Monday 27 April 2015

All Kinds of Awesomeness at AnnaLena

1809 W 1st Ave, Vancouver, BC V6J 5B8
(778) 379-4052

Tastiness Factor: 9/10

Atmosphere: 4.5/5

Service: 4.5/5

Locavore Approved? YES- Chef Michael Robbins' vision when opening Anna Lena was to have a French bistro with a Canadian flair, including largely Canadian ingredients.  His current small plates menu is all about late-winter/spring ingredients (kale, spinach, cauliflower, potatoes, fennel) prepared comfort-style.  I am excited to see what he comes up with for the summer with new batch of ingredients more suited for lighter dishes.  Fingers crossed, it will be just as good!

Anna Lena is a welcome new addition to the Vancouver food scene and a big win for Kitsilano.  So many of the new Vancouver gems are popping up on the East side or in Gastown/Chinatown, so it is a pleasant surprise for Hubby and I when a promising new restaurant takes root closer to home.

Anna Lena, named after Chef Robbins' two grandmothers which made me love the place even more, is a located near Kits Beach on West 1st.  The facade is a large window which looks like it can be opened up in the summer (something to go back and check out when it warms up!).  The small entrance opens up to a cozy little space, packed to the rafters on the night of our visit.  It is a very welcoming space, with white walls that act as a nice contrast to the comfy black leather booths.   At the back corner is a very nice bar next to a sizeable open kitchen.

I give these guys major kudos for their service, especially considering the fact that they had opened just weeks before our visit.  There is not a hint of prevention here, just down-to-earth, friendly waitstaff who treat you like friends.  This happened to work out well for us, since we lost track of time and arrived almost 30 minutes late for our reservation.  Instead of giving us the cold shoulder, they promised us the next table, and invited us to order drinks and have a chat near the door while we waited.  Although it was clearly our fault for arriving late, the front-of-house staff were repeatedly apologetic for our wait and we had who I guessed to be a manager come over to speak with us about menu suggestions when he saw us perusing the menu as we waited.   When we finally got our booth, the good service continued, with very friendly servers who explained the elements of every dish in detail when they were brought to our table.  Our water glasses very regularly filled and the many dishes on our table were regularly cleared.   The friendly setting that Robbins had been reportedly striving for in his Canadian-style French bistro definitely came through in the service.

The menu is based around sharing plates of various sizes that range from $3:50-$32.  There is a good selection of dishes with a nice mix of vegetarian, fish and meat dishes so there is bound to be something to suit everyone.  In terms of beverages, there is a fairly extensive list of house cocktails as well as a complete beer and wine menu with local options.  Although they are currently only open for dinner, they do plan to unveil a brunch menu soon.

As we waited for our table, we decided to imbibe in a few cocktails which ended up being well worth it.  My cocktail,"The Absolutely Darling", was a very well-balanced cocktail, with gin, cardamom, and lemon, topped with egg white.  Not too sweet, just the way I like it.  "The Brainstorm", a drink that Hubby was told about at the bar that was not even on the menu was a big hit with the gentlemen in our party who enjoyed several each over the course of the evening.  For those who are looking for a non-alcoholic option, there is a section of the menu devoted exactly to this with drinks that were equally as thoughtful and creative (a rare find!).

After we were finally seated, we chose the following small plates to share which ended up being the perfect amount for the 4 of us (***=stand-out dishes).

Oysters, shaved foie gras, compressed apple, jalapeño mignonette- This little starting bite was quite exceptional in its creativity.  The foie gras lightly shaved over the top actually worked and somehow did not overshadow the much lighter oyster.

***Kale salad, mushooms, ginger tahini dressing, sunchoke chips- This was one of my favourites of the evening which is not surprise since it had several of my favourite veggies including tender kale, several varieties of mushrooms and sea asparagus which is way under-utilized in my opinion.  Even if you do not like kale, the ginger-tahini dressing gave this salad a richness that you just had to love.

***Roasted cauliflower salad- I loved this dish, and am sad to see it is no longer on the menu:( The roasted cauliflower had a lovely brown exterior that tasted almost deep fried and it was nicely seasoned.  I loved it combined with the cashews for added crunch.  Even Hubby, generally a cauliflower-hater, liked this preparation! 

***Cured Tuna, papaya salad, lime coconut broth, cilantro oil, puffed wild rice- I just adored the coconut milk sauce served beneath the tuna, and the julienne papaya soaked it up nicely.  Thank goodness they brought spoons as this sauce was too good to waste a drop!

Bison tartar, egg yolk two ways, watercress puree, potato crumb, sweet onion loaf- This was one of the least favorite of the night because of its odd texture, but having said that, the men kept on going back for more as the flavors were yummy.  The hefty buns served on the side were an unusual accompaniment with the thinly shaved bison, and some thin crisp toasts would have been preferred.

***Spinach and asiago ravioli, sweet tomato compote, pangrattato, baby arugula- Thank goodness they have left this one on the menu, as everyone who visits AnnaLena must experience this dish!  The very thin pasta was chock full of spinach and served with a delicious sweet tomato compote.  Unlike some pasta dishes that can be too heavy when ordered as part of a shared-plates menu, this dish was very light and refreshing.  A great "welcome to spring" dish!

***Seared trout, roasted carrots, pickled cabbage puree, charred onion, chive butter-  Yes another hit!  Server said this was her favorite dish and I can see why.  The perfectly cooked fish had a nice crispy skin, and was served with a dill butter sauce (gotta love dill with fish!), charred onion and roasted carrot (perhaps a bit overcooked and mushy).  As if that wasn’t all tasted enough, the pickled cabbage puree added a lovely layer of sweetness to complete this great dish.

Lamb roulade, house-made ricotta, olive-brined spinach, parisenne gnocchi, lamb jus- I hate to end with a low note, but this was the last dish served and sadly the only miss of the night.  We expected the lamb to have a bit of fat for flavor, but this lamb was SO fatty, we could not find any meat to eat.  The house made ricotta and the gnocchi were quite good but nothing could make up for that fatty meat that was inedible.

By this point, we were too full for dessert but were very grateful for a little sweet bite for the road, courtesy of the house!

Overall Verdict?
I expected good things at AnnaLena, but I can honestly say that our whole experience fully surpassed my preconceived expectations.  They totally pull off their  concept of French bistro meets Canadian flair and the result is a friendly neighbourhood gem that will definitely have me coming back for more!

AnnaLena on Urbanspoon

Wednesday 22 April 2015

High Hopes at Cinara

350 W Pender St, Vancouver, BC V6B 1T1
(604) 428-9694

Tastiness Factor: 6/10

Atmosphere: 4/5

Service: 5/5

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.

Squash consommé with shrimp- I will go so far as to say I did not like this dish and found myself struggling to finish. The broth had an off-putting flavour (very "fishy"), and the large chunk of squash was undercooked, hard and awkward to eat without having a knife to cut it.

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.

Cheese course

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.

Overall Verdict?  
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.

Cinara on Urbanspoon