American, Farm to Table, Fusion, Gastropub

Mini Review: Straight & Marrow

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By Michael White

Straight & Marrow didn’t set out to be a divisive restaurant. Its menus aren’t conceived to repel timid diners or upset vegans — although it might do either. But possibly more than any restaurant Kley and I have discovered since Jewkarta began, it has its own point of view and its own notion of delicious, and either you agree with it or are keen to investigate, or else you keep a very wide berth.

We ran toward it with great enthusiasm, and not only were we not disappointed — you might say we got carried away.

Straight & Marrow chef Chris Lam’s mission is to spotlight “overlooked ingredients,” meaning proteins and “off-cuts” of which the mainstream (in this part of the world, at least) is either unfamiliar or finds off-putting. On the night we visited, that meant octopus carpaccio, beef heart tartare, frog with grits, braised lamb neck and other assorted creatures and parts rarely seen on North American menus. The space (formerly home to the much-missed Bistro Wagon Rouge) is narrow and dark and emits an unmistakable “dude” energy but isn’t obnoxious about it.

Once we settled in at the bar and were served the first of many inventive cocktails made for us by the engaging @chadaptation (we both raise two thumbs up for the “Bent, Not Broken,” essentially a Vesper with the shouldn’t-work-but-it-does addition of charred-rosemary olive oil), we began eating and didn’t stop for quite some time.

We ordered so much, in fact, that the very thought of detailing everything here is exhausting. But we can say we unreservedly loved — LOVED! — the above-mentioned octopus and its smoked-paprika aioli; luscious bone marrow decorated with pickled shiitake, porcini dust and chicken crackling; charred “street” corn mingled with delicate gnocchi, cotija cheese, chili crème fraîche and fried shards of pig’s ear; and perhaps the most convincing argument you could find that frog has the potential to be nose-to-tail cooking’s answer to the hot wing.

Side note: While the dishes might be perceived as somewhat primal, the plating is anything but. This is very pretty food, presented as if you were in a room that charges twice as much and serves everything with a side of attitude.

Between the food, the drinks, the room and the service (and our not having to work the next day), we emerged three hours later, bouncing in a bubble of happy and (over-)satiety — no straighter than before, but absolutely converted to their culinary orientation.

Straight & Marrow
1869 Powell St., Vancouver
604-251-4813 / Instagram: @straight_and_marrow

(Photo: Kley Klemens)

American, Brunch, Canadian, Gastropub, West Coast

Review: Belgard Kitchen

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By Michael White

This isn’t a restaurant review so much as a remembrance of some time Kley and I spent in a restaurant recently. You might argue that this is exactly what all restaurant reviews are, to which I would counter: Shut up and let me make my point.

This isn’t a bona fide review because a review wouldn’t be fair to Belgard Kitchen right now. Nor, I think, would it be fair to any restaurant struggling to maintain an illusion of normalcy and full-fledged functionality at time when society at large is capable of neither. Yes, the masses are now beginning to receive their vaccinations (Kley and I were cheerfully penetrated last week) and our collective fantasy of a “Dancing in the Street”-style celebration that draws a line under this interminable pandemic has begun to feel vaguely plausible. But, I doubt I need to tell you, we still have a long road ahead of us. Few people feel this reality more acutely than restaurant owners and staff, who still are not only struggling to survive, but are simply trying to anticipate from day to day what is and isn’t possible for their industry amidst the loosening and tightening of restrictions.

Case in point: When we visited Belgard Kitchen last Friday, for happy-hour-leading-into-dinner, it was their first night of service in six weeks, and the first night ever for their new street-side patio, which seats a maximum of 48 people. We weren’t expecting perfection, nor necessarily even greatness. We simply wanted to sit under a hospitably blue late-afternoon sky and watch it dim into evening while eating and drinking and then, in all likelihood, eating and drinking some more.

We did just that. And everything was very good. In most cases, better than we expected.

Which isn’t to say we were expecting to be underwhelmed. Both of us had been to Belgard Kitchen before — although, admittedly, it was many years ago, before we knew each other and decided to make a hobby of using the internet to exhibit our mutual gluttony to strangers. Belgard Kitchen first opened in 2014, and was something of an event — the first destination restaurant to try to make a go of it on the mean streets of Railtown (still a volatile neighbourhood today, but much more so then). This was no modest venture either: Belgard is housed in an almost 8,000-square-foot industrial space, known as the Settlement Building, that began life as a steel foundry in the 1920s. It shares this space with an onsite small-batch winery (Vancouver Urban Winery) and a craft brewery (Settlement Brewery). This is the sort of environment for which real-estate marketers coined the term “soaring.”

But unless you need to pass through it on your way to the toilets, you can’t spend time in Belgard Kitchen right now. The province’s indoor-dining ban remains in effect, so be sure to place a reservation for a patio table — there are only eight of them. At the time of this writing, the patio is open for weekday lunch (11:30am-3pm), weekend brunch (10am-3pm) and daily happy hour and dinner (3pm-close). We arrived at 5pm, at which time the patio had fallen under the shadow of the Settlement Building, and a brisk wind blew down the Dunlevy corridor toward an unexpectedly moving view of shipping containers suspended above the East Vancouver port lands. Sunworshippers may not appreciate this, but myself, having been born Whitest Man on Earth and distressingly prone to burning, was as content as a suburban grandmother at Fabricland.

We adored our server, who seemed to either intuit that we were here to play or isn’t the sort to recite a memorized script of Tonight’s Offerings.

Me: “What’s the feature cocktail right now?”

Her (following a comedic pause and a survey of the heavens): “I don’t know.”

We howled.

I did very much want that cocktail, the name of which I’ve now forgotten, but I can tell you it was a variation of a Manhattan that seemed to have been liberally dosed with cacao bitters. She also brought us an excellent on-tap negroni ($11) and the Grape Expectations wine flight (a happy hour bargain at $12; $14 at other times), of which we both instantly fell in love with a 2018 Pinot Gris from Penticton’s Roche Wines. Kley’s Tasting Paddle of four featured beers ($9.50) further stoked the glow in his happy gut.

We consumed solids as well! An appropriately rich and unctuous mushroom-and-bacon pâté ($11.50 at happy hour; $15 otherwise), which prompted a request for more grilled sourdough; the justifiably self-named Belgard Burger (Cache Creek beef between a brioche bun, in the company of Swiss cheese, beer-brined pickles, and red-pepper relish — very fucking good; $17); and Fettucine Nero ($22), an attractively plated mound of squid-ink noodles mingling with a chorizo-prawn ragu, snap-snap-snappy jalapeno pesto, and herbed breadcrumbs. So much food, yet so much of the menu left unexplored.

The bill paid, we wobbled like Weebles toward home (stopping off for gelato because the weather called for it and because we have trouble stopping what we’ve started). Despite our vague gastronomic stupor, we talked — as we seem to always be doing nowadays — about the ongoing plight of restaurants and the additional burdens facing the likes of Belgard Kitchen, which has to contend with the overhead of a massive space and being slightly off the beaten path. Their patio was decently but not spectacularly busy during our visit, so we hope word spreads quickly about it now being open. Despite their enforced hiatus, they’ve hit the ground running. So run toward it.

Belgard Kitchen
55 Dunlevy Ave., Vancouver
604-699-1989 / Instagram: @belgardkitchen
Delivery platform: DoorDash

(Photo: Kley Klemens)

American, Vegetarian/Vegan

Review: Beetbox

Watch the video review here!

By Michael White

Would you punch a cow in the face if doing so led to the reward of a cheeseburger? Would you set fire to several thousand acres of forestland, thus causing the tormented demise of its countless fur- and feather-bearing inhabitants (as well as the homes of the humans who live among them), if it ensured the safe passage to your mouth of every cheeseburger you hope to eat before you expire?

If eliminating or vastly reducing the meat in one’s diet were simply a matter being presented with the reams of evidence proving the moral, ecological and economic damage of continuing to eat it, most of us would have done so years, decades, ago.

But we — myself included — are slaves to our dietary cravings, particularly those related to the customs in which we were raised.

I was born into a middle-class North American suburb of the 1970s — the breeding ground of the chain restaurant. My palate may have grown to love the comparatively exotic, rarefied likes of uni, Romanesco, and heavily peated Scotch, but to this day I’d sprint across six lanes of freeway traffic for a Quarter Pounder with Cheese. The sight of multiple fast-food marquees illuminated against a summer sky at dusk instills in me a visceral happiness that a lifetime of accumulated knowledge is helpless to undo. I may eventually get around to thinking about these brands’ immeasurable carbon footprints; the misery their shared disregard for living wages, animal and human welfare, and environmental responsibility has wreaked around the globe; their unequalled contribution to society’s obesity epidemic…. But first, I think about the seductive flavours, textures and aromas of their food; the inexplicable contentedness that comes from ripping open one of their bags to retrieve its wax-paper-swathed contents, or piercing the lid of a soda-fountain cup with a (non-biodegradable) straw. In that moment, I’m happily complicit in their assorted miseries. I am, in my own small way, a fucking monster.

But… but… change is taking place. It may not be happening fast enough (not even close), but it’s happening. And this is in no small part because culinary and scientific innovations have finally begun catching up with the demands of our pathetic appetites. If we can’t yet bring ourselves to do what we know is right at the expense of transient gastronomic pleasure, we at least now have the option of choosing responsible substitutes that decently mimic the foods that push our most vulnerable buttons. Which is why the availability of the plant-based Impossible Burger expanded in only one year from 150 U.S. grocery stores to almost 17,000, and why Impossible Foods’ closest competitor, Beyond Meat, is now selling its actually-not-meat products to everyone from Dunkin’ Donuts to KFC to, as of a couple of weeks ago, McDonald’s. Some lifelong carnivores are beginning to visualize a future in which they might not be such terrible people.

At a much smaller scale, but no less encouraging, is Beetbox, which opened in Vancouver’s Davie Village in late 2019. It bills itself as “Conscious Comfort Food,” meaning it wants to be the ethical surrogate for the meat- and dairy-based colon bombs we all know and, for the most part, love. Every ingredient employed on the menu here is of plant origin, but the vibe Beetbox means to radiate to the masses is, “This tastes just like the junk you love!” And to my ritually abused taste receptors, it does. Sometimes it actually tastes better.

The food at Beetbox was developed by chef and co-owner Bryan Satterford, who also fulfills similar roles at Chinatown’s popular Juke Fried Chicken. (Beetbox’s sole location was previously home to a smaller Juke outpost, but for some reason the neighbourhood didn’t take to it.) Which is to say, Satterford is a practicing carnivore who can empathize with the desires of other carnivores, not just committed vegans. He understands, too, that even vegans want in on the salt-sugar-fat sensations that define the fast-food experience. So, while his Nashville Fried Chick-Un Sandwich ($9.50) may not deliver the reputed heat of Nashville’s famed hot chicken, but it’s crisp, moist, and altogether more delicious than the majority of chicken sandwiches I’ve had at the usual haunts. To whatever extent the patty (made with hydrated wheat gluten, otherwise known as seitan) doesn’t taste like actual chicken has been well concealed by good marinade, a slathering of miso-based aioli, spiced pickles, and a superbly squishy brioche-style bun. I suspect the calories and fat content of this specimen aren’t much more virtuous than analogs containing dead bird, but at least you haven’t contributed to the murder of a bird.

Impressive, too, is the Crispy Gordita ($9.50), in which black beans, fried oyster mushrooms, vegan “cheeze,” pickled slaw, and avocado dressing are crowded into a comically large corn tortilla which, true to its name, is crisped up nicely on the griddle.

We also tried the Peanut Tempeh Bowl (one of three “warm bowls”; $15 each), featuring a generous pile-up of lemongrass-marinated tempeh (a popular meat substitute made of fermented soybeans), cucumber salad, mild kimchi, and peanut dressing. Kley, Jewkarta’s other half, grew up in Indonesia, where tempeh is both common and revered — he found its texture somewhat lacking, but my ignorance was bliss. We both appreciated the bowl’s harmonious array of flavours and textures, and I can report from firsthand experience that anything left over is just as good cold the next day.

Between the two of us, we didn’t have the opportunity to sample the cheeseburger, Reuben sandwich, chili-cheeze fries, or any of the cold salads. But as introductions go, I’m very happy to have made the acquaintance of Beetbox, and I plan to explore more of its menu very soon. I don’t know to what extent Satterford and co. are visualizing expansion, but their compassionate creations are of a calibre (and an affordability) that Beetbox deserves to scale up across the city and beyond. If something as indefensible as Subway can achieve worldwide ubiquity, why not a concept that’s not only immeasurably better, but that doesn’t make you an accessory to, I don’t know, the death of the planet?

1074 Davie St., Vancouver
604-233-8269 / Instagram: @beetboxveg
Delivery platforms: DoorDash, Skip the Dishes

(Photo: Kley Klemens)

American, Barbecue, Southern

Review: Slim’s BBQ (formerly Dixie’s BBQ)

Watch the video review here!

By Michael White

The gutted, dark, seemingly unmanned former dining room onto which I open the door of Dixie’s BBQ suggests this is yet one more Vancouver restaurant in its death throes as a result of COVID-19. A table strategically positioned across the threshold prevents me from entering, and so I stand on the sidewalk and curiously survey this unexpected scene. At first glance, I can’t determine where the sombre desolation of East Hastings ends and the storefront from which I’ve been instructed to fetch dinner begins.

But this isn’t at all what it appears to be. A happy dude trots out from the rear kitchen — where, as if providing a metaphor for the business, light still shines — and greets me with all the warmth our surroundings lack. The premises are undergoing extensive renovations, he explains, but takeout and delivery are operating as normal; the masses are confined to their homes, and they want heaping containers of Texas-style barbecue meat transported directly to their mouths. He thanks me sincerely for collecting my order personally — it means a delivery platform isn’t taking a cut of their profits — and showers me with news. Dixie’s, he explains, is expanding its kitchen into what was once the dining room in order to provide commissary space for other local restauranteurs — a much-needed utility at a time when the “ghost kitchen” concept has never been more popular, owing to the impracticality of paying rent for a public seating area that won’t be fully populated again anytime soon. Despite being, at most, a two-minute conversation, I leave in a better mood than when I’d arrived, and I had already been in a good mood. Whereas so many restaurant proprietors and servers can’t help but (perhaps unconsciously) spray their understandable anger and exhaustion into innocent customers’ faces nowadays, this Dixie’s delegate made me feel genuinely welcome and appreciated. That appreciation was reciprocal.

As it happens, Dixie’s closed its front of house long before the pandemic began, in July 2019. Owners Christina Cottell and Shoel Davidson determined that the majority of their business was coming from takeout, delivery and catering, so eliminating the overheads and headaches of a dining room wasn’t a terribly difficult decision. Although they couldn’t have foreseen the events that would swallow the world eight months later, it left them in a favourable position, and now they intend to use that position to lift up others in their industry. So far, so admirable.

My elevated mood continued when Kley and I began tearing into our order at home. We’re admitted latecomers to the party — Dixie’s opened in 2016, and has been the subject of rave reviews and word-of-mouth from the beginning. It’s understandable that it was so warmly received, if for no other reason than Vancouver has long suffered from a dearth of good barbecue. (I’ve never been convinced by a local chainlet, which I won’t name, that has persisted for almost two decades.) This is in part because, despite its reputation as humble blue-collar cuisine, proper barbecue is the result of exacting techniques and no small investment. A wood-fired smoker (as opposed to an electric one) is expensive to acquire and install, and it burns — literally — through an exceptional amount of costly lumber. And once the myriad nuances of smoking animal flesh have been mastered, the fruits of your labour have to be served in a timely manner. Barbecue meat eaten either before or after its time (which can be a matter of as little as an hour) is a tragedy that no amount of sauce can disguise.

Although our bounty of exactingly prepared beast had to travel from the Downtown Eastside to the West End and was then reheated in a garden-variety apartment oven, we immediately understood the fuss about Dixie’s. Our smoked brisket had lost some of its juices in transit but none of its flavour and tenderness, while gorgeously crusted pork ribs, imbued down to the bone with a subtle peach-chipotle glaze (in accordance with Central Texas tradition, Dixie’s doesn’t slather its meats in sauce), left us grasping for superlatives and second helpings. Smoked hot links, made with both brisket and pork, surprised us with their senses-filling melange of spices, dominated by curry powder that led these sausages far astray from the Southern U.S. and into Middle Eastern territory. Is this typical? Is it correct? Don’t know, don’t care.

We would have loved to also try the twice-fried chicken and the smoked pork and the cornbread and the mac & cheese and perhaps one of the sandwiches, but we’re only two people, and at least one of us lives in fear of a metabolism that hasn’t so much slowed with age as laid down and pressed its Life Alert button.

That cordial guy who rung up my order also disclosed during our brief transaction that Dixie’s would soon be consolidating somehow with Main Street’s perennially popular Rumpus Room, and that a rebranding might be imminent. And so it proved: Less than 24 hours before this review was to be published, it was announced that Dixie’s is soon becoming Slim’s BBQ, which will in fact outright replace the Rumpus Room beginning the week of January 25; a weeklong soft opening precedes the official launch on February 1. Much, if not all, of the Dixie’s menu will live on at Slim’s, as will many of the interior fixtures from the original dining room. No matter what the location or what it calls itself, I’ll pursue these smoke signals wherever they come from.

Slim’s BBQ
2301 Main St.
Instagram: @meatatslimsbbq (Website coming soon)
Delivery and takeout info forthcoming

(Photo: Kley Klemens)

American, Brunch, Canadian, West Coast

Mini Review: brunch at Cactus Club Cafe

By Michael White

Jewkarta was founded upon two key criterion: (1) we highlight independent Greater Vancouver restaurants; (2) we pay for our meals, and our favour can’t be bought.

Which isn’t to say we’re above being whores if an offer appeals to us, so long as we confess to having accepted it. So, when Cactus Club Cafe offered us an opportunity to try its new weekend brunch menu at the English Bay location, we replied, “Is this Saturday soon enough?”

Some people turn their noses up at Cactus, but the Vancouver-spawned “casual fine” chain achieved its multi-million-dollar success (and has repeatedly claimed Gold in the Best Chain category of the Vancouver Magazine Restaurant Awards) for a reason. From Victoria to Toronto, it always punches above its weight, delivering accessible but expertly balanced flavours and presentation with stunning consistency. (Side note: Jewkarta’s first date was at the Coal Harbour location, and our experience was good enough to nullify a somewhat disastrous post-meal first kiss.)  

At first glance, Cactus’s brunch menu is surprising in its brevity and simplicity, suggesting none of the subtle but inventive flourishes for which longtime advising chef Rob Feenie is renowned: three different eggs benny (traditional, avocado, and prawn); two brunch bowls that riff on their dinner/lunch menu’s hugely popular Modern Bowl; an eggs-bacon-potatoes plate; a fried-egg sandwich; and little Belgian-style waffles. The End. (Of course, various espresso drinks and daytime-appropriate cocktails are also available.)

Fortunately, while the menu itself lacks surprises, what did surprise us was the extent to which the deliciousness of everything makes up for that. Avocado Benny ($15.75), served on good multigrain bread rather than the time-honoured English muffin, was exemplary, the eggs perfectly poached and accompanied with the most ethereal hollandaise either of us can recall having anywhere in Vancouver. The “smashed” potatoes alongside were what all diner potatoes aspire to be: crunchy exteriors yielding to tender innards, showered with enough salt that we didn’t need to reach for the shaker.

Meanwhile, the Brunch Power Bowl ($15), which sounds annoyingly virtuous (it’s vegetarian; a vegan variation is also offered), was dynamite: an artfully presented, perfectly calibrated jumble of those same poached eggs in the company of quinoa, diced avocado and roasted yam, corn, bell pepper, shredded kale, and halved grape tomatoes. The contrasting acidity of house-made salsa, chipotle aioli and pickled red onion brought everything together like the stereotypical chef’s kiss. This is a dish that is more than the sum of its parts.

Despite being so clearly inspired by nearby Café Medina they should pay royalties, the Belgian waffles ($4.50 each) were the sort of thing you find yourself craving again later in the day — hot, betraying the explosive crunch of pearl sugar, and with a sidecar of real whipped cream. Choose from one of three toppings: salted caramel, berry compote, or maple syrup ($1.25).

At the time of this writing, Cactus is offering brunch at two locations only — English Bay and Burnaby’s Station Square — but the aim is to expand to other outlets if it proves popular enough. Despite the pandemic, brunch remains a competitive sport in Vancouver for which the masses are willing to wait a long time in the rain. Cactus is a welcome new addition to the landscape — so much so that we’d happily pay with our own money next time. We may be part-time whores, but we have principles.

Cactus Club Cafe
various locations / Instagram: @cactusclubcafe

(Photo: Kley Klemens)