Vancouver always gets put down for being too pretty, for resting on our laurels, and not having any ambition. I think the rest of Canada sees this city as the Millenial of the family, young and full of promise – but more concerned about bike lanes and trees than getting a desk job.
But this is, of course, painfully untrue. I’ve been an expat in large American cities and sprawling Asian metropolises, and I’ve got to say the most entrepreneurial city that I have lived in is Vancouver. This is an extremely expensive place to build your life, and there are no easy Corporate pathways to tackle the costs – so you have got find your own answers. There is a free wheelingness to our approach to making our way in the world – one that values authenticty and energy. Though the lack of set rules and templates is a little scary, it’s also super exciting.
One only has to look at the restaurant scene to see how Vancouver has excelled at doing things it’s own way. There really isn’t any Corporate Expense Account restaurants in the city, and the tone and timbre of dining out in Vancouver is different from cities like Toronto and Calgary. True, there is less gilded high end trophy establishments, but it has always seemd to me that the soul of good food runs a little deeper here. Even with brutally tough competition and economics, there is a consistent theme of care and nuture in places like Andrea Carlson’s Burdock and Co., the amazingly charming Bestie, or any one of the Gastown establishments such as Wildebeest, PiDGin, or L’Abattoir.
David Gunawan’s newest venture, Farmer’s Apprentice is certainly a fantastic addition to Vancouver’s list of small but beautifully thought out restaurants. I’ve always admired David Gunawan’s cooking – the sense of curiosity and exploration, a feeling of gentle restlessness that leaves you engaged and wanting more – all backed by supreme technical skill and confidence. The food here is more vegetable foward than at his last restaurant, Wildebeest, and the magic is a touch more subtle. You can see that David loves to tinker and play with the dishes – so that it reflects exactly of the moment what he thinks is best with ingredients and approach.
I dined at Farmer’s Apprentice a few times over a couple of weeks – and the dishes were changed and tweaked each time. For me, it was fun to see how the menu evolved and yet the underlying delicousness remained constant.
A terrine of Shoaxing wine braised pork had the uncurrents of Shanghainese flavours but with the freshness and vivacity of local lightness. The pickled green strawberries emerge from their brine imbued, somehow, with super berriness.
Chargrilled fresh fava beans doused in a sauce made from sake wasu (lees leftover from making sake). It was a grown up, slighly boozy play on edamame beans. Such unexpected flavours – completely delicious.
60 day dry aged sirloin served with carmelized butter milk and beet jus. Simply magnificent. You get the rich concentrated gamey beefiness of dry aged beef, but the gloriously satisfying sensation of a big bloody steak from the restrained beet jus. It was the best of both worlds.
The desserts are fantastically light yet satisfying.
The bee’s wax ice cream with grilled apricots was completely magical. The custard is infused with bee’s wax (not blocks of honey, mind you) before being churned. The flavour and scent of the wax evelops you – subtle but definitely present – warm golden notes offset by the sweet fruit. Genius.
The chrysanthenum cake, for me, is a double whammy of food memory. The texture is like the soft steamed cakes from classic dim sum carts (I can hear the dim sum ladies yelling ‘mi-lai-go” as I eat the cake). The bright herbal chamomile scent of chrysanthenum remind of the big jugs of chilled honey sweetened chrysanthenum tea my mother would make for my brother and I – our most favored summertime drink. But even without the glaze of nostalgia – this dessert is a winner of refreshing flavours that manages to be clean and luscious at the same time.
The restaurant space is split almost 50/50 between the kitchen and dining room – something that must drive his accountant crazy. But it also creates a really different relationship between kitchen and diner at Farmer’s Apprentice. It’s more engaged dialogue that I have never seen in a restaurant before, but reflects David’s sense of ease and comfort.
I suspect it’s the feeling that I have when I have people over at my house for dinner – ‘Come on in, grab yourself a glass of something. I’ve made something really delicous and I hope you like it as much as I do.’
‘I am really glad you are here.’
As always – Canucklehead pays for all of his own food and beverages and nostalgia related therapy.