Vancouver, BC V6A 3A1
Tastiness Factor: 9/10
Locavore Approved? YES- Locally-driven menu that changes regularly based on what is available at local farms. Our meal was full of the flavours of late summer and was a tribute to all of the produce that is available at this time of year. Some dishes on the menu had ingredient substitutions which I love to see as it usually means that the chef is responding to the weekly (sometime daily) variations in available fresh produce. This is what vegetarian cuisine is all about!
The Parker has been on my radar for a long time now. A vegetarian restaurant, with Top Chef's Curtis Luk as head chef, topped off by an impressively extensive cocktail/bar menu? Why has it taken me so long?
Well, there are a couple of reasons. First of all, it has been quite a busy summer of eating, with some pretty stand-out dinners including the First Harvest dinner at Lummi Island (see my blog post here), after which we had to take a little "eating out holiday" to give the bank account a little chance to rejuvenate itself:) After that, there was the trip back to Newfoundland, and then the several weekends in a row of work, and then- poof!- it is September already! Secondly, I have been trying to figure out for a while now how to get meat-loving Hubby to agree to going to this completely vegetarian tapas restaurant. It was just last week that I came up with the perfect plan- dinner at the Parker with the promise of a trip to the new late-night sausage and beer parlour, Bestie just around the corner. He just couldn't say no to that! And so the weekend after Labour Day, myself, Hubby and 3 of our good friends headed to Chinatown for a night of vegetarian and sausages. It was bound to be an adventure!
The Parker is located on Union St., a tucked away little road in Chinatown that is also home to other small restaurants including Harvest and The Union. They have a nice big sign that makes them stand out , especially at night when the sign is lit up. Inside, it is quite a small space, with the bar and open kitchen on one side (you can watch chef Luk's every move!) and tables on the opposite wall. Decor is simple yet stylish, with wooden tables and accents, slick black chairs and mirrored walls. Seating is quite limited, and even after 9pm on this Friday night it was jam packed, so I would recommend making a reservation, especially for a party larger than 2-3.
I was quite impressed by the quality of the service for such a small restaurant. First of all, I have to give them big time credit for being so kind as to hold our table for 30 minutes past our reservation time while we waited for our cab to arrive at our friends house where we had gathered to have a few drinks beforehand. When I called to let them know that we were running late, they were very gracious and then they warmly greeted us in all our tardiness when we arrived. Much appreciated! For dinner service, we were fortunate enough to be served by the owner himself who was very helpful in our drink selection (so many choices!) and then in putting together a dinner for us by giving us just enough of all the dishes on the menu to satisfy us. Our water glasses were always full, and, after just a bit of a wait before our first dishes were served, the rest of our dishes arrived with perfect timing.
There are separate menus for food and drink, the drink menu being 4 and a half pages to the the food's page and a half. Drinks really are not just a second thought here! The drink menus includes a cocktail list with a great variety of choices, that is organized from the lightest to the heaviest (very helpful, thank you!). There are also several pages of wines and "bubbles" (by the glass and by the bottle), with a full section of big reds and pinot noirs, dispelling the myth that these cannot pair well with vegetarian cuisine. We went right for the cocktail list which had many very intriguing options. I chose La Pastesque (the name means watermelon in french), a vodka-based cocktail with pernod, watermelon and mint. After my first sip, I remembered feeling like perhaps the drink was a bit too weak as the flavours were quite muted but as I kept drinking, I came to love how refreshing it was and really appreciated the subtle sweetness of the watermelon. Hubby ordered a classically-prepared Old Fashioned which he enjoyed so much that he ordered a second and convinced another of our friends that he had to order one as well. Other choices at our table were the Jasmine made with gin, triple sec, campari and lemon (the least favourite of the lot) and the Vesper made with sparkling wine, gin and lemon (well-balanced and pretty too!).
Here is a run-down of our meal (and the whole menu!). The stared (***) dishes were our faves:
Fresh Fig with Mint (amuse bouche)- A simple, light start to the meal, with a very clean and classy presentation. Figs are at the peak of their season right now and are delicious just the way they are!
Summer Fling Salad- This salad changes daily depending on what is the freshest (LOVE THIS!) On the night that we visited, we were treated to 20 (yes, 20!) different kinds of shoots, blackberries and fennel tossed in the prefect amount of light vinaigrette. Nothing says summer like a salad with the freshest of ingredients!
***Tofu Fritter- This was a substitute dish for the lentil dish on the menu on this particular evening and I really think they should add this one to the menu! Chef Luk deserves major credit for making the tofu seem a little less "scary" in fritter form so that Hubby would try it. And, to my great surprise, he actually liked it and dug in for seconds. The tomato sauce and beans made this dish super interesting, but it was the black bean sauce that put it over the top. Chef Luk, do you intend to start bottling this stuff? If so, put us down for a case!!!
Chilled Aubergine- I had mixed expectations of this dish going in as I LOVE aubergine (eggplant) but generally dislike dishes served with broths. Fortunately, it was a very tasty dish and the broth actually added great flavour so I was glad it was there. Bonus- I got to try a new vegetable that I never tried, or even heard, before, called "deadly nightshade". Upon looking it up on my go-to resource for just about anything, Wikipedia, I found out that it is quite an interesting perennial herbaceous plant that has uses in both alternative and Western medicine, and that some parts of the plant are quite toxic. Luckily, I am still alive and I think that I will continue to leave this one in the hands of the experts like Chef Luk!
***Panzanella Salad- Any restaurant that does not have some variation of a tomato salad on their menu right now with the tomatoes being so sweet and juicy are really missing out. The Parker put together an incredible salad that succeeded in both letting the tomatoes natural flavours shine through, and then kicking it up a notch with the creamy sheep cheese and a black pepper puree. Thanks for giving these tomatoes the respect they deserve:)
***House-Made Dan Dan Noodles- This was a table favourite for sure, and was Hubby's #1. The noodles had a wonderful texture, and they soaked up the peppercorn sauce very well. Although I also liked the dish a lot, I would say that the tofu "croutons" did not add much to the dish and we all would have just preferred more of those awesome noodles!
Socca Provencal- This dish was composed of chickpea flatbread topped with greek flavours and vegetables found in your average greek salad (zucchini, tomato, olives). Although the flavours worked, it was not a favourite and more difficult to share as the flatbread was quite flaky and did lend itself well to cutting evenly.
Tortilla Nueva- This was quite a creative dish and was certainly not what I expected to get when I read the menu description. Each little "tortilla" was a rolled up omelette of sorts with added texture from the potato. In contrast to the previous dish, this format made the dish easy to share. In contrast to most of the other dishes however, I found it a bit lacking in flavour and I thought that the crispy almond pastry on top was a bit out of place.
***Bi Birn Bamp Bowl- This was one of my personal favourites. As previously mentioned, I am not usually much of a fan of broth but, as with the aubergine dish, this black tea dashi broth really worked to elevate the dish. The presentation of the dish was beautiful, with a perfectly runny egg on the top that exploded with yolky goodness when it was mixed with the other components of the dish. This dish was one of the more substantial dishes with the rice and the meaty mushrooms.
House-Made Cavatelli- This dish ended up being different than the dish described on the menu. It was supposed to be served with a tomato-olive relish but instead, the fresh pasta (delicious and perfectly cooked) was served in a butternut squash puree. The colours of the dish were visually stunning and its components were a nice introduction to the fall ingredients that are now making their way back to the market (squash, broccoli).
***Chilled Corn and Coconut Soup- This dish was initially the only dish on the menu that was not going to make it onto our tailored tasking menu due the fact that it is not really a sharing plate. However, when we finished our other dishes and still had room in our bellies, we requested a bowl so that we could honestly say that we had tried everything. And thank goodness we did! Corn is so sweet at this time of year, and the corn flavour was wonderfully front and centre in this dish. I was shocked that this soup was entirely cream-free, as it was decadently creamy (the secret=avocado and chèvre, what a combo!). On top was a bit of shaved peach that complemented the sweetness of the corn beautifully. The only thing that I felt was missing was a bit of crunch for some texture. Overall though, this dish was a big winner. If you love fresh corn on the cob (and who doesn't?), this dish is a must!
Homemade truffles- It was as if this dessert was created for us! Five wonderfully rich truffles artfully arranged on the plate, one for each of us to enjoy. A lovely end to a great meal!
What I love about the Parker, among other things, is its success at making vegetarian food accessible to all. Hubby, who is a tried and true carnivore, was not exactly thrilled about going to the Parker, but after the meal, he readily admitted that it far exceeded his expectations (especially the Asian-inspried dishes) and that he would most certainly go back a second time. Chef Luk and his team know how to take the most vegetarian of ingredients (tofu, greens, eggplant) and transform them into something very tasty while still preserving their integrity. Now this is talent! I cannot wait to take Hubby up on his offer and return soon to the Parker for another little vegetarian taste of heaven:)