Bishop's Restaurant , 2183 West 4th Ave., 604-738-2025
Touring some old, and new, favourites in beautiful downtown Kitsilano
Of the many characters who pepper the potent farrago that is Vancouver dining, one of my favourites is the restaurateur Jean-Claude Ramond. He is fiercely opinionated, tough, funny, generous, occasionally sentimental-a Frenchman who has seen nearly everything (what he hasn't managed to encounter, his best friend Umberto Menghi has). Ramond, or "J-C" as he is known in the neighbourhood, can be described as both larger-than-life and vertically challenged. A small yet perfectly formed man (he has contrived to be the exact height needed to keep his outsized cigars from dragging across the floor) who is equipped with the strength of an ox, he can, as they say, take up a lot of space.
Of course, it's not enough to be merely colourful to succeed in Vancouver dining. You must have the genius to back up any surfeit of character. Ramond knows that, too. In 1970, just as many of us were heading home from our back-packing trips through Europe, his Gastown restaurant, la creperie (cast in the then-au courant all-lower case), invited us in to replicate our first tastes of France. We drank wine from carafes, smoked Gitanes and bored unsuspecting girls with hideously pretentious quotes from Sartre. We debated Camus into the night; references to the latest Eric Rohmer and Truffaut movies (Claire's Knee! Day for Night!) were obligatory. But that was alright. The jovial Ramond reminded us not to take ourselves too seriously. His luminescent crab and chicken crepes and Beaujolais nouveau fired fledgling romances, and from time to time, Suzanne would take me down to her place by the river.
Gastown, with the addition of la creperie, Chez Joel and La Brochette, quickly became the epicentre of Vancouver's French dining scene (with Kafana Bosna filling in the goulash archipelago). I first met Ramond when he began to date the woman he was later to marry, Therese. She was a waitress at Frank Baker's Attic in West Vancouver; I was her busboy.
In March of 1997, after some mixed times (his L'Orangerie went dark in the early '80s recession), Ramond acquired the lease on a promising restaurant space at First and Cypress. It had originally housed a restaurant called Cascabel that began its life in the very same month as Lumière. But Cascabel was to survive for barely six months. Ramond negotiated terms, took possession of many of Cascabel's fixtures and furniture and opened his doors as The Smoking Dog Bar and Grill, named for the famous Parisian bistro, Au Chien Qui Fume.
But not for long. The liquor police demanded he remove the word "bar" from his freshly painted canopies; he complied, barely, muttering merdes behind his bar and masticating his cigar vigorously. To this day, the canopy of his establishment still reads "The Smoking Dog & Grill."
You know that you're in your very own neighbourhood restaurant if that's where you go for the regular patrons' Christmas party. And if the proprietor can convince you to costume yourself as Santa Claus, that's a lead indicator as well. Third, if you knock on the door quite late one night, and the owner invites you and a friend from faraway in for a conspiratorial drink and puts Tom Jones (a close friend of Ramond's) on the CD player, loudly, well then you've probably come home to a place that is, ironically, a little unsung.
The food is very good. Although my family and I have long since memorized the menu, we can only tell you that the best items tend to reflect the proprietor: they are low to the ground, husky and richly flavoured from afar, producing those elemental tastes and textures of a first trip to Paris. But we go whenever it strikes our fancy, whenever my partner looks me in the eyes and says, simply, "pepper steak."
We find those reminiscent tastes and textures regularly in dishes such as the signature mimosa salad ($6.95), an agreeable carryover from la creperie's early '70s menu: butter lettuce, garnished with tomatoes, diced egg and parsley, and dressed in a creamy Dijon sauce licked with garlic. It's served in a glass bowl, with the lettuce leaves arranged like flower petals, and it tastes light but earthy, like a spring day on the Seine. Another, a well made salad Niçoise ($13.95), combines thinly sliced boiled potatoes, butter lettuce, a julienne of bell peppers, black olives, anchovies and properly oily tuna in a well-seasoned dressing. Combine it with a crispy Sancerre to create a patio lunch.
Regulars eat up the french onion soup ($7.25) nightly; a gratin of Gruyere rafts over deeply reduced stock and caramelized onions. Another starter, of grilled quail ($10.95), is served over greens under a warm parsley butter sauce.
But the main event here is definitely the meat. The Smoking Dog's pepper steak, a generously cut and well-aged tenderloin ($29.95), is served with buttered seasonal vegetables and the potato prep of the day. The scalloped potatoes are superb, but locals take the pommes frites with an extra boat of pepper sauce for dipping. That sauce, assertively redolent of brandy, stock and pepper, has been perfectly crafted to reveal the tender beef. So, too, the côte de boeuf ($29.95), a Jurassic-sized, bone-on cut of prime-rib, topped with beurre maître d'hôtel.
There are other items, modestly priced, that make the menu right neighbourly: surprising pastas ($16.95) which often equal those of M. Ramond's best friend, and a nightly two course prix fixe menu (at $19.99, it's a steal) that incorporates the mimosa salad and pommes frites and your selection of either the roast of the day (frequently, leg of lamb), a New York steak, grilled chicken breast, neatly sauced or filet of salmon.
Desserts (all $6.50), including lemon tart and unctuous profiterolles, are well made and worth leaving room for. The wine list is French-driven with reasonable mark-ups. The patio, heated in winter, offers up extraordinary people-watching opportunities, especially on sunny afternoons. Go to watch the solar flare that is the flamboyant M. Ramond, but be sure to stay well into the night for the well-starred food.
I didn't choose my neighbourhood just for its dining opportunities, for it is pretty and quiet and full of light, the beach a block away, the grocery stores of Fourth Avenue and Granville Island an easy stroll. But the area is rife with places to eat well in cosy circumstances.
To be sure, along the arterial spine of Fourth Avenue there are many places to dine well: John Bishop's shrine to local, organic ingredients and superbly chosen wines; the Corsi family's welcoming Italian trattoria, Quattro; and John Blakley's marvellous Pastis, which lays a suave French accent over prime local product.
But more to the immediate point of appeasing cravings, along Cornwall Avenue, between Cypress and Maple streets, there is an appetizing row of cheap and cheerful spots-including The Octopus's Garden (the vegetarian rolls are top-drawer) and Planet Veg. At the latter, a wealthy list of samosas ($5.61), served with chutney and rice, heat the night from within. Roti rolls ($7.48), which include a basmati ricepot and tamarind chutney, provide equal solace no matter the weather. So, too, at Siegel's, where the best smoked meat sandwich ($6.50 for 125 grams; $7.95 for 175 grams) in Vancouver resides, basting the bed of its toasted bagel with rich juices and Dijon mustard, and served with a quartered dill the size of a canoe.
In the middle of this row lies Vera's Burger Shack. Its sign declares that "You Can't Beat Vera's Meat"-and few might argue: the proprietors, Gerald Tritt, and Noah Cantor of the Lions, weigh in at over 550 pounds combined. The hamburgers are hefty, too. "The Vic" ($7.95), for example, is a formidable double-pattied monster that also offers double cheese, fried onions and, presumably, a double bypass. It is primordially satisfying, relieving deep-seated urges without any pretense of foreplay. The Vera Dog ($3.95) combines a Nathan's Famous wiener with traditional toppings (or splash out on what the menu calls "extreme" toppings), the poutine ($4.50) and a nicely tangy bowl of chili ($5.95) have largely the same effect.
Off the arterials, there are dining tributaries as well. The bottom of Yew Street offers up the excellent Tangerine, where intelligently combined food, refracted through the prism of Asia, fills the modern space every night. Kibune Sushi-a small and serene room with tatami booths, counter seats and a microscopic patio- is a long-time favourite for us and our neighbours. Its crabby Kitsilano Roll is best taken outside on a spring evening, the better to watch the beach hordes shamble back up the hill.
To complete this circuit, we return to just across First Avenue from The Smoking Dog. Behind ranks of sleek, expensive motorcycles and Eddy Merckx bikes, their riders take morning espressos at bistro tables on a scrupulously clean sidewalk. We are at the Epicurean, a neighbourhood landmark that resolves many cravings, not all gustatory. Now a decade old, the Epicurean has become a neighbourhood living room. It has achieved near-cult status because it offers intimacy and sense of place.
It also offers very good home cooking. Its owners, the Cocco family, introduce a seasonal rotation of pastas, gelato, panini and Italian grocery items. Every morning, neighbours turn up for Renata Cocco's bread muffins and the Epicurean blend coffees, to read the papers, chat amicably and make up their to-do lists for the day. Later at lunch, morning patrons often find themselves drawn back again for grilled panini, perhaps comprising of hot Calabrese salami with provolone ($6.75) with a side of chilli-fired, marinated eggplant. Huge, lean beef meatballs, called polpette ($4.25) are easily the size of grapefruits; a plate of pasta carbonara ($5.00 for half portion/$7.25 full) can redeem a late night. A Roman-styled veal osso bucco ($8.00 to $12.00), with saffron risotto, is a twice-a-week special, and worth a detour.
Across the street, Jean-Claude Ramond beckons. He is setting out patio tables, chatting up pretty young women and waving his cigar like a soggy baton. But he manages, amid this flurry of activity, to notice us as we pass, and calls out our names. "Why don't you come in tonight?" he asks. "We'll have some fun," he says.
Epicurean Caffé Bistro , 1898 West 1st Ave., 604-731-5370
Kibune Sushi , 1508 Yew St., 604-731-4482
Octopus's Garden , 1995 Cornwall Ave., 604-734-8971
Pastis Bistro , 2153 West 4th Ave., 604-731-5020
Planet Veg , 1941 Cornwall Ave., 604-734-1001
Quattro on Fourth , 2611 W. 4th Ave., 604-734-4444
Siegel's Bagels , 1883 Cornwall Ave., 604-737-8151
The Smoking Dog , 1889 West First Ave., 604-732-8811
Tangerine , 1650 Yew St., 604-739-4677
Vera's Burger Shack , 1935 Cornwall St., 604-228-8372