Elisa Steakhouse, Vancouver.

December 2019

We spent a lovely evening in this remarkable restaurant as part of a special-anniversary weekend, and couldn’t help comparing it to Boulevard, where we had dinner the night before. Elisa is far superior.

The Aquilini Toptable restaurant group seems to continue to work miracles, whether revitalizing an existing restaurant (CinCin), maintaining a high-class specialty bakery (Thierry), or creating something out of whole cloth as they have here. Commentary has been positive and as far as we can see accurate in describing this place as expensive (unless you choose carefully and share dishes), off-centre if you’re looking for traditional man-cave steakhouse service and ambience, and just extremely high-quality.

It’s in Yaletown across the street from the Blue Water Café, another pretty good Toptable restaurant. Walking in, it’s a big room but with a low-ceiling intimacy, and an open kitchen at the back, otherwise fairly modern in tone (as opposed to dark-wood-and-red leather à la traditional steakhouse (Gotham eg)). A couple of relaxed ladies are cheerfully welcoming and assure us we will be seated shortly at one of the best tables in the house (not sure why we’re so favoured but no complaints). We are walked at 6:30 through the close-to full house to a lovely corner table out of the main circulation and somehow quieter than we could hear as we crossed the center of the room.

Server and sommellier both present themselves promptly and are a study in opposites. Server is a delightful, quick, intelligent local white guy with a mordant sense of humour, the wine man European, circumspect, respectful, and knowledgeable. We brought a Grgich cabernet bought locally and were okay with the $38 corkage charge. The wine was lovely, opened up quickly in its nice decanter and was AOK plus with our main course beef.

The server was always careful to be sure we told him about, and got, what we wanted. We had read of the sometimes outlandish prices of some of the cuts of beef at Elisa and weren’t interested in the $175 tomahawk steak or the Japanese wagyu (someday when somebody else is paying!), but wanted to sample one of the several ribeyes, and were also interested in more than a course or two for dinner. Our server encouraged sharing dishes and that’s what we ended up doing. Perfect boulevardier and negroni cocktails straight up with orange twist got us started.

First came one of their several tartares, and we opted for the traditional beef. It was a good five or six heaping tablespoons of coarse-cut high-end beef with a completely balanced and delicious egg, caper, mustard, and salt and pepper preparation. Simple grilled bread (there was plenty of butter and olive oil on the table) set this up and we were happy with the quantity, shared between the two of us. Next a salad: Robin loves buratta to which I am normally indifferent, but this salad was a little symphony of three or four endives beside a lovely chewy and flavourful buratta chunk, anointed with a cheerful salt-and-sour vinaigrette and accompanied by delicious contrasting tiny orange peel chunks. Even I enjoyed crunching the fresh bitter lettuce with its bland similarly slightly-bitter cheese.

Time for the beef. The cadence of service here was relaxed, although our server was moving fast dealing with several other tables, he kept an eye on us, and never approached preemptively (one of my favourite bad-service giveaways).  There was about 15 minutes or so between the salad course and the steak. We sipped our lovely cabernet, chatted, and listened to the growing but for some reason never offensive chatter as the restaurant packed out with its full clientele.

Server recommended the Prince Edward Island bone-in ribeye. There was a carrot purée and some other vegetable accompaniment that went with the steak, an attempt I guess not to appear to be charging you the better part of $100 for a piece of meat and then also adding insult to injury by making you pay for accompanying vegetables. Along the right-hand side of the menu were a dozen or so “sides”: onion rings, various potatoes, root vegetables, etc. at about $12 each. We went for a mushroom risotto and brussel sprouts. Because we were sharing our steak we thought that adding another $25 or so to the $76 we were paying for the meat seemed approaching-reasonable. Instructed to order medium-rare because the fat wouldn’t be adequately mobilized with “rare” or “blue”, we complied and weren’t disappointed.

The steak came appearing intact but neatly cut into 1 cm strips. It was warm, juicy, and full of fatty beef flavor. I picked up the bone and chewed it but there wasn’t much of the kind of joy you find on a roast prime rib. I notice there are sauces which we didn’t see on the menu – we might have enjoyed a bearnaise or chimichuri at three dollars each if I’d realized they were available.

It’s hard to overstate our satisfaction with this lovely experience, particularly when the bill was about $220 including the corkage. Now mind you we shared three courses, had no dessert, and had spent about $120 on a retail bottle of wine, something comparable to which would have cost us over $300 if we had ordered it from their cellar. But we left stomach-satisfied as well as happy to have had a cheerful and relaxing time. You could easily spend $700-$800 here for dinner for two if you wanted high-end meat and wine and were determined to be stuffed up to here heading out the door. But it’s clear to us you can also be completely pleased for under $400 for some of the best food and service of this kind we’ve had in Vancouver, or pretty much anywhere for that matter.

This isn’t haute cuisine, which I’ve said elsewhere you can’t really find these days in Vancouver, Hawksworth and Five Sails notwithstanding. But it’s a solid cut above anything competitor Glowbal has created and for us superior to Boulevard and Gotham for about the same price. The cheerful atmosphere, great service, and delicious food will have us heading back the next time we want a special night out in this our former and still beloved hometown.

Food 9.4, service 9.3, ambience 9.0, value 8.4, peace and quiet 8.4.

December 2020

We’ve been back two or three times braving Covid indoors for the pleasure of the food and service at this lovely restaurant. The roast chicken is just magnificent, and you get a whole crispy perfectly-cooked small bird with sauce which is easily enough for two people. Highly recommended.

This time however we hit a culinary soft spot. It was another anniversary event, both of us dressed up and looking forward to the usual fantastic food. Now definitely short-term memory impaired, I brought a big 2012 Argentina malbec I was really looking forward to, and when we reached the restaurant door I didn’t have it in my hand and so was horrified that I had left it in the hotel. We ordered an expensive Rioja ($160!) which was dazzling, but the next day when we looked in the backseat I had actually brought the malbec and just left it in the car! Obviously I need to look into getting some sort of a special guide animal …

Anyway our first course was tuna tartare that was the expected delicious treat. The interesting news was that the beef Wellington we went for as a main was very ordinary. The beef tenderloin a bit tough (they supplied little sharp steak knives which were required to cut through it), the pastry was soggy, and the duxelle pastry lining was a near-flavourless homogenous green paste. Yipes!

I guess you can’t win them all. It’s still pretty close to our favourite place to eat in town, but based on our experience so far we will be sticking to the tartares for starters and steaks or chicken for dinner. Scores this time would be the same as above, except that for this one dish the food was in the mid-6s.

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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