Vancouver, and specifically Kitsilano, is fortunate these days to have two of the finest restaurant experiences in this or any other land. Which is appropriate in the sense that the people involved in these two places have worked around the world; Italy, New York, Hong Kong, and Spain have been part of their culinary maps, and now we have them right here in our own backyard, to explore with and to appreciate.
Chef Jefferson Alvarez has taken over what used to be the Epicurean Deli, on West 1st at Cypress, and opened a delicious endeavour called Cacao Progressive Latin. The place was never expansive, and although some effective changes have been made, the room remains intimate, which suits Alvarez just fine. Cacao Progressive Latin is always, it seems, bustling with energy emanating from its kitchen.
Alvarez has been on a culinary sojourn, never settling on anything like a regular, or even seasonal, menu, but rather changing things up daily. “It depends on what I find in the markets in the morning, what is available, and what inspires me,” he says. Alvarez is known for experimentation in his cooking—something he learned at the iconic El Bulli in Spain, and also with Massimo Bottura, who remains a close friend to this day.
Each dish at Cacao Progressive Latin is an exciting testimony to the main component on the plate, sharply focused, and bursting with nuanced, layered flavours, such as blood crème caramel or sturgeon panna cotta made out of 100 per cent sturgeon gelatin. There are plenty of ethnic influences, but Alvarez is a true master at making each ingredient, each stimulus, each bit of methodology in the kitchen, sing out as unique to him, yet all still act as part of a cohesive menu. A tomato dish, with tomatillos and mozzarella “snow,” is simply amazing. Mains may include branzino with green plantain and pipian rojo, and a wild boar chop with pipian verde. The best thing is to simply put yourself in chef’s hands, and take the tasting menu journey. You are bound to have some eye-opening, palate-pleasing stops along the way, all from a creative, inventive chef at the top of his game.
Just a couple blocks west of Cacao Progressive Latin, on Yew Street between 1st and York, is Mak N Ming. Here, Julius Dong has partnered with chefs Makoto Ono (who has worked in the kitchens of, among others, Marco Pierre White and Jean-Georges Vongerichten) and Amanda Cheng (Chinese name Ming, and now married to Ono), whose stellar career includes a stint at Fraiche in West Vancouver, Boule Patisserie in Los Angeles, Park Avenue in New York, and a great Hong Kong dessert bar called Riquiqui. This is another intimate room, with a high ceiling that gives it all a comfortable feel. “We searched for a long time before finding this place,” says Dong. “And it took some creative thinking in the design to get it to feel welcoming, comfortable, and suited to the kind of food the chefs prepare.” Chef Ono agrees; “It is tight in the kitchen, but we are a small team. And I like to see how people react to our dishes.” That reaction is assuredly positive, even eliciting raves. There is a four-course demi-menu, but the best bet is the full, seven-course experience because, as Cheng says, “We have a lot of ideas to share with you.”
The Humboldt squid with rutabaga and seaweed is a revelation; and a seemingly simple dish of corn, miso, rice, and ricotta is a symphony of depth, bright flavour, and harmony. The overall approach is a blend of French technique and Japanese influence framed by Canada and the Pacific Northwest, but really, the food here is unique, the influences more towards whispers than shouts.
Kitsilano is a destination location for many good reasons, but Cacao Progressive Latin and Mak N Ming are now lively beacons of excellence. The neighbourhood locals are fortunate to have them, and for the rest of us, it is well worth the trip to dine with them.
UPDATE, July 2019: Cacao Progressive Latin has closed.