The Mackenzie Room, Vancouver.

November 2017.

For some reason I’d wanted to go to this place for a long time, seduced I suppose by the name, location, and a lot of testimonials from good friends. One of them said it was the best meal he’d ever had. So off we went on a Wednesday night. It was a moderate disappointment.

The place is a storefront opposite Oppenheimer Park on Powell Street in the heart of Vancouver’s downtown Eastside. There is a successful movement to gentrify this still-skid-road neighbourhood that fronts on East Hastings Street, filled with addicted and homeless people. It’s been that way for I guess a dozen decades. Anyway now a combination of a reasonably-priced real estate and I’m afraid a level of safety recently imagined by uptown folks willing to pay $100 for dinner have combined to open a bunch of trendy little places around this part of town.

We pulled up and parked in a metered space a half block from the restaurant, and walked in at 6 o’clock to find it essentially empty. It filled up almost completely in the next hour or so, but we were happy to have one of the storefront alcove tables. The server was an absolutely lovely guy, knowledgeable, sophisticated, relaxed, intelligent: just about everything you ever hoped a server would be. He took my phone and photographed the blackboard menu so we could read it from a distance. Things are divided into starters, mains, and dessert, although not nominally.

The wine list is a selection of obscure BC wines, almost none of them known to me, but the Haywire pinot grigio or something comparable was perfectly delicious. We also had a glass each of a local pinot noir which was very nice. Someone has spent some time selecting the wines and the prices are reasonable.

We started with a couple of salad-type dishes, the “Showstopper Salad”, and “A Rad Dish”. The showstopper was a conical haystack of greens on top of a base of farmer’s cheese. The flavours were good and there was some sweet-cured onion and other unusual things contained in the cone of greens. I was impressed even though I’m absolutely not a salad fan. The rad-dish was frisse lettuce with sliced apples and garden radishes in a nice vinaigrette. Maybe for me a cut below the showstopper for flavour and variety.

We shared a braised pork shank for dinner. This came falling off the bone with vegetable accompaniments, but was really not much more than quite nicely braised pork, with potato, apple, and cabbage cooked around it. I guess with slow-cooked red meat I’m looking for enough fat in the original cut that the braising doesn’t just dry the meat out and make it stringy. That wasn’t the case here, but with the recommendations we had heard about this place, I expected something at least a bit spectacular. This was just a respectable braised pork shank.

We paid $200: $85 worth of wine, $75 food, and a 20% tip.

Why weren’t we blown away? Well the food was good, but just reasonably good, not spectacular. I felt as though we were somehow expected to allow for the sketchy neighbourhood and be kind of impressed that someone could produce a decent meal in such a place. Sure. And I came close to being able to fall for the “good honest food” marketing, but for the price I think I want just a wee bit better taste and preparation, and I’m afraid I’m curmudgeonly enough not to cut any slack because they’re pretending to either brave, or (worse) somehow be seriously associated with a homeless drug-addicted schizophrenic neighbourhood when in fact it feels to me like they’re trying to cash in on up-towners’ slumming.

I don’t see going back. Food 8.2, service 9.3, ambience 7.2, value 6.8, peace and quiet 6.8.

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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