Among certain diners, there is this back and forth around idea of authenticity. On the one hand, there are those who adhere very closely to the original, and see beauty and continuity in respecting tradition. On the other side, there are those who question the value in holding onto the past. After all, we live in the New World, shouldn’t we romp freely and forge a new path forward?
Both points of view have their obvious merits, but there are also obvious pit falls. Stick too closely to traditions, and you no longer have a living breathing cuisine but a museum piece. Ignore time honored techniques and approaches and you risk producing an incoherent and illiterate mess.
So how do you balance these points of view? A friend of mine summarized it perfectly in one word.
It is the idea that once should hold true to the tenets of what a cuisine values and strives towards, but not be slavish to specific ingredients or flourish. This notion is especially important in Vancouver, where food and cooking traditions are being parachuted in from around the world. And one only needs to look at how local Chinese food has evolved and absorbed West Coast influences – resulting in a strong Vancouver imprint, but still remaining true to Chinese food ideals.
The team behind Red Wagon Diner, recently opened Bistro Wagon Rouge – throwing their hat into the French ring, with a decidedly working class point of view and a simple menu that steers towards good value.
For me – good French food is about balance and focus; cooking techniques that are transformative and lengthen deeply savory flavors. Traditionally, Mother Sauces play a large role in the final product, but our local variant shies away from too many sauces resulting in a cleaner and lighter finish.
It was a cold day – so the go-to cliché dish that I started with was the French Onion soup. The Wagon Rouge version was deeply beefy, but was restrained and refined, without the big pile of melted cheese that leaves you feeling heavy. The result was that I was warmed up and ready for more food, and not comatose after the first course.
The butter leaf salad was simply astounding. I grew up watching Julia Child and Jacque Pepin making endless dishes of butter leaf salad, but it was not something that I actually ate or saw much of out at restaurants. Just looking at the leaves you knew how perfectly dressed it was – vividly alive and not weighted down – gently and carefully tossed by hand (as in bare hands – Elizabeth David would approve). The tarragon and shallot vinaigrette somehow made the lettuce taste greener and sweeter.
They have a little cold “kitchen” tucked away at the end of the bar – where salads, fresh shucked oysters, and steak tartare were prepared away from the heat of the small kitchen. A really nice attention to detail.
Grilled mackerel was simple, gutsy, and elegant. I love the deeply rich fattiness of mackerel – which has to be handled perfectly; otherwise you end up with awful fishiness. The Wagon Rouge version was spot on, with a judiciously sharp salsa verde providing a bright counter balance
The lamb belly was for me, a real example of the patient powers of French cuisine. The lamb was slowly cooked – but stopping short of collapse – richly gamey, but not fatty or over powering. Finished with breadcrumbs for texturual sharpness.
Dessert was comforting with a good dose of ambition. Almond brown butter financier with a crisp crust and soft yielding crumb, served with a dollop of luscious milk foam. Nice!
At the end of the day, if food is good – we don’t have to think too hard about authenticty. Prepared with knowledge and restraint, with an eye to celebrating ingredients and caring for the diner – these are the goals of any great cuisine.
Bistro Wagon Rouge. should be simply enjoyed for what it is, a lovely neighbourhood restaurant that this city cries out for. That it passes deeper scrutiny and analysis only adds to its pleasures, and not replaces them.
Canucklehead dines incognito and pays for all of his food and drink. However, his awesome biceps usually give him away.
Bistro Wagon Rouge
1869 Powell St