Acquafarina, Vancouver.

May 2022

“Our creative kitchen team reimagines and elevates traditional Italian classics with luxurious artistry. Polished service is provided by an award-winning beverage team and front-of-house staff that are best in class.”

So goes the commentary on one of the websites. Long story short: don’t believe a word of it. This place is one of the most breathtaking disappointments, given the hype, in our experience.

Walking in, front-end ladies are polite and show us to a tiny table in a narrow section of the overall room which proved to be a high-speed staff thoroughfare. Immediately striking was the awkward chilly design and strangely restricted room dimensions, hard concrete floor, and blasting loud rock music as if we were in a 20-something nightclub.

Diffident hurried server (it was about 6:40 PM and the place was 20% subscribed) literally dropped tasting menu, wines-by-the-glass, and one à la cart sheet on the table and disappeared. She was pleasant enough but admitted she had only been working there a week or two, forgot to mention the pasta special if there was one, had no idea about any of the dishes, didn’t know how to take a cocktail order, and couldn’t resist interrupting directly across table conversation. No experience and obviously no effective training. Other staff brought and removed food and plates at a get-the-job-done fast-food pace. Service cadence was rushed giving the impression of needing to turn over tables when in fact there were plenty of empty ones.

We requested the wine list and a 2 cm thick book arrived with a fairly wide selection of Italian wine, a very abbreviated French and American section, and half the book consisting of empty pages. Wine prices were as the restaurant promotion would have caused us to expect high. There were maybe a dozen bottles below a hundred dollars, and everything interesting starting around $160. Most red wine items were less than five years old. The teroldego (an obscure north Italian varietal I happened to be familiar with) at $120 was sold out. Sommelier was anxious and rapid-fire in his delivery featuring vague superlatives (rich, aromatic, soft, forward…). We ended up with a $163 nebiolo that was recognizably varietal and reasonably pleasant.

We passed up the tasting menu which at $150 and seven items seemed beyond what we were after. We had a stuffed gnocci (Robin’s main) and shared an octopus starter. The octopus with smoked tomato marmalade and olives was probably the high point of the evening, tender and nicely flavoured with the contrasting tomato, but presented under a cloche into which someone had blown smoke, the kind of ostentatious trick they were playing in three-star restaurants about 25 years ago. The gnocci were also tasty, little bites releasing guanciale and cheese. My main was a boar chop which without being asked I requested rare-to-medium-rare but came definitely medium (not “juicy” as local critic described it) with vegetables that were undercooked the way they were teaching chefs at technology institutes to prepare through the kind of health-food myth that was abroad, again, back in the 80s and 90s. A tiramisu we ordered for dessert to try to redeem things featured whipped cream and a very dry cake. Just unexpectedly ordinary food.

All the fuss about no phones, dress code, no cameras, etc. which looked in early promotion like management was reaching for something really high class (food critic referred to it as “white gloves and white tablecloths”) was nowhere in evidence. I got out my blazer and tie but everyone sitting anywhere near us was wearing T-shirts, sneakers, and jeans. We see that the phone and camera prohibition has been withdrawn, no doubt in response to the justified anemic public uptake. We left at about 8:15 on a Saturday night and there were lots of empty tables.

$435 for a small dinner with tip for two people (but including a $160 bottle of wine) and a $100 charge for two people to make a reservation, server anxiously trying to explain how that would be returned as it wasn’t represented on the bill. No sign of it so far…

Jefferson Alverez is the chef. We tried his former restaurant Cacao a few years ago and found it undersubscribed, off-centre in a variety of ways, and much overpriced. In my review I said:

“(They charged) $20 to make a reservation in a place where nobody wants to eat?? What are we, crazy?… 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… this place will be gone in six months…lord goodness there are a lot of screws loose in the basic moving parts. We left starving. Ridiculous.”

Acquafarina is a behemoth version of the same approach to dining. If you like strange chilly restricted spaces, loud banging music at a self-described high-class pretentious venue, fumbling nervous high-speed service, and ordinary food masquerading as heavenly delicacies go for it. Honestly you may have to experience it to believe how bad it is. Otherwise STAY AWAY. Far far from the answer to our quest for international haute cuisine in town since Lumiere closed. We will keep looking.

Food 7.8 (an average), service 5.3, ambience 5.0, value 5.8, peace and quiet 6.2.

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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