Tastiness Factor: 6/10
Locavore Approved? YES- There is no denying that Cinara is very committed to using only the freshest of seasonal ingredients. Its a la carte menu has new items thrown in regularly and the tasting menu ("Carte Blanche") is always a surprise, created daily based on available ingredients. On our visit in the very early spring, I appreciated their use of some often neglected produce from that time of year like sunchokes and jerusulum mixed with old favourites like squash and swiss chard.
Vancouver's dining scene is growing at an exponential rate these days, making it very hard to stay on top of all of the new openings around this wonderful food city (I am not complaining!). My favourite way of keeping up is to check out Scout Magazine's "Anticipated Openings" section periodically to see what is coming down the pipeline. Upon checking out the website a short while ago, I decided to go back to the 2014 openings, to see if there was any I had missed. This is when I came across Cinara and immediately thought "why have I not checked this place out already"?
Opened in the summer of 2014, Cinara is the creation of one of the former owners of La Quercia, one of Vancouver's most respected restaurants, and the newer La Pentola which is also quite good. After splitting from his previous partner who still ones those aforementioned restaurants, Lucas Syme went out on his own and Cinara is his first solo venture.
La Cinara occupies the corner of West Pender and Homer in downtown Vancouver, not too far from Gastown in the historic Victoria Hotel. There is not a whole lot else near it, especially at night, and it would be quite easy to walk past if you were not looking for it. Although it might not look like much for the outside, the space you find when you walk inside is very welcoming, with many windows all around. There is a brick wall on one side, and a small open kitchen (apparently their lack of counter space prohibits them from making large quantities of homemade pasta). Tables are well-spaced, making the noise level seem quite low as there is no need to shout over your neighbours. Unlike many Vancouver restaurants popping up these days, there is no attempt at making the design avant-guard or moderne. Just like the food, the decor is very simple and understated. The "no bells and whistles" approach.
We arrived at Cinara at 8pm on the Thursday night before a long weekend and surprisingly, there were only a handful of tables occupied. We were immediately greeted by a very kind female server who took care of our every need throughout the evening. She was obviously very engaged in her job and was knowledgeable about the menu. For such a small restaurant that was otherwise quite casual, the service was at the same time quite refined, with dishes brought to our table in concert by multiple servers. If our plates were not wiped clean, a server would ask if there were problems with the dish before taking the dish away. Although our meal lasted a few hours, we were never made to feel rushed. These guys definitely score an A+ in the service department.
It is therefore with great disappointment, after my so-far glowing review, to have to switch gears and describe our impressions of the food which, sadly, were not near as positive. While I love the concept of simplicity that Cinara seeks to convey in its food, taste must be paramount and, to be frank, there were some dishes that were just not very palatable on our Carte Blanche Menu (8 plates chosen by the chef). A "daily fresh sheet" is also offered, but we figured we would get the best lay of the land by splurging on the Carte Blanche ($60/person). We did appreciate the menu alterations for the two pescatarians in our group.
Here is what composed our Carte Blanche menu, as well as our accompanying beverages:
Thyme cocktail- One of the best things I had all night, with a nice citrus flavour from the lemon and just a hint of sweetness.
Orange Fashioned- This was the cocktail of choice of the other 3 in our party and enjoyed all around, with some opting for a second round.
Watercress, fava beans- Just a few bites to start. Simple but very fresh, loved the crisp favas.
Bread and butter- Included as one of the 8 courses, the bread was crusty but pretty average. Som remarked though that without it, they would have left hungry.
Scallop with reduction- There were two versions of this dish at the table- the regular version served with a beef broth and the pescatarian version with a port reduction. While I quite liked the port reduction and the sun choke that nicely soaked up its flavour, the scallop had a very odd and rather unpleasant texture.
BC rockfish, mussels, pasta- While this dish seemed promising at the outset, it was majorly lacking in the flavour department. The tomato sauce was under-seasoned and there was too little of it, while at the same time there was too much oil floating at the bottom.
Bronzino/steak, artichoke, swiss chard- Both the regular (steak) and pescartarian (bronzino) versions of this dish were hands down the best savoury dish of the evening. The pescatarian version was served with fresh artichoke (a personal favourite!) and a red pepper-anchovy sauce that was so good I wanted to drink it up off the plate. The meat variation was served with the way-underutilized jerusulum artichoke instead of boring old potato and the steak was cooked perfectly.
Pineapple "carpaccio" with grapefruit (pre-dessert) - This was the most creative dish of the evening. The "carpaccio" had a very interesting texture (in a good way) and its lightness made this the dish an ideal pre-dessert.
Chocolate ice cream with hazelnuts and wafer- I really wish that I did not scarf this one down before getting a picture as this dessert was the table favourite of the entire meal. Super chocolaty, super creamy, super good. Not much else to say.
There is no denying that Cinara has a lot going for it including a well-respected owner, a solid concept , a pleasing atmosphere and polished service. But the one thing that was lacking on our visit was the food, which is a major issue that I just cannot see past. Yes, there were some good dishes, but with over half the Carte Blanche dishes that were not palatable, I would have a hard time coming back or recommending it to others, especially for the price (over $200/couple).
In the end, Cinara failed to impress and we sadly walked away disappointed.