VANCOUVER — On the night of the Vancouver riots, while everyone else in the city was consumed with what might catch fire, the staff at the city’s most talked about new restaurant were worried about what might float away. The restaurant in a building that’s been called “cursed” suffered a freak flood that bar manager Christopher Cho said left the dining room covered in three inches of water and forced the restaurant to close for two weeks.
“We were called down there early in the morning and when I first heard about it I thought that one of the rioters had smashed in some windows or something,” said Cho. Turns out, a water heater tank had burst, giving the restaurant reason to re-decorate early in its life.
While the Canucks may have lost on that notorious night two months ago, it seems this city does have a champion who can overcome adversity. Chef Dale MacKay and crew aced the test of that accident, and have gone on to win over more patrons and critics. Ensemble is the most talked about restaurant in town, more so than Hawksworth, the new flagship establishment at the Rosewood Hotel Georgia. When I asked three foodies in the city which of the two I should try, since I only had time to visit one more spot on my stay, all three sided with Ensemble, citing its originality. MacKay, who was the executive chef at Daniel Boulud’s Lumiere in the city’s Kitsilano neighbourhood and is a protégé of Gordon Ramsay, won the reality-TV series “Top Chef Canada” in the spring and has ridden the success of that accomplishment.
Some of the dishes, including a Black Cod ($18) with a Thai broth that “Top Chef” judge Mark McEwan called “liquid gold”, were featured prominently during the series while others were brought over from Lumiere, but offered at Ensemble at roughly half the price.
“It’s much more casual,” said Cho, who, like much of the staff at Ensemble, worked with MacKay at Lumiere before it closed earlier this year. “You have dishes designed for sharing and you have a walk-up crowd that makes the bar really lively.”
Unlike the meal I had at L’Abattoir, where the flavours were sensationally distinct, Ensemble’s cuisine seemed reminiscent of favourite comfort foods. The wonderful Potato Gnocchi ($12) reminded me of bite-sized potato pancakes and the Herb Risotto with Shrimp ($16) had the warmth and texture of porridge. MacKay was visiting Toronto when I dined at Ensemble, so I relied on Cho to fill me in on the restaurant and its star chef.
“Dale is so competitive,” said Cho, who used to work at the Windermere House in Muskoka before moving to Vancouver. “I told him just don’t cry on TV.”
MacKay didn’t break down on camera, nor does his restaurant look like it will succumb to the “curse” that has befallen its predecessors at 850 Thurlow Street.
Hours after the June 16 flood, a YouTube video appeared showing MacKay explaining the accident and apologizing for the brief closure. He later said many of the diners had agreed to re-book their reservations. The restaurant has been jammed since re-opening at the end of June. While the flood was a surprise, the reason restaurateurs in Vancouver think the location is cursed has nothing to do with any odd occurrences. Nor with potential danger. In fact, Ensemble resides in one of the safest areas in the country, on the corner of Haro and Thurlow in the west end of downtown Vancouver. Lack of parking, distance from foot traffic and a dark space in a gray city are some of the drawbacks for the building. Great food always finds an audience, though, and Ensemble has had no trouble drawing business. Plus, as Cho points out, the location is what could be Ensemble’s best asset. “Dale wants to make it a neighbourhood gem,” he said. “He had some really big-name chefs in this city telling him, ‘Don’t do it. Don’t do it,’ when they found out about the location, but it’s the location that makes it work.”
A recent Friday and Saturday night was completely booked, although you can walk in and dine at the bar — if there’s room. Or simply enjoy Cho’s wonderful concoctions, including a marvelously refreshing Ginger Gimlet ($8) and a flavourful Basil Caiphirina ($12) that’s made with Brazilian rum.
“It can get pretty crowded in here on a Friday night,” Cho said of the bar scene. “And more and more we’re seeing people who live two doors down just drop in like we’re part of the neighbourhood, which is what Dale wants.”
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