Crocodile, Vancouver. February 2014; February 2017.

February 2014.

We’ve been to this restaurant any number of times including its long-past former location on Thurlow Street. This was more of a bistro and, although it might be reflecting my relative youth when I was there, strikes me today as having been more intimate, and sporting the excitement of being an up-and-coming young turk. It started out as a cult discovery and quickly evolved into an elite favourite.

Then in 1992 they moved. I remember the first time at the new location thinking: they’ve ruined it. The much bigger room felt almost like a cafeteria. But many times since then it’s seemed more familiar and less institutional. I remember a couple of visits for lunch, one where we sat in a little nook by a window. It may be, we have imagined, among the top two or three in town at times, especially with the demise of Lumiere and stagnation of Bishop’s.

For this double-birthday event, I took a 1986 Pichon Comtesse Lalande over about 10 days before, and requested a window seat (we didn’t get one). We arrived a little early and were welcomed at the door by three cheerful people. Coming in, it seemed lively and convivial, a much smaller place than I remember, completely crowded, verging on noisy. We sat at the bar and had a glass of white wine, and then went to our table which was in the middle of the general fray.

Service was professional and personal, an older French or Belgian male server familiar to us from previous visits who is an ironically narcissistic European-style pro who does a lot of winking and clever commentary, definitely knows his stuff and charmingly hides whatever arrogance he harbours. A very young Asian girl dealt with the wine, including taking it away and trying to do some magic with its very unfortunate mustiness. She was enthusiastic and unassuming.

The menu always has an impressive range of choices with four or five specials in addition. Mushroom soup and bone marrow were our starters. The mushroom soup funghey (I appear to have invented an adjective) and a bit vinous, and the bone marrow a piece of beef femur sliced lengthwise, baked with garlic and herbs and served with crispy toasts and a sour ground substance based (I think) on onion. There was salt and pepper on the table to help me appreciate the delicious gooey fat inside the bones. Robin also had an onion tart which unfortunately was ordinary, a dull almost chewy matrix with undercooked onions all with a conventional mild nutmeg flavour.

The mains were sweetbread for Robin and rack of lamb for me. I was impressed that the waiter waved off a veal chop I inquired about (it’s of course reassuring when employees are prepared to pan certain dishes). The rack of lamb was perfect but in fairness I should have ordered something a little more esoteric, except there isn’t much esoteric on this otherwise extensive menu. The sweetbread had a beautifully-flavoured wine reduction sauce but I’ve had crispier and more tender (Five Sails and la Pulperia in Paris for example).

Dinner was about $200 including a $50 corkage. We certainly didn’t worry about price in making our choices, but we didn’t order dessert and only had one glass of wine apart from the bottle we brought.

Overall I think my mild sense of disappointment has to do with the very special wine being musty which you can’t blame the restaurant for. The onion tart was pretty uninspiring but everything else was very good. I think what Crocodile lacks is creativity. I picture people in the kitchen similar to our waiter who rest on their European culinary laurels. I doubt the food has changed much from the heyday on Thurlow. They still do traditional French-Belgian cuisine perfectly well in a classy and warm atmosphere, but compared to real artistic and colourful subtlety (the old Lumiere for example) Crocodile fades to black and white. Food 8.0 ambience 7.9 service 8.6 overall value 8.4.

February 2017

This time we came for a special birthday lunch. We enjoyed the same gallic welcome and were shown to a nice table-for-two by the window (but not our favourite in the alcove; you need to be three or four people for that one). The older Belgian or French waiter wasn’t around and ours was an attentive capable guy who conveyed without a hint of arrogance, “This is high-class dining, enjoy it.” Partly because of him the experience was a bit better than the last time, but the food was about the same.

It’s noisy. I took out my hearing aids and was able to survive. I don’t know what this idea of everybody having to shriek their heads off because they’re out for lunch or dinner is all about. Going out to eat seems to mean that we vocally advertise what we’re doing. Ridiculous. Couldn’t we just sit down and enjoy our food and talk quietly to one another?

We shared a foie gras starter. The center was raw but overall it was satisfying and flavourful, rich with sour accompanying tiny vegetables, a little undercooked. There was plenty of bread to soak up the lovely fatty sauce.

Our server was unbelievably comprehensive describing the dozen or so specials. Why would anyone read the menu? We had him back a second time to tell us about the main courses. Looking back at my previous commentary, it’s weird that I also ordered the rack of lamb this time. I think I have and had a sense that here they should do very classic dishes perfectly. There was also a wagyu beef, and several fish-based dishes as specials. Robin had a pasta with “sablefish”  (I seem to prefer the somehow less sybaritically pretentious name Alaska black cod for this my favourite fish), with a seared scallop on top.

The rack of lamb was okay, frankly a little bit tough but cooked to a European medium rare. I grabbed the bones, mopped up the sauce, and chowed the chops like popsicles. The little vegetables were undercooked like you’d get in a restaurant where the chef trained at BCIT had been told that you have to prevent cancer by serving roughage. Everything required salt I guess for similar reasons, but thank god there was salt on the table. The jus was a straightforward reduction, seeming to me to contain some not-necessarily-home-made elements. Good but not exciting in other words.

Robin’s fish and shellfish pasta was lovely and the flavours were subtle and delightful. There were also some prawns which were perfectly cooked and full of flavour. No complaints.

There was an okay little crab tart as an amuse-bouche that made me think of supermarket pastry shells, their traditional chocolate alligators at the end, and a complementary cheese plate that I guess represented our having told them that it was a special birthday.

The sommelier was a young aggressive French fellow from Strasbourg who told us his grandfather had played music in this restaurant, apparently establishing some kind of tradition. He talked us into a $160 Vosne-Romanee village from 2012 that was beautifully classic and austere, and would have been good value at say two-thirds the price. Generally the wine choices are moderately extensive but the price range is truncated at the bottom end around 70 bucks. We were up-sold, but in fairness I wonder whether they are making their money from alcohol.

With that wine, a shared starter, chef’s extras, two mains and a 20% tip the take-home price was in the high 300’s. I’d expected to pay more.

Handsome graying Michel presented himself to other obviously regular clients at the end of the meal. I suppose he’s doing the same thing he started 40+ years ago on Thurlow Street. He still owns his high-end French bistro and still cooks there, which is a special kind of conservatism I have some respect for. His food was haute cuisine at the time he got started in the 1970s, but it hasn’t evolved. If you read my previous commentary, I say amen.

But there’s no question this is a classy experience. You never feel like you’re eating in an ordinary joint. Crocodile is a solid cut above bistro in service and ambience. Now strangely, because of the collapse of everything else high-end in town, this traditional spot finds itself up there with the local best of the best, still serving the same traditional reasonably-well-prepared “French” food.

If you are looking for a French-style experience and want to be treated like royalty in a very pleasant physical environment, this place is terrific. If you’re looking for really exciting creative cuisine, tragically I’m afraid to tell you you’re in the wrong town.

Food 8.3, service 9.0, ambience 8.7, value 8.4, peace and quiet 4.6.

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 30 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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