By Michael White
Seemingly no type of dining space, no matter how well-funded, has been immune to the economic ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic. To wit, within a five-kilometre radius of Jewkarta headquarters, in Vancouver’s West End, we informally estimate that two-thirds of the Starbucks locations that were here have shuttered during the past year — papered over, gone forever. Few of us mourn their passing — another one is never far away, after all — but if this globe-spanning coffee colossus can be so dramatically cut down to size in so short a time, what chance is there for the little people?
Wherever you live, you’ve undoubtedly seen the casualties. What famed New York chef Gabrielle Hamilton referred to (in her heartbreaking New York Times essay) as the “sweet, gentle citizen restaurant” is struggling to survive the storm most of all, sending up distress flares while frantically bailing buckets of rainwater overboard. This is the sort of restaurant that defines neighbourhoods and cities, that gives them their character and enlightens the populace about previously unknown possibilities for food and drink. If they all go, so too does the evolution of dining (and the futures of many who trained for careers in this world).
So it was all the more reassuring to walk into Dachi — as sweet and gentle a citizen restaurant as you could hope to find — one recent Saturday night, in celebration of my 97th birthday (give or take), to find it very much alive and, it would seem, thriving.
Dachi opened in late 2018 in Hastings-Sunrise, in an unassuming corner lot previously occupied by Campagnolo Roma. It had its work cut out for it — everyone had loved Campagnolo Roma’s pizzas and pastas, and Dachi co-owners Miki Ellis and Stephen Whiteside would be bringing into the space a much more rarefied experience, informed by their shared history at the Aburi restaurant group. There would be sakes and obscure natural wines, and a menu informed not by a particular cuisine but by what local purveyors and the seasons make available at any given time. A little Japanese, a little West Coast, a lot farm-to-table.
And hey, presto! The locals (and many from far beyond) love it, because Dachi is what all neighbourhood restaurants aspire to be: a spot worthy of both destination dining and a casual drop-in.
We loved it, too. A year into the pandemic, we could almost believe, for a couple of hours, that it wasn’t happening. It all felt so normal. Dachi made the sophisticated decision to partition its tables not with plexiglass but with plants, and the normally 40-seat space has been reduced in capacity just enough to ensure safety but to retain liveliness. Aside from the masks our terrific servers (which included co-owner Whiteside) were wearing, we felt we’d been transported back to the Before Times, lazing in the low hum of positive energy that occurs when everyone in the room is happy and the kitchen is sending out many delicious things.
Speaking of which…. Our delicious things included delicate slices of barely seared beef (pictured above), attractively plated with pickled daikon, finely cubed carrot and celery, and dabs of pungent chimichurri. More rustic in presentation, but no less savagely devoured by us, were a thick slab of pork-and-duck pâté with grilled sourdough (which was properly sour) and an assortment of house-pickled vegetables; and meaty, smoky strands of Pacific octopus mingled with cilantro, watermelon radish, and salsa macha — the Mexican equivalent of chile crisp.
After stoking the evening’s glow with house cocktails (including the Just Might Work, which is built upon a foundation of peated whiskey and is, therefore, my new favourite thing), our server directed us toward an extraordinary, intensely aromatic Alsatian Gewürztraminer that tasted like the attainment of every vacation we wish we’d been able to take over the past 12 months. After polishing off the bottle, I no longer felt the sting of being so damn old.
Dachi is the sort of restaurant we need to be here right now while this clusterfuck of global events sorts itself out, and the sort of restaurant we’ll want to still be standing when it all finally blows over. Support it, and others like it, if and when you can. In a small but not insignificant way, the soul of your city depends on it.
(Photo: Kley Klemens)