If there's a dream destination for those who love fine dining and beautiful, fresh food, it's Vancouver, 150 miles north of Seattle in British Columbia. At least that was my conclusion after three days of dining, eating chocolate, and exploring the markets and neighborhoods.
It was a humid 100 degrees in Memphis when I first learned I would be heading to cool Vancouver. In addition to having summer temperatures that rarely top 80 degrees, it's one of the great restaurant hubs in North America. With some 3,500 restaurants, including some considered to be the best on the continent, Vancouver holds its own with New York, San Francisco, and Toronto.
Great cuisine is not Vancouver's only charm. Nestled amid beautiful mountains in a mild microclimate that's the envy of snow-prone Canada, it's a world-class city with skiing, beaches, wineries and countryside within easy reach. Vancouver is hosting the 2010 winter Olympics, so you will soon be hearing lots more about it.
But back to food.
This city has all the elements for fabulous, varied dining. It nurtures everything from wine grapes to world-class Pacific salmon to fabulous corn and legendary blueberries. It's very international, thanks to immigration from Asia and other parts of the world. That means large communities of Chinese, Japanese, East Indians, and others -- and their rich culinary traditions. Great chefs ply their trade here, and draw top talent to the kitchens, the dining rooms, and the wine cellars.
And, certainly, there's an audience: People who flock from Canada and beyond to live here, visitors in town briefly for Alaskan cruises, skiers en route to Whistler, and tourists who make Vancouver their destination for dining, incredible scenery, and easy access to the mountains and beaches.
I'm extremely lucky, as my guide is one of Vancouver's top chefs. Ray Henry is executive chef at Diva at the Met (so named because it's located inside Vancouver's swank Metropolitan Hotel). Henry helped create this restaurant 10 years ago, and also has cooked in kitchens in Canada and Bermuda, winning top honors along the way. And because he trained here and grew up nearby, he really knows the terrain. Henry, who had recently squired PBS's Hippy Gourmet around Vancouver, has cooked for the Dali Lama, Queen Elizabeth, Def Jam Records producer Russell Simmons, and lots of actors (Vancouver is the third-largest North American city for film production). During my visit, they include Halle Berry and Mark Wahlberg, who stay at the Metropolitan while filming.
Henry's signature is outstanding ingredient-based Pacific Northwest fare, using local seafood, meats, and produce, as I will discover later. The plan is a tour by day followed by an evening at Diva, where Henry and his staff will prepare eight courses featuring items we saw earlier.
Henry proves an excellent guide, and while he's pretty laid-back during our tour, it's clear he's energetic, a perfectionist, a tireless walker, and very knowledgeable. He's opinionated, occasionally irreverent, and (thank goodness) free from pomposity. I soon learn that one of his obsessions is markets, so we spend a lot of our time amid purveyors of world-class seafood, produce, cheeses, and baked goods.
Our excursion, as we drive along in Henry's Mini-Cooper, first takes us through Stanley Park, the city's large rain-forested park, to North Vancouver. It's rainy today, but the rest of the time it's sunny and cool, like the October weather of your dreams.
First stop is the shop of Austrian-born Thomas Haas. He's the former pastry chef for New York's Daniel restaurant, and is ranked by Chocolatier magazine as one of the top 20 artisan chocolate makers. Thomas Haas Fine Chocolates is packed on this Saturday morning. And no wonder: The array of pastries, tarts, and fine handmade chocolates in this pretty little shop is jaw-dropping, as is the aroma of espresso, chocolate, and freshly baked croissants.
Henry doesn't exaggerate about the outstanding cappuccino here. Each cup is a work of art, with its milk-foam-and-crema heart on top. I also sample some baked goods, including a heavenly almond pastry. Haas was pastry chef at Diva before opening his own place, so he and Henry are chums. (He still consults on pastry for Diva. The pastries and Haas chocolates can be enjoyed at Senses, a shop around the corner from the Metropolitan.)
After stopping briefly at the large suburban Lonsdale Quay market, we drive back to Chinatown (the third largest in North America), and discover another world. Chinese characters dominate signs, and it's all elbows and loud bargaining, since standing in line and paying marked prices are alien concepts here. Everywhere, we see familiar produce and seafood as well as some pretty bizarre stuff: weird vegetables and herbs, stinky dried fish and shellfish, literally hundreds of dried spices, herbs, and mushrooms, all kinds of strange wares. We even see dried seahorses and snakes, and ponder why someone would buy them. Potions to thwart one's enemies, perhaps?
Henry lives nearby and shops here for the Asian fare he prepares at home. He also gets ideas here, and today explains how the baby bok choy he sees has got him thinking about the upcoming fall menu.
Next is the granddaddy of them all: Granville Island Public Market. It's a quick miniferry ride across False Creek to Granville Island, the weekend "place to be" in Vancouver, with its shops, cafes, artist workshops, galleries, bookstores, theaters, street performers, and people-watching.
The public market is one of the best in the world, and in summer includes a huge farmer's market. We see stall after stall overflowing with every kind of vegetable and fruit, including blueberries, peaches, just-picked corn, and fresh herbs. There's a soup stall where you can buy dinner and handmade stock, bakeries fragrant with freshly baked bread and pastry, fishmongers with incredible local wild salmon, Dungeness crab and other fresh Pacific seafood. Plus plants, wine, coffee, handmade soaps and candles, jewelry and crafts, spices of all kinds; it's downright dizzying.
Then it's back to Diva, where Halle Berry is quietly having tea. I try really hard not to turn around and gawk as Henry and I are talking about what influences his cooking. (While we talk, I'm enjoying his incredible trio of chocolate mousses.) Henry is reminiscing about his teenage years working on a farm: cuts of beef from its Angus cattle, vegetables fresh from the field, and just-picked strawberries. He also describes the gadgets that make new dishes possible. For example, the restaurant recently got a temperature-controlled warm water bath, which can cook salmon more tenderly than other methods. He tells me all about Damon Campbell, his sous-chef and a key talent behind the menus at Diva. He jokes that Damon is Mick Jagger to his Keith Richards.
We go our separate ways, then regroup at Diva around six. The candles are lit, the reservation books are full, and the whole place has the buzz of Saturday night about to begin. Diva, a beautiful restaurant, is looking her best. I get a tour of the large downstairs kitchen, where Henry's chefs have spent the afternoon prepping.
Now, it's almost show time. The chefs have moved their ingredients to the restaurant's dazzling open kitchen, where they are close at hand and as meticulously and compactly arranged as lures in a tackle box. Henry oversees the operation, ready to help as needed, and tonight is preparing a fabulous feast for us. I'm about to find out how far Diva is above what people associate with hotel dining.
And what a feast: Eight courses, each a culinary work of art. We begin with a kir royale made from local sparkling wine, the first of many excellent British Columbia wines that are matched to the courses. It's followed by a trendy "soda," fruity and reminiscent of Chinese bubble tea.
Along the way we have fresh local salmon cooked in the warm bath gizmo, and it is meltingly tender. We've talked about the pig's importance in both French and Southern cooking, and here is pork belly with the smoked lentils he has described. And the tough mushrooms that looked like black dirt clods at the market have been transformed, and now are as full-flavored and rich as promised.
And the finale? A platter of chocolate desserts inspired by Thomas Haas and the chocolate master's own "candy bar" of silky, perfect chocolate fondant. It's a fitting end to the remarkable day I've spent immersed in the culinary riches of Vancouver.
If You Go
The city of Vancouver has a fairly compact downtown, so many key restaurants, hotels, and attractions are close to each other and to Canada Place, the cruise-ship terminal. A good first stop is the Tourist Info Centre (across the street from the terminal at 200 Burrard). Vancouver's transit system is excellent, and the staff can help you navigate.
For your first taste of Vancouver's fabulous dining scene. The Five Sails is located on the Centre's second floor, and offers a fine view. Diva at the Met and the sweets shop Senses are just a few blocks up on Howe Street. Yaletown, home to Blue Water Café, Coast, Amacord (Italian), and Chopstick Café, isn't far. Or head to the False Creek area to dine at C, the legendary seafood restaurant.
Want to be a bit more hands-on in your dining adventure? Take a mini-ferry to Granville Public Market, a center for food markets, shopping, casual dining, and five-star people-watching. While dining is probably Vancouver's biggest "attraction," gorgeous Stanley Park runs a close second. The city's largest park, Stanley is actually a rain forest, where you can walk, have tea or a meal at The Teahouse Restaurant or The Fish House or rent a bike nearby to tour around the outer edge of the park (the views are magnificent). Keep in mind that starting in 2007, you will need a passport to visit Canada. The currency is the Canadian dollar, which currently is about 90 cents to the U.S. dollar. (It's easy to get Canadian money at any ATM machine, as ubiquitous here as in any U.S. city.) And whatever you do, remember to look up: The mountains and water surrounding the city are spectacular.
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