VANCOUVER — It’s when you attempt to describe Lee Cooper’s cuisine that you realize the uniqueness of L’Abattoir. The year-old restaurant in Gastown has been called French-influenced, inspired bistro fare, contemporary and nouveau West Coast. Some associated with the restaurant even call the L’Abattoir experience “post-fine dining.”
It might be all of those things but perhaps finding the right category for the food isn’t as important as the adjectives to describe how you feel when you taste it. In a word, L’Abattoir makes life more pleasant. The dishes coming out of Cooper’s kitchen are so velvety smooth in texture and flavour you can get lost in deconstructing it. Whether it’s the silky mushroom and bacon blanquette (a kind of stew typically made from white wine) that covers the delicious Rabbit Cannelloni ($17) or the exquisite flavours from the Warm Steelhead and Potato Salad ($15), L’Abattoir leaves you feeling not only satisfied but mesmerized by dishes that are hard to imagine being replicated in another kitchen.
“You’re not going to find cooking like this anywhere in the country,” general manager Paul Grunberg told me when I dropped in the other day. “I believe so passionately in what Lee Cooper is doing and in his talents as a chef.”
Grunberg and Cooper worked at Market, Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s celebrated restaurant in the two-year-old Shangri-La in Vancouver’s wealthy west end. Cooper also worked for a year at the Fat Duck, the English restaurant that perennially ranks in the top five of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. The results of that pedigree are on display in a restaurant that’s wonderfully laid back in attitude and ambience but isn’t loose in service or gastronomical ambitions. Located in a historic building that was once home to the Irish Heather whiskey bar (now moved across the street), L’Abattoir can seat diners in its loft area highlighted by exposed brick or the slender rear hall that faces the rejuvenated Gaoler’s Mews square.
L’Abattoir is one of a handful of high-quality, independently owned restaurants recently opened in Gastown. Those restaurants, which include Bao-Bei and Nicli Antica Pizzeria, are surprisingly affordable for the level of the cuisine they offer. No entrée on the L’Abattoir menu is above $30 and most cocktails from renowned mixologist Shaun Layton are in the $10 range, a fair price when you consider they’re some of the best drinks you’ll find in the country. Layton and his bar staff match Cooper’s unique dishes with inventive flavours of their own. The Donald Draper, named after the “Mad Men” character, is a whimsical take on an Old-Fashioned that balances the sweet and sour tastes of the ingredients: Buffalo Trace bourbon, Pineau De Charentes apertif, Abricot de Rouillson, Peychauds bitters and a rim of Absinthe. The Banana Daiquiri is far from the sweet, dessert-like flavours most people associate with that drink. Layton’s take is a … pleasant surprise. It’s a boozy version of the drink and after one sip your thoughts about what a daiquiri should taste like change forever.
Vancouver’s food scene has become increasingly more casual, a fact underscored by the closing in March of Daniel Boulud’s Lumiere and db Bistro Moderne. West coast chains like Guu Izakaya (recently expanded to Toronto), Milestones, Earl’s and the Donnelly Public House group of pubs grew more popular but didn’t offer much in the way of innovation. Several of the new restaurants, though, are creating environments that more resemble what Vikram Vij (Vij’s and Rangoli) has done so well: offer sophisticated cuisine in a relaxed atmosphere that keeps people returning. Of the handful of newcomers I tried in the past 12 days, L’Abattoir to me is the best. Even a seared Halibut filet ($26), a dish you’ll find plenty of on west coast menus, stands out when wrapped in bacon, served with warm potato gnocchi and accompanied by another luscious sauce, this one made from green peas.
All big cities have excellent restaurants, not many have ones that come across as genuinely original — L’Abattoir is that. It’s name — which means slaughterhouse — is a misnomer. It’s far from a meat-focused establishment. Instead, it’s a restaurant that has a range of eclectic offerings that suit different tastes and appetites. You’re sure to find something that sounds appealing and more than likely you’ll be pleased when it arrives.
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