Nightingale, Vancouver.

June 2016.

With all its rave reviews we couldn’t resist giving David Hawksworth’s new bistro a try. It’s located in a low rise traditional building near Hastings and Burrard, which although I can’t seem to track it down may be the former Terminal City Club. Whatever it was, it’s now a perfectly credible old-Vancouver space, beautifully renovated and feeling like it’s been there for at least a century, which the building in fact has been. Sadly, the food is consistent with Hawksworth’s performance in his flagship restaurant.

The main floor bar is packed and roaring with the energy of a young business, legal, and stock-trading clientele strutting its bling and shaved scalps. We had no reservation but were seated in a lateral booth facing directly onto the open front of a massive gleaming and bustling kitchen. We were happy to be seated side-by-side because we would have been unable to carry on a conversation across a table against the thundering music that never let up even for a moment. By coincidence, the young fellow working directly in front of us turned out to be the head chef, Philip Scarfone. He was charming and relaxed, introduced himself to us, and chatted amiably about the restaurant and food

Our server was a young lady who joked and gave us whatever information we asked for. A sommelier arrived and recommended a reasonably-priced Hungarian wine (of all things) which turned out to be perfectly delightful. Ancillary staff were very quick (sometimes a bit too quick) to remove plates and bring subsequent courses.

We had six of the small shared items. First was an arugula salad, pleasingly sprinkled with tiny bacon bits and nuts, featuring grapefruit slices. It was fresh and pleasant, but the dressing was extremely acidic and hid or spoiled the flavour of the main ingredients. Fries were next, and here the kitchen management’s reverse genius really kicked in and these chips were variable in thickness, probably taken out of the fat too fast, and completely without salt resulting in no taste, doughy or half-cooked consistency, and failure of crispness.

A pizza arrived which looked too big but disappeared quickly, as it was one of the two best things we tried. Somehow the guanciale which had attracted us to it was hard to find and consisted of a few small paper-thin slices we tried but couldn’t taste. The dough which we were told had taken forever to perfect, eventually using special imported flour, was pretty good although a bit burnt around the edges, and the tomato and sauce were soft, slightly sour, and satisfying. I wanted to test the kitchen’s mettle by ordering an item that’s nearly always as tough as rope: octopus. This arrived looking lovely tossed with several sour and savoury accompaniments, and the chopped tentacles were passably tender although I found them a bit flavourless. The dressing and accompaniments partly made up for that.

Next on the list was a plate of little pieces of deep-fried chicken which although the interior meat was cooked perfectly, were covered in too much of a too-heavy batter which, again, lacked flavour, and had been it seemed cooked at too high a temperature so the batter was hard without managing to be crispy. We finished up with a toast topped with burrata, roasted red pepper, and a green purée. Lately I’ve started to wonder if my taste buds are finally starting to dry up, but occasionally exposing them to something really satisfying makes me doubt that theory. Anyway this perfectly nice-looking burrata toast was disappointing for, like some of the other items, lacking flavour, except for the red pepper.

The Hungarian white wine was herbed and balanced and an honest bargain at $56, our pre-tip bill was $152, reasonable considering the real estate and the large number of staff.

What a drag that mostly flavourless food for me spoiled the otherwise potentially impressive experience in this beautiful new restaurant. It reminds me a bit of the waterfront Cactus Club: it’s pretty close to as classy and beautifully-designed and finished a physical plant as a person could imagine, but somehow the locally famous restaurant geniuses can’t seem to put things on the plate that measure up to the ambience they’ve created. If you eat in different places around the world, it’s a bit embarrassing to come home and realize that sophisticated travellers coming to town looking for culinary creativity and excitement will go away shrugging their shoulders and shaking their heads.

Food 6.7, service 8.1, ambience 8.8, value 6.7, peace and quiet 3.2

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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