Farmer’s Apprentice, Vancouver. July 2014.

July, 2014.

It’s awful that nothing is perfect, and even worse that success can spoil things that come pretty close (see Francis (San Francisco) and The Girl and the Goat (Chicago)). Plus often the world is suddenler then we fancy and you get beautiful things alongside rubbish. You might be guessing we had a mixed experience at Farmer’s Apprentice.

This is a recent local darling in Vancouver, positively reviewed, hard to book, and tiny. We went with friends and took cold rosé wines on a hot night, grateful for the restaurant’s participation in the relatively new Vancouver relaxation of its 19th century Puritan alcohol rules to allow corkage. We booked two weeks in advance and had no trouble making a Wednesday night reservation.

The neighborhood is interesting, and it’s changing. There is a mix of up-and-coming businesses with old traditional ones along a shady casually classy side street giving off the art gallery row of immediate south Granville. And there we find Farmers Apprentice, a tiny space with I think 30 or 35 seats, eight of which are outside. A gorgeous mixed Asian and European savory smell is coming out the open front door seducing passersby and filling us with optimism.

Too bad the welcome is just shockingly rude. We  were 10 minutes early and an archly-turned-out tiny woman told us, “You’re early. The table isn’t ready.” Asked if there was any chance of sitting outside she responded, “Nope”. No eye contact, no explanation, no apology… What, we wondered, had we done wrong?

The other couple arrived and we were seated along the single interior row, the place about 80% full at 7:30. Noise was immediately overwhelming, spiraling competition between shouting and loud music confined conversation to quick responses and sign language. The main waiter was a much more charming and relaxed young Asian guy, and we were fascinated by the fabulous-sounding menu items which he suggested we share tapas-style, and we more or less did that.

Burrata with pickled spring vegetables, cucumber and herbs was just lovely, the cheese perfectly soft and exuding its sweet flavor, the accompaniments matching nicely with sour and clear specific vegetable flavors standing up to but not upstaging the mellow cheese. Snow peas with hakurei turnips, harissa and crème fraiche split the group, one of us ordering a second she was so happy with it, but I finding the peas coarse and stringy and the other flavors overwhelmed.

As I review the website menu, some dishes have already changed three days later which emphasizes the creativity of the kitchen. Still I see sake marinated sablefish with apple dashi, shimeji, daikon, hyssop, and furikake (whatever all of those things are) and I loved it, nothing in the accompaniments detracting from the always-reliable gorgeous oily sweetness of the fish. All of the other dishes were at least very good and a couple of them wonderful, except almond crusted sweetbreads with raita, vadouvan, peas, morels, and lentil jus, which was disappointing. The sweetbread was soft and mushy, and the flavors a dissonant combination of Asian and… something else, which ended up for me spoiling the pleasure of one of my favorite organ meats. There was a beautifully undercooked salmon item now no longer on the menu which I tried to monopolize and thoroughly enjoyed.

We wanted another bottle of wine toward the end of the dinner, and a sparkling cider from Normandy, Julien Frémont “Silex” Cidre, was suggested. It was dreadful: a fizzy and opaque sour and bitter alcoholic apple mash.

On the plus side, this restaurant has a committed and creative kitchen and when it’s good it’s magnificent. The food style is intellectual, not like the soul-satisfying priority of Espana, for example. But then you face the noise. And then you have to find your way past that hideously self-absorbed rude dismissive attitude suggesting that the front-end staff either need to be on something mood-altering or have prematurely developed a fixed narcissistic disdain for customers. I was so angry at the “welcome” that had there not been another couple joining us I think I would have walked away.

So, a pretty mixed bag. Food: average 8.3 but range 7.6-9.0. Service: average somewhere around 6, range 2.0-8.5. Ambience: 5.8. Value hard to gauge. If you’re a trendiness-oriented intellectual foodie who can communicate in sign language it might be well worth it. If you’re just looking for great food amounting to a wonderful dining experience I think you’d be wasting your time and money, unless we happened to hit them on a really bad night.

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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