Secret Location, Vancouver.

August, 2013.

I’m starting to feel my age, responding like a tastebud-atrophied frail elderly person to places others spin cartwheels over. This archly fancy experience didn’t help. Although looking a second time at some of the reviews maybe I’m not alone in detecting the less-than-perfect when I scratch the dazzling white plastic surface, nobody I’ve read was quite as unhappy as I ended up being.

I hope for the owner’s sake they did well during the summer, because on a Wednesday night at the end of August we had the place pretty well to ourselves. Walking in off the street you could be in an above-Los Angeles pad of somebody with a lot more money than taste. White on white. On white. Glass, high-gloss, and plastic surfaces. Big awkward open spaces. Windows give a view of the restaurant across the street (which for some reason is full of people…). And the room manages to verge on slightly noisy even with a total of six diners and a staff of four. Possibly the music bouncing off the hard edge plastic …

Seconds after I sit down somebody pouring water into a glass beside me loudly says “Pardon my reach”.  Reach? I didn’t even notice you until I had to start my sentence over because you interrupted me. Thus I became aware of the young server who gave the impression that he was overly busy by speaking extremely quickly. Looking around at the empty room I started trying to think of another reason for this rapid-fire delivery.  Affected boredom?  Concealing his pearls from diners’ piggy ears? What he had to say seemed interesting but my hearing plus trying to figure out what he was up to kept me from capturing 90% of it.

My friend handed me the special wine list and, distracted, it took me a few moments to figure out that he was joking, prices there ranging from $250-$500. The reasonable regular wine menu had the nice touch of a 2-ounce “taster” glass, as well as the larger regular glass, and bottles for virtually all the wines. It was an uninspiring if varietal-comprehensive list. I had a full glass of the rioja (I forget the producer) which was oxidized (no surprise given the kind of turnover I’m afraid they are experiencing) but it was promptly and courteously replaced. The unspoiled wine was okay.

So, once we weathered the grande vitesse introduction, time for dinner. An ostrich carpaccio starter with horseradish and truffle was about a micromillimeter thick but tasty, if insufficient in quantity to be distinguished from beef and lacking for me any suggestion of truffle. The burrata on heirloom tomato was really thin-flavored, the cheese not the best quality and the tomato watery. The pork dish was spotty in quality, the pork belly tender and delicious but the loin overcooked. All around sat tiny pieces of vegetable, all completely undercooked, which got my back up because I had recently started to fantasize that we have got past the African-inspired fiber-saves-lives raw vegetable idea that has gripped us for at least 20 years, and moved on to perfectly south-of-crunchy. Not here.

It seems to me the last three times I’ve eaten out somebody has halibut, and it’s overcooked. A recent wine club lunch catered by highly-rated Hawksworth included a puck of sous vide halibut tough and uniform all the way through. At Secret Location one of us had halibut similarly overdone, not rescued by the ramps also on the plate. (Ramps? New one on me.  Whatever kind of trendy vegetable this is, why not instead just give us string beans and cook the food properly …)  I cook halibut often enough to understand that there can be a matter of seconds between sashimi and shoe leather, but surely nailing that time interval is the kind of thing that separates a professional chef from the rest of us.

$123 pre-tip for two, including two small and two large glasses of wine.

Too bad. There is something attractively risky about spending the kind of money required to finish surfaces the way they’re done here, and the restaurant-beside-fashions idea somehow appeals to me too. But why can’t an experienced professional chef produce consistently tasty and interesting food, or at least exhibit adequate basic kitchen skills? And an obviously well-informed adult server avoid being embarrassingly affectedly weird?

Probably a good thing that I’m the only one who reads my reviews. I wouldn’t want to appear publicly ungrateful and unkind toward restaurant owners, staff, and chefs. The personal and financial risks, long underpaid hours, and rigorous training remind me of professional musicians who do what they do because they love it, and then gladly give us the wonderful benefit. I’m always sad when a restaurant goes under even if I think it deserves to, for fear really good owners and cooks will be discouraged from testing the water.

And yet…  I fear it is what it is.  Somebody has unconsciously left themselves open to the idea that the location of this restaurant ought to remain secret.  If so, it would encourage an early, appropriate, and quiet alternate use of the real estate. 5.1 food/4.0 service/??ambience/5.7 overall value. Won’t be going back.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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