Steve Edwards is the director of operations, and was working hard several months before the actual opening, assembling a team. “The foundation of a good restaurant is the management team, including the executive chef,” says Edwards, and he should know what he is talking about. He spent several years in the Toptable Group team, then at Bearfoot Bistro, and at Cibo Trattoria, before taking on the new challenges at Boulevard. “We were confident, certainly,” he says, “but it has exceeded expectations in terms of work ethic, passion, taking care of the little things that make the experience.”
Alex Chen is the executive chef, having spent several years running the restaurant, complete with 60 cooks, at the Beverly Hills Hotel’s Polo Lounge. He is back to meet the challenge of Boulevard, which melds his acutely honed fine dining experience with a certain amount of playfulness and in every way lack of pretension. He states matter-of-factly that; “We concentrate more on finding that one missing ingredient that will make a dish special.” One great example is the instant smash hit: chicken wings. “I used one of my favourite restaurants, Phnom Penh, as a guide, and came up with these sticky wings. People love them, but it is the caramel fish sauce that makes them special.” The chef de cuisine is Roger Ma, who spent many years in the Dinex system, with Daniel Boulud. “I learned a lot from Daniel, and from working in the restaurants. This opportunity is fantastic, because we can start from nothing and build a special place.”
Edwards is abetted by a great service team, headed by maître’d Brian Hopkins, himself a Toptable alumni, having presided over West restaurant for many years. And wine director and sommelier Lisa Haley has built a quietly impressive and compact list, with an accent on sustainable, even organic wines, many local. Theoyster bar is masterminded by Bob Skinner, known with great affection in Vancouver as “Oyster Bob”. With a convivial adjoining bar and lounge, featuring Justin Taylor, and the genteel, more quiet Gerard still intact from the old days, plus private dining options, the place overall can seat in excess of 200 people, nearly 300 in temperate months when the outside patio is open. The main room is elegant, welcoming, tables well-spaced. Of a busy Saturday evening, the noise levels rise, of course, but it seems to add to the lively buzz of the place. Everybody may not know your name, but they all seem to be enjoying themselves.
The chicken wings, great. Oysters, by the dozen, great. But the burrata starter is splendid, as is the white bean dip. The roasted sablefish with gai lan flan, mushrooms, coconut rice, is a dish, says Edwards, that “we have a hard time keeping up to the demand. It is incredible.” There is also a fabulous Snake River Farms Berkshire pork chop, or a butter-roasted filet mignon with a side of truffle parmesan cream corn that will have you dreaming about it for days. For a special occasion, for parties of eight or more, there is an option to pre-order a whole salmon, cooked in clay. The results are astounding, one of the finest salmon dishes to come out of any kitchen in this city, ever.
The service melds seamlessly with the room, and with the food. The restaurant hums along and the serving doors swing back and forth all night long. The place accommodates all kinds of guests, in all kinds of moods. Says Edwards, the first cycle, through each of the seasons for the first time, is always the toughest. “You learn what you can do, and what you can’t do.” He looks out over the room, and adds “Plenty of repeat guests, which is great to see.” Chef Chen smiles, adds, “We just keep on exploring, with ingredients that inspire us.” They then both move back into the jobs, attending to all those little details. It is nice to know that behind the apparent magic is a team that knows its stuff, and puts their back into the job.