Sunday, 29 September 2013

Cuchillo- Introducing Vancouver to Latin American Cuisine

261 Powell St  
Vancouver, BC V6A 1G3
(604) 559-7585

Tastiness factor: 8.5/10

Atmosphere: 4/5

Service: 3.5/5

Locavore Approved? An honest effort- Not a real focus here but they do seem to make an effort to include some seasonal/local produce.  Cuchillo is more about authenticity than locally-sourced fare and, lets face it, we do not grow quite the same produce as they do in Latin America.  On their current menu however, I do make note of many seasonal items, including heirloom tomatoes, corn, jicama, cucumbers and different varieties of peppers. Also, although I did not notice any Oceanwise logos on their menu, I was told that much of the fish they use is purchased locally.  

I am not generally accustomed to walking into places where there is a skull above the door and I fear that if I had walked past Cuchillo's storefront without knowing what they were all about, I may have just kept right on walking.  I guess this is another one of those times when you cannot judge a book by its cover.

Cuchillo is located on the border between Gastown and Chinatown, an area that is still "coming into its own" as one of Vancouver's hottest neighbourhoods.  With its proximity to the infamous Downtown Eastside (probably not a place you want to find yourself at night!), you have to tread a bit more carefully around these parts.  I recommend heading down by cab as Cuchillo can be a bit difficult to locate (even with that glowing skull) and driving there is plagued by lots of one-way streets and pedestrians who seem to think that the road is one big crosswalk.  We certainly learned our lesson after we were 15 minutes late for our reservation after driving around the block at least 10 times trying to find parking!

When we did finally walk underneath the shining skull and in through the large front door, we knew that all of the parking hassle (and almost knocking over a pedestrian or two!) would all be worth it.  The inside was quite a contrast from the restaurant's small and unassuming exterior, with its very high ceilings and floorspace that stretches back as far as the eye could see.  A long communal table down the middle gave the illusion of the room appearing even deeper than it actually was.  We were seated at some high bar tables on the sides which we preferred for our couple's night out (I would specifically ask for one of these tables the next time).  In the back of the space is the very large open kitchen as well as a semi-open space with even more seating.  Hubby was a big fan of the brick walls which gave it an edgy yet sophisticated vibe.

Although there is certainly no shortage of seats here at Cuchillo, they had no trouble filling each little nook and cranny of the space AND still having a line-up waiting at the door.  I highly recommend making a reservation at least a week before if you wish to visit on a weekend to avoid disappointment!

With such a large restaurant and so many guests, polished service can be difficult and we did notice a few service "hiccups" on our visit.  While our server was extremely friendly and very helpful in helping us navigate the menu, it was obvious that she was run off her feet.  She would sometimes go AWOL for a while, then resurface apologetically to refill our water glasses or ask us if we wanted more food.  For the first couple of plates, the food arrived at our table within minute and then later on we waited upwards of 15 minutes between dishes.  Although the inconsistent would not stop me from recommending Cuchillo to others (I already have!), I wonder if perhaps they are a bit short-staffed, which would be understandable considering how much great press they have gotten since opening just a few short months ago.  My guess is that their service will markedly improve over the next several months as they catch up with the demand.

Cuchillo has quite a unique drink menu, with one side devoted solely to tequila flights (how cool is that?).  If we knew even the first thing about what makes a good tequila, we would have given it a try but in the end we decided to go with a cocktail.  Fortunately, the cocktail list also had lots of interesting choices, with a variety of cocktails to suit every taste.  Hubby stuck with tradition and went with a Mojita which was beautifully presented (look at all of those layers of colour!) and was wonderfully refreshing.  I chose the Figo Figo, made with fig jam, lemon and topped off with egg whites.  I feared that the jam might make it too sweet for my taste but, as I was assured by our server, it was not overly sweet at all and was a lovely intro to the meal.

Figo Figo

The food menu consists entirely of sharing plates although this was not totally obvious to us at first.  We were a little confused about "La Mesa" section which is composed of entree-priced dishes  (most over $20) which is not typical of most sharing-plate restaurants.  In the end, we decided not to order "La Mesa" dishes as we wanted to try a greater variety of dishes and also because it would be difficult to decide on one or two considering our different food preferences (carnivore and pescatarian).

Here is a run-down of our dishes from the evening:

Grilled Baby Husked Corn- Our first dish was from the "Antojitos" section of the menu, which the name given to Mexican street food (it literally means "little cravings").  These were recommended to us by our server who raved about how good they were.  When they arrived, we actually had no clue what to do with them, and she kindly instructed us to eat it from the bottom, husk and all, and eat right up to where the tiny little corn kernels end and the husk becomes fibrous.  Not only was it awesome to discover a completely new variety of corn that I had never encountered before, but it was also very fun to eat and almost addictive!  I loved the char flavour from grilling the husk's exterior as well as the melted butter for dipping at the bottom of the dish.  Hubby and I could have easily managed to go through a few more orders of these. A real conversation starter!

Chipotle Sea Salt Dusted Fry Bread- Our second dish, also from the "Antojito" section, was Hubby's dream come true- plain and simply, fried bread!  What made this dish unique was its cornmeal exterior which made it crunchy on the outside to contrast its soft and chewy interior.  While the bread itself was delicious (Hubby pretty much ate all four pieces himself!), we felt as though it would have been even better had it been served with a dip to jazz up the flavour a little more.

Jicama, Cucumber Y Asian Pear- This was one of the most refreshing salads I have ever tasted.  I loved everything about it- the crispness of the raw ingredients, the muted flavours of the jicama and cucumber and the hint of sweetness from the pear.  I am on a mission to try to recreate this winner at home! 

Lois Lake Steelhead Trout- This ceviche, made with locally sourced fish, was unlike any ceviche I have had before.  The trout was cut in long, thin slices instead of being diced, and was layered together with shaved cucumber, chayote and lychee and finally tossed in light herb dressing.  The subtle flavours of the ingredients complemented each other perfectly making for a wonderfully light and refreshing dish.  Loved it!

Wild Mushroom Y Huitlacoche Salsa- I give the folks at Cuchillo major kudos for coming up with a super-creative and super-tasty veg option in their taco line-up.  It would have been much easier for them  to do a version of the standard "grilled vegetable"option that you find at most taco joints, but instead they really kicked it up a notch with meaty mushrooms and chickpea tempeh hummus (wild!).  The hummus was thick and hearty and was able to hold its own against the earthiness of the mushrooms, The toppings were served on two homemade corn tortillas with perfect texture and corn flavour.  This was hands down the best vegetarian taco I have ever had!

Morita Chili BBQ Pulled Pork Taco- This was Hubby's choice of taco from the 5 different taco options on the menu.  The homemade corn tortillas were piled with mounds of pork and then topped with a mango papaya salsa and refried beans.  Hubby loves the flavours in the tender pork as well as the refreshing fruit salsa.  Another taco success!

What a great "couple's night" out we had at Cuchillo.  I have a feeling that this restaurant will continue gain popularity as it is offering a style of cuisine that no one else in Vancouver really does (or at least does well).  By filling this new niche with its awesome Latin American food in such a fun atmosphere, Cuchillo is sure to continue on its path of success.  You just gotta check this place out for yourself!

Cuchillo on Urbanspoon

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