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Story by Jim Murray & Jamie Maw

Two nights of fine dining in Vancouver reveal a different world, as Brian Jessel managing director Jim Murray, guided through some of the city’s finest restaurants by food writer Jamie Maw, was soon to find out.

For car expert Jim Murray and food writer Jamie Maw, two nights of fine dining in Vancouver would quickly reveal more than the sum of their spare parts. Murray’s knowledge of restaurants was limited to eating in them. And Maw’s car knowledge, which has included owning several BMW models, was mainly limited to driving them, if occasionally too quickly. Murray arrived in a 650 Coupe, as sleek and beautifully upholstered as a supermodel, but with the lusty exhaust notes of a mechanical Pavarotti. Maw allowed that he had never traversed the Burrard Bridge quite so smoothly, and after a quick handoverto the valet at The Wedgewood Hotel, the die was cast for two nights of memorable dining. Here is their report.

JIM MURRAY: “I had no idea whatto expect. Suddenly being shot-gunned into the role of food critic was, to say the least, a little intimidating and certainly well outside the realm of my expertise. I certainly learned a lot, and I have a whole new appreciation for just how competitive the food industry is. And that mastering the small details, including great service— from the greeting to the good-bye—is what separates the merely adequate restaurant from the extraordinary one. That’s like most businesses, but as Jamie was quick to point out, there are differences.”

JAMIE MAW: “Restaurants are the toughest act in show business. Although the customers and the service interface are similar to other businesses, a restaurant’s raw ingredients begin degrading immediately. And fixed costs such as rent and taxes in contemporary Vancouver are formidable, as is the competition – just getting yourvoice heard above the fray is challenging.”

JIM MURRAY: “Bacchus Restaurant at the Wedgewood told me a lot aboutthose details – it’s elegant and old world and doesn’t have to raise its voice. We were warmly greeted by Philip Meyer, general manager of the Wedgewood. Later I’d discover that you really can’t go to any restaurant with Jamie and not be immediately recognized.

As we sipped on a pre-dinner cocktail and ate some delicious canapés (I recommend the chicken liver parfait on toast points in particular), I had a chance to view the room and take in the atmosphere. It’s a true classic, warm and cosseting – the feeling of old world charm runs through it and is underscored byvery gracious service. Bacchus has the perfect atmosphere for a special celebration, a romantic outing or a business dinner. One reason is that, compared to some ofthe other restaurants we were to visit, Bacchus is quiet, and with just the pianist tinkling in the background …”

JAMIE MAW: “… You can hear yourself drink. Noise in restaurants is an increasing problem; the combination of hard surfaces, loud music and patrons forced to yell doesn’t make for a relaxing experience. And I’m glad you pointed out the recognition factor for restaurant critics. I’ve been retired from Vancouver magazine fora while, so I dine more openly now, but there’s a conceit amongst food writers who don’t think they’re recognized—they are. The good ones have a way of overcoming that, but find one you trust. For me, Mia Stainsby in The Vancouver Sun is reliable and consistent.”

JIM MURRAY: “As I looked over the menu I ask for advice from Jamie. First he told me a bit aboutthe scoring system that some restaurant critics use. He has used a twenty-point system for more than twenty years, weighted toward the food, but also allowing for service, the wine and beverage list, and décor and ambience. And the premises have to be scrupulously clean, including the bathrooms. He’ll even check out the laneway delivery areas – he says there’s lots to be learned from how the ‘the back of house’ is managed.

Still feeling like a novice food critic (and possibly an impostor at this point), I made my selections from the menu. As we dined on a fantastic meal Mr. Meyer and the sommelier paired some remarkable wines from their deep and diverse wine list.”

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JAMIE MAW: “If you want to really find out if the chef’s paying attention, orderthe soup. It’s the restaurant critic’s friend. Too often it’s the orphan on the menu, made with last night’s unloved ingredients. Not at Bacchus though, where chef Lee Parsons presented us luxe bowls of leek, potato and oystervelouté, beautifully composed, the rich notes cut with the brine of perfectly cooked oysters and a sable beignet. Paired with a 2010 Tantalus riesling, it was a loving marriage soon consummated.”

JIM MURRAY: “Another parallel to our business. You may think soup or the small things aren’t important, but the reality is everything is equally important in your business …”

JAMIE MAW: “Yes—soup to nuts. And a salad, composed of prettily cubed beets, shone like a jewel box, and Jim’s halibut, served atthe peak of the season, was gloriously moist, as was my braised veal shank. An ’09 La Gorge from the Médoc, although still young, underwrote both dishes well.”

JIM MURRAY: One thing I’d already learned from Jamie is how to engage the server, and thus improve the entire dining experience. I listened as he enquired about where our servers were from, how long they’d been here, what they most enjoyed about the restaurant. Give them what he calls an ‘oral gratuity’ early and it smoothes the night. I’ve tried it, and it works wonders.”

Night 2

JIM MURRAY: “We began at C Restaurant on the picturesque shore of False Creek. The weather had improved, and boats of every dimension were busily navigating the narrows, while rollerbladers had taken to the seawall. I’ve always enjoyed C — proprietor Harry Kambolis and exectutive chef Robert Clark were early champions of protecting our coastal fisheries, and offering only sustainable products. They were early progenitors of ‘The 100-Mile’ menu too. To recognize his efforts, Harry was inducted into the BC Restaurant Hall of Fame in 2010. Although I’m hanging onto my day job, sitting down with Jamie for my second night I now had a little more confidence in my new role as a food critic. Two meals tonight, so we arrived rather early. Restaurant director and sommelier Sarah McCauley greeted us. Casually attired, she apologized for “still being in my cellar clothes” – reorganizing C’s deep collection, and ferreting out some of Harry’s prized wines.”

JAMIE MAW: “C serves ‘Caviar with a Conscience’, meaning it’s not from the extirpated Caspian varieties of sturgeon, but a BC-farmed product called ‘Northern Divine’. There are a few ways to sample it, but I like it simply arrayed with chef’s excellent potato blinis. As for the soup? Well the white onion bisque is delicious, kind of a local turn on bouillabaisse. It contains a lobster knuckle, an oyster, a spot prawn and a slow cooked egg. Oh, and it’s drizzled with truffle oil just before service.”

JIM MURRAY: “The Qualicum scallops were quite a revelation, and were served, unusually, with rabbit terrine …” JAMIE MAW: “Smurf and turf, Jim? Anyway, I’ve caught and cooked ling cod since I was a boy, and it remains one of myfavorite local fishes. At C it’s served simply—pan-seared with a lovely kombu broth and a clam or two. Very, very good.”

JIM MURRAY: “Too soon, it’s time to move on. As we finished dining at C, knowing that we had one more stop in our culinary itinerary, I was, very regretfully, forced to skip dessert. Our few hours at C were no less than perfect, and it will remain a favourite for showing off my city, especially to out-of-town visitors who can taste the sea while they look at it.”

JAMIE MAW: “Few restaurants have been anticipated as much as Hawksworth, and that’s where we’re headed. It’s already won some important awards, but I knew it would—I’ve followed David Hawksworth’s cooking avidly since he arrived back in Canada a decade ago. It’s now one of the toughest reservations in the city. Book ahead.”

JIM MURRAY: “I’m a huge fan ofthe Rosewood Hotel Georgia. I really like how the hotel feels and the restored architecture tells a lot of interesting Vancouver stories. The hotel rooms are gorgeous, and The Spanish Ballroom has to be the prettiest function space in town.”

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JAMIE MAW: “Reflections—the outdoor pool and patio space on the fourth floor is a great spot to chill. Terrific, casually-pointed menu too—check out their sablefish croquetas.”

JIM MURRAY: “As we arrived, David Hawksworth joined Jamie and me in the lounge and explained a few design features. Hawksworth has several distinct dining rooms that are inspired by the hotel’s 1920s heritage. It’s a beautifully designed restaurant, with sophisticated clean lines and incredible attention to detail.”

JAMIE MAW: “I believe you could say the same about its patrons, Jim, and the automobiles that you offer. And David and his team have been very smart about how they’ve positioned the restaurant: although it’s part of the hotel, it’s separately branded. And this isn’t a restaurant only reserved for celebratory dining and special occasions; they’ve kept the price points down, and you can drop by and enjoy a canapé and a glass of wine in the lounge, too. What we call all-access.”

JIM MURRAY: “Look at the ceiling, even the quality of the menu paper. Details,details — I’m getting it, it really is similar to our business.”

JAMIE MAW: “Just be glad you’re selling German steel and not fresh halibut, Jim. I’m going to watch you eatthatfoie gras parfait now, and take notes.”

JIM MURRAY: “This is very good. How’s your short rib?”

JAMIE MAW: “Ditto. Sometimes food writers run out of adjectives too. Served with black pepper jam, melon, peanuts and Thai basil, after its 48-hour braise, the short rib had been brought up to temperature very carefully, and was as unctuous as the stagette party at the next table.”

JIM MURRAY: “After two nights, three restaurants, and several memorable dishes and wines, a much-needed trip to the gym was dialed into my GPS. I had learned a lot about what to look for in finding the perfect culinary experience from Jamie, not least being how a food writer can eat like this, sometimes four or five nights a week. ‘Aerobic typing helps,’ he says. ‘And I know it’s counterintuitive, but I find beer of assistance, too.’

Last week I returned to Bacchus, this time for a lunch meeting. I had thoughts of Jamie’s guidance as I ordered the soup ofthe day. And yes, it was made carefully, with both passion and precision. I engaged the server. I assessed the crowd. I even mentally scored a few ofthe dishes. In short, I’d paid more attention to the details, and I was a better diner for it.”

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