There was a time when eating vegetarian in Vancouver, often as not, was defined by sloppy food and even sloppier service. Not so today, as a new wave of gastro-preneurs caters to a growing segment of the population in search of healthier and often more sustainable alternatives to (what used to be) the norm.
In the past, meat-free fare was consigned to the back burner of curiosity, the domain of a determined few, who, whether for political, spiritual, well-being, or any other reason, felt compelled to shun the mainstream of carnivorous-driven dining. Walk into the Parker, tucked away in the newly emerging condo enclave just north of the Georgia Viaduct, and you’re struck by a sense of tranquility, and by the buzz of quiet conversation that accompanies contentment. The room is small (and the kitchen even smaller) but this clean lined space with its well-conceived and artfully executed plates is winning plenty of converts.
It’s been a year since Curtis Luk left his pastry chef gig at Fable Kitchen (where he worked with good friend Trevor Bird) to pursue a different tack. Luk says his intention was to bring a new and different sensibility to vegetable-based cuisine, similar to what’s happening in higher-end rooms elsewhere in North America (such as Manresa in Los Gatos, California) or in France at Alain Passard’s L’Arpege. “I’m interested in focusing on what’s grown near us, what’s picked and foraged close by, and working with various techniques to give people a novel experience,” he explains. Luk also points to trends evolving over the last while towards eating less meat, embracing sustainability, and respecting sound farming practices. “It’s all coming together. In fact, it’s beyond a trend: it’s a reality for us in Canada and the U.S. from now on.” While the Parker does attract a “traditional” vegetarian clientele, as well as plenty of appreciative diners with dietary restrictions (gluten-free and vegan options are clearly marked), it also appeals to others “interested in exploring a restaurant that just happens to not serve meat”, he says. Indeed, even seasoned carnivores might be pleasantly surprised to discover the textural appeal of the Parker’s king oyster mushroom carpaccio, neatly sliced, with dashi poached mushrooms and pickled trumpets. Contrasting textures and novel presentations are just part of the appeal, settle at the bar and you’ll be treated to as good a cocktail as anywhere in the city before embarking on your meatless adventure.
The Parker is one of a growing number of vegetable-based restaurants that have broken the mould, offering a much more refined take on traditional vegetarian styles. And signs abound that the dining public has taken note. In one more indication of shifting times and tastes, in 2012, forward-looking the Acorn creatively reshaped and reinvigorated the space occupied by Main Street’s long-running Cippriano’s.
Meanwhile, the talented duo of David Gunawan and Dara Young base their offerings at Farmer’s Apprentice almost entirely on organic ingredients sourced from close-by producers. Their menu fluctuates not merely seasonally or weekly but even daily, depending on what’s immediately appealing and available. Meats from heritage producers and artisan sausage makers figure large. But so, too, do vegetables, often more esoteric, which very much receive equal billing. Think: leeks, cat tails, caramelized buttermilk, ramps, and watercress; or burrata, pickled Swiss chard, fava tips, and lemon olive oil.
Andrea Carlson departed stalwart Bishop’s in 2012 to open Burdock & Co., where she concentrates on locally sourced organic ingredients, with the occasional exotic ingredient. A bit of a pioneer herself, Carlson was the first chef in Vancouver to create a menu using only ingredients from within a 100-mile radius. Her offerings at Burdock & Co. include highly original vegetable and meat driven dishes such as sourdough with La Pyramide artisan cheese and Hives for Humanity fir tip honey; chanterelle mushrooms with roasted corn and runner bean ragout, wheatberry, and Walla Walla onions; or fire roasted green faro, sea asparagus, and black garlic. Carlson’s early success suggests that, while pure vegetarian rooms are indeed enjoying a resurgence, there’s evidence that tastes are shifting based as much on the diner’s desire to fully embrace not just regional cuisine but a true desire to support back-door suppliers and farmers.