Cacao, Vancouver.

April, 2018.

Good friends who know food told us about this place at the corner of 1st Avenue and Cypress, which occupies a space that used to be an Italian Café. There is also a cocktail lounge upstairs open different nights. We gave it a try and arrived punctually at 645.

The place was completely empty, and the cute friendly server quickly admitted that this was only her second shift at this restaurant. The space is… sort of authentic/minimal, a long small room with a lot of simple little wood tables and a concrete floor, but sited in a pretty successful-restaurant neighbourhood and looking out on two sides through big windows onto an intersection, so kind of a classy locale in its way. But there was something awkward about being in an up-and-coming restaurant at 7 PM on a Friday with nobody else there. There was a “party” coming later we were told which we thought might have rented the whole restaurant, but it was just a few people at a large table.

The front end man (having nothing else to do) came over and talked to us. He is a heavily-tattooed pleasant thirtyish guy who has a lot to say about South American cuisine and was very solicitous about the extremely short wine list and very short menu. There were I think nine wines offered (maybe a few more…), and because we wanted a mix of meat and fish we asked about the two pinot noirs. He offered to let us taste the cheaper one which was a bit intriguing on the nose but straight banana gamay in the mouth, and we bought the $95 one which turned out to smell like dishwasher detergent but was round and respectable in the mouth.

We requested the elk tartare as a starter to share. It came with a giant hopsack platter decorated with ungulate horns, stacked with huge thin fried carbohydrate chips. The two tablespoons of tartare came in a transparent plastic thing with smoke in it. The chips weren’t salty enough and the tartare was very nice, with some onion and other added condiments, but it needed salt too to really enjoy its three tippytoe forkfuls each.

We went for the special of the night which was paella, touted to be suitable for sharing at $50. We were hungry and looking forward to it but it was a concave business in an about 8 inch little cast-iron pan. Enough food for one person on a diet. The few spoonfuls we got were delicious and there was plenty of saffron, the rice cooked very nicely, a thinly sliced sausage in there that was interesting and piquant, a couple of clams, and four or five little prawns that had not been peeled. We gobbled it up. I managed to peel the prawns with my fingernails but they needed salt. This was something very unusual in our experience, us not being Southwestern American overweight people who want a huge plate of food: quite a lot of money spent and not enough to eat.

The front man came out spontaneously and said he was only going to charge $40 for the paella. And then that he was going to spot us back the $10 each they had charge for us to make the reservation (when Robin told me that I was completely scandalized. $20 to make a reservation in a place where nobody wants to eat?? What are we, crazy?).

Anyway big problems here. Somebody’s daddy must be funding these guys to be in prime westside real estate charging New York prices for quirky service and ordinary food dressed up as haute cuisine. Unless the upstairs cocktail lounge is turning a huge number or sugar daddy has deep pockets this place will be gone in six months. And that’s sad because they appear to mean well and are trying to do beautiful things. But Lord goodness there are a lot of screws loose in the basic moving parts.

Just under $200 with a good tip. We left starving. Ridiculous.

Food 8.2, service weird, ambience 8.3, value 4.5, peace and quiet 8.8 but only because there was nobody else there.

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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