Five Sails, Vancouver.

(Please read critique from December 2015 below as well)

December 2013.

I’m not sure why this restaurant isn’t more generally celebrated. Joe at Les Amis de Fromage commented that the Austrian chef, Ernst Dorfler, always comes up best in local cook-offs, but my positive impression of the place comes from having eaten there, rather than from the media. We fared very well at the Confrerie dinner there about a year ago and so chose it for our anniversary, having been a bit disappointed recently by Bishop’s, Hawksworth, and others.

The welcome was personal and genuine, the pleasantly complex room about half-full on a Thursday night at 7, and we were seated facing the winter harbour and convention center view which was kind of conventionally classy and sophisticated. The room is modern and again set up in a satisfactory conventionally luxurious way with the linen etc. Our service was verging on obsequious but very attentive and never the inappropriately clumsy, overly-informal, arrogant, or otherwise psychopathological nonsense so common these days. Professional but personal. We felt they were glad to see us and thought we were important.

An amuse-geule was tiny shellfish/prawn done sour and delicious. Starters were sweetbread and an Austrian ravioli with vegetarian center. The sweetbread was the best we’ve had in quite a long time, and we do order it regularly in all sorts of places. Beautifully prepared with a port wine glaze, lots of flavour, and soft in the center. The raviolis were not quite in the same league but very tasty. Again perfect cooking and gentle satisfying flavour. Robin had seared fillet of beef and I had honey glazed duck, both absolutely lovely. The beef was very rare and came with a slightly sweet fortified wine sauce, rich scallop-style potato, and a consummate seared piece of fois gras. Duck also with foie gras, done with port sauce, hazelnuts, and other delicacies. We split the sweet soufflé dessert which came unselfconsciously with heavy vanilla ice cream, and had a glass of non-fabulous sauternes alongside. Our wine was a dazzling 2000 Ruchottes-Chambertin from Roumier which set us back $35 for corkage.

The rest of the menu looked interesting and creative although pretty traditional  with all the wine reduction sauces and so on, but not just standard chicken, chops and fish served up in an expensive surrounding.  Like Hawksworth. And not all that expensive. $215 pre-tip, remembering that we brought our own wine. Considering what we got and what we’ve paid elsewhere over the years for inferior food I was pleasantly surprised. Best dinner we’ve had in Vancouver in a long time. Food 9.4 service 8.9 ambience 8.6 overall value 9.0.

February 2015.

Another bases-loaded home run for this wonderful and for some reason underrated restaurant. Unless somebody is hiding from me I’m pretty convinced it’s the provisional high-end destination in Vancouver.

They are coy about brought wine, apparently not having completely bought into the new corkage rules. We semi-surreptitiously handed Gerry (the delightful hostess wife of Ernst, the chef) our 2005 Behringer private reserve Cabernet, and were shown to our table.

Faithful readers will appreciate I’m quite sensitive to noise and we asked to be moved east (I guess it would be) in the restaurant to where we sat last time, still right against the big windows and so looking at their very nice harbour view, but out of the hurly-burly of Asian family table and drunken hilarity. No such luck. But things settled down and we were fine.

The server was the same guy I think, and he was professional, deferential, responsive, knowledgeable: pretty close to world-class.

We started with their beef tartare served with a “wild” Pacific prawn, and also tuna tartare with avocado and ginger. These were both just lovely. The prawns at four quadrants around the puck of beef tartare was especially reassuring and satisfying, set under a little scalloped cookie and combined with I suspect a clam reduction. The tartare was perfectly seasoned. I like it a bit coarser, but this was fine. The tuna was also set up with the right amount of salt and its delicious accompaniments.

We went for the duck trio, and a main-course of the lovely schlutzkrapfen Austrian ravioli with its spinach and ricotta cheese. The trio was dazzling. A beautiful foie gras, confit, and rare duck breast with fruit and vegetable purées. Everything cooked perfectly, and the flavours explosive and varied without being sharp. The ravioli tender and delicious.

It was about $230 pre-tip with a very reasonable $35 corkage, and we each had a cocktail to start. You’d have to count on $350 for a couple if you bought a decent wine from their list. But I’ve paid twice that and been less satisfied.

You don’t get the same crazy cutting-edge feeling we used to have at the old Lumiere and we’ve experienced in other great places out of town. This is traditional cuisine. But it’s traditional cuisine beautifully done. We left satisfied and really pleased with pretty well every bite. I’m confirmed my opinion that, for the time being, this is the best place in town for a special night out.

Food 9.3, service 9.0, ambience 8.4, value 8.9.

December 2015

I think this was our third annual anniversary at this usually pretty fabulous traditional haute cuisine restaurant. But something has changed. Either that or we hit them on an unusually bad night.

There was a minor glitch as we had requested when we made the reservation that we be allowed to bring our own bottle of wine (this having been permitted the past two years). When a minor employee called to confirm on the day of the reservation we were told in no uncertain terms “no corkage, we don’t do corkage.” I called back and spoke to Gerry, the owner, and she was willing to make an exception but wasn’t warm, welcoming, and friendly as she had been in the past. She said the exception had to do with a wine club I belong to that had booked major events there.

So on our big anniversary night out we dressed up and wrapped our 2005 Calon Segur in plain brown paper. When we arrived we handed it to the hostess who passed it to Gerry as though it was some sort of an improvised explosive device, and she ducked down behind the desk and secreted it away without making eye contact.

We were taken to a lovely table overlooking the dark harbour with its lights, and the surroundings were dignified and quiet, the usual reassuring traditional high-class atmosphere. A new server looked after us, very professional and efficient but as far as we could tell completely humourless. Compared to the overly-obsequious service on previous occasions I think, strangely, I prefer the old style.

Dinner frankly wasn’t up to their usual consistent standards. Robin had a tartare seafood trio: salmon, whitefish, and prawn, which was delicious, and her main course was a veal medallion with sweetbread which was beautifully prepared and also pretty well flawless.

But for some reason it seemed like the kitchen was picking on me (maybe it was the contraband wine from home?). My first course was quail, and the nicely deboned little bird had been roasted and was presented with a respectable reduction sauce, but was dry. I asked for the rack of lamb duo, my main, to be done rare, and it was. The tenderloin was succulent and beautiful, but the rack loin was just chewey and tough. I tried the second one, same thing. And the accompanying cauliflower was way undercooked.

We paid $250 pre-tip, corkage represented at a very reasonable $35. So no big unreasonable price considering the venue, reputation, view, etc.

But what was going on? These people know much better than to cook vegetables in any other way than exactly how they want them cooked. Was this some sort of ironic comment on the bad habit of trying to make vegetables healthy? Hardly. The management here may have one of the best restaurants in town, but they are absolutely not trying to be cute. And a rack of lamb that’s tough? Quail not perfectly cooked? Unheard of in a place that prides itself on traditional execution. I can’t help but conclude that they somehow stumbled and didn’t achieve the technical excellence which is their claim to fame.

And that, plus all the silly attitude about corkage, added up to a bit of a disappointment. Compounded by the fact that this restaurant has for a few years been in my opinion the best place for a special night out in Vancouver. Good god, if it’s crumbling, what’s left? Maybe Il Giardino?

So I face a bit of a reevaluation of Five Sails. Food 7.9, service 8.2, ambience 7.4 (I include here not just the room and furnishings but how we were treated), value 7.8. Robin wants to give it one more try but I’m still praying that somehow a world-class restaurant will magically appear in town in the next 12 months. Good luck.

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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