November 2015 (three reviews; vide infra).
This was our first visit to the new version of this Vancouver classic. I’ve been to Umberto Menghi’s original “game” restaurant, the best of his former three (Umberto’s: traditional Italian in a renovated yellow frame house; La Cantina: an Italian fish house; and Il Giardino: focused on game), countless times over the years to the point where I’m almost sentimental about it and felt a twinge of loss (similar to my experience when Lumiere closed) when it was razed several years ago, in spite of a decade-and-a-half deterioration in food and service.
It was in its heyday a classic 1970s-80s destination. A fat U-shaped building wrapped around and overlooking through dark green french doors a terra-cotta garden, open in the summer. One leg of the U was a bar with a high slanting ceiling, where you could end an evening with a drink and the evanescent orange cake. The rest of the indoor space was intimate. But it was in summer when the green and brick-motif flowered garden came into its own. Robin and I would sit on the edge overlooking the colourful dining crowd on many spectacularly memorable evenings, inhaling the elegant faux-rural ambience of the classiest and sexiest scene in town and about to enjoy fabulous treats. In the early days, we were never disappointed.
I’m not au courant enough to know the reason for the deterioration in the old restaurant that started I guess 15 years ago, but I remember hacking my way through terrible dry and hard duck and telling the waiter I couldn’t believe what had happened in the kitchen. Once that was established we quit going there.
Now, a half-block north on Hornby, we have the new Il Giardino. As we park to go in for lunch, an elderly Umbrto Menghi is getting out of a car and heading for the front door. It is a complex room with a bar off to the right, high ceiling with visible structural members in the centre, a low-ceiling alcove off to the side, open kitchen, and a big outdoor patio with French doors at the back. The welcome is warm and professional, the staff tend to be 30-40-year-olds consistently solicitous, knowledgeable, and (the women and least) attractive.
We are seated in the low-ceiling alcove and the place pretty well packs full between 12 and 1. The noise is substantial. Server is a pretty, courteous, colloquial girl knowledgeable about the wine list. The menu is fairly predictable Italian fare. We choose carpaccio and an avocado and tuna salad to start, and then share gnocchi with Gorgonzola and walnuts. Carpaccio is classic and delicious, the tuna salad needs salt and the fish isn’t a million-dollar cut, but the dish is asian-fusion, not Italian, and the starters overall are satisfying.
The gnocchi are lovely, pillow-soft anointed with a silk-smooth Gorgonzola cream contrasting with the crunchy nuts. Split between us, the quantity is ideal. Pushing our luck, we go for crème caramel for dessert, and it’s also seductively smooth and exuding gentle toasted sugar flavor.
Wine recommended is a Piedmont white which I can’t remember the name of (Gava possibly? The wine list isn’t on the website) but which is delicious and a nice bargain at $47, fragrant and acidic.
The walls are filled with paintings from the old restaurant. I would almost like to have seen some of the terra-cotta and dark green motif preserved too, but the relatively opulent up-to-date interior isn’t half bad. We felt treated respectfully and like old friends, and weren’t too shocked by the $170 pre-tip price, bearing in mind the wine was only $47.
Appreciating that I’m happy enough to see this old friend reincarnated that I may be just short of my usual crystalline objectivity in assessing it, I would say it’s up there among the top five in town for special meals. Can’t wait to try the “giardino” outside next summer, but will stick to traditional Italian dishes. Food 8.6, service 8.9, ambience 9.1 (if you turn off your hearing aid), value 7.8.
Back a second time to confirm my first only-slightly-qualified good impression, now it’s a bit more qualified. This was dinner for a double-birthday celebration, we were three.
Front-end staff was less than encouraging on the phone in response to our request to bring some wine. “Only as a very special exception”, and corkage $50. Fair enough, you have to make ends meet and their average markup on a bottle could conceivably exceed $50.
The dining room was packed by 7 PM on a Thursday night. We were seated at a table in the middle and were crushed with clattering and shrieking, and so we accepted the kind offer to sit and have dinner in the bar. This is a pretty and small space with lovely table settings and a classy overdecorated atmosphere. The hostess’ welcome and our server were attractive and extremely friendly and helpful. We prepared for a fabulous feast.
Bread with its oil/vinegar dip was almost impossibly soft, fresh and tasty, and a shared antipasto featured simple delicious olives and rosettes of absolutely fresh soft prosciutto. We chose pasta because the main dishes looked like the sort of fusion and non-Italian crowdpleasers that had slightly turned us off on the last visit. Sad to say, things were spotty. One dish, a special of the night, was delicious with shellfish, the spaghetti perfect, flavours fresh and straight up front. A carbonara was respectable but somehow two-dimensional (my wife Robin makes an absolutely smashing carbonara so basis for comparison may be skewed). My linguine with prosciutto was disappointing. I let the lady put parmesan on it which may have been a mistake, but the pasta was gooey and the meat flavour was drowned under the cheese.
The Piedmont white and Central-Italy red were both excellent and, I thought, fairly priced. About $350 for three included a 20% tip.
As I’ve said before I love this place because of my history with its predecessor, the staff are terrific: service really genuinely kind and professional, the physical room soothing and classy, and you can certainly get a very nice bottle of Italian wine for a fair price. But then there’s the noise (which in fairness you can avoid by sitting in the bar), and damn it so-so pasta in a place that should by pedigree and for the price be top-notch Italian. I guess we will give it one more try in the summer when God willing we can sit outside. Revised rating: food 7.1, service 9.1, ambience 8.9 (if you sit in the bar), value 8.0.
So on a perfect 22° late-July evening and just a bit dressed up, we prepare to face the big question: is the new Giardino up at the standard of the old? There’s really more than one question here, like is the world up to the standard of the 1980s and worst of all are we, but never mind that, what about the grub?
We walk in early (5:45 because it was the only reservation we could get) and are quickly taken out into the garden which from inside looks fabulously inviting as we pass the busy fragrant kitchen. A central table, or tucked away to the side? We elect the latter. Immediately present, the waiter is an impressive older-middle-age histrionic pro. Laughing and confident he jokes us into our seats and we are welcomed and at ease. The place is 20% full, but fills to about 80% in the 90 minutes we are there (why couldn’t we get a table a bit later??).
It’s a pretty garden with its smoky pink table cloths, flowers, parasols, and hurrying staff. Looking up unfortunately we see a brick 70s apartment building, which we can ignore, but of course we’d rather be looking at an evening blue sky with fluffy clouds. We are treated in a pleasantly aggressive almost-but-not-quite patronizing way once we establish that we … aren’t from suburban Los Angeles I guess. The menu is medium-length, and short on Italian specialties, long on standard favourites: sablefish, rack of lamb, sirloin steak. There are several very appetizing specials and we went for most of them but of course nobody mentions the price.
Having promised myself not to drink much (midweek as it was) I had a gorgeous traditional Gibson cocktail and I was quickly in a positive mood. The wine was a 2012 barbaresco (2011 on the list but there’s no difference between the two vintages) that really was lovely, a classy tannic nebbiolo fairly priced at $92.
The lobster salad was fabulous, a perfectly balanced vinaigrette and twinkling sour accompaniments. A bison carpaccio was also wonderful, but the meat soft instead of slightly chewy as you might’ve hoped for classic carpaccio. So far so good.
Dinner was one special and one off the menu: the same fruits de mer spaghetti we had had the previous time, and a big veal chop. These were expensive dishes, the spaghetti absolutely delicious and benefiting from a lake of beautifully-handled sauce in the bowl. The chop was good, but the waiter had counselled to order it medium, and it was a bit grey and homogeneous through the centre whereas I guess I would’ve wanted it rarer and marbled with fat. Plenty of flavor, but at nearly $50 I guess I expected a wee bit more. The coffee was fine.
An absolutely lovely, relaxing, soothing, and high-class festive midsummer evening dinner from the point of view of venue and service. I said to the waiter as he was finishing up “not haute cuisine right? This is just a very high-class bistro.” and he agreed with his deep baritone laugh. Trouble being I guess that there just isn’t any haute cuisine chez nous maintenant, and maybe Il Giardino is as good as it gets around here. I guess it better be for $345 for two, $100 worth of wine and a 20% tip.
Very good for a special evening out but much better in the summer outside than in the noisy indoor restaurant. Food 8.3 (it’s an average, some better, some worse: choose carefully), service 8.9, ambience 9.1, value 6.8.