It’s time Vancouver gets added to the list of must visit food cities—and one restaurant to the Vancouver best restaurant lists. There’s a one-word reason for both: L’Abattoir. Technically that might be two words since in French it translates as “the slaughterhouse,” but don’t worry, it’s nothing of the kind.
The latest gem in the increasingly competitive Vancouver restaurant scene, L’Abattoir, located smack in the midst of the vibrant street scene known as the Gaslamp district, deserves its tweet time. Sure, go the easy route and call it one of those “best Vancouver restaurants” people chatter about. But dig deeper and you’ll discover this is one serious Gaslamp district restaurant fronted by a trio of gentlemen with Top Chef-esque résumés.
General Manager Paul Grunberg warmed up in the same role at Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Market restaurant in Vancouver’s Shangri-La Hotel; and ditto for sous chef Lee Cooper, who worked as sous chef at Vongerichten’s Market restaurant and cooked for a year at Fat Duck in England, under the highly decorated culinary sorcerer Hester Blumenthal.
The combined eclecticism of their backgrounds is on display the moment you enter L’Abattoir. Sure it’s the uptown bistro feel, but isn’t it refreshing to see it given a slightly futuristic spin? Yes, there is plenty of exposed brick, though it pops thanks to a funky take on the familiar black and white tile scheme. Throw in a loft dining area, some rough-hewn wood, a tangled mass of sculpture and an expansive atrium and you’re satisfied visually, but not distracted. That means there’s all the more room to enjoy Cooper and bar manager Shaun Layton’s collective razzle dazzle.
Dazzle they do, right at the top with an innovative cocktail program. Start with a Clover Club Refashioned, a fizzy concoction of gin, fresh raspberries, sweet vermouth, mint and fresh lemon, while you peruse the menu.
The food is best classified as contemporary and creative, bistro inspired with a shout out to the scenesters who troll the streets outside. Missing in action are the token stabs at what sadly passes for bistro fare these days: a designer-blended beef burger with steak fries, or a gooey pasta flecked with foraged mushrooms, for instance. In their place are adventurous riffs on classics along with inspired inventions that hit more than they do miss.
Some dishes can be overdressed as evidenced by a salad of raw and cooked vegetables. It’s hard to see exactly what’s going on underneath the wild greens studded with parmesan crumbs. But that’s probably just the point—and quickly forgiven once my table digs into the dish. There’s a juxtaposition of textures as well as flavors. One bite yields a flavor-forward radish, another a more mellow carrot. Pair it all with the brown butter cream sauce that rims the dish and you’ve got a winner.
Another starter that finds universal table approval is the dungeness crab. Here tiny crab cakes get teased with pickled carrots and light custard before being set on chickpea toast, which provides a just-right rustic touch. A vegetarian has an “I’m coming back for this” moment with the poached egg with summer truffles and asparagus in a pecorino fondue.
It’s hard to find a misstep here. We tried. Forget heavy, cumbersome and cloying. It’s food that’s real, well proportioned and for the most part surprisingly healthy. One bite and you simply want to guard your dish lest a stray fork of a dining companion make its way over into your personal space. (As was the case more often than not at my table.)
A main of gnocchi, a dish that often takes a left turn at the hands of over ambitious chefs or the simply inexperienced, gets a rave. The gnocchi come out perfectly pillowed and are interspersed with delectable bites of grilled artichoke hearts. Wild pacific salmon is melt-in-your-mouth-good. It sits on top of sweet pea compote, a relatively mild presentation when compared to the leg of lamb. No hefty leg of lamb with a side of rosemary-roasted potatoes here. Cooper chooses instead to serve the leg cut into medallions, and then dusts it with intoxicating Indian spices. Other selections worth a mention include the rabbit cannelloni, given a twist with mushrooms and a delicate lace of bacon.
Wines, in concert with the food, are out of the ordinary. It’s not an extensive wine list, but more than serviceable. Any place bold enough to suggest a local Riesling for starters, it might be said, immediately gets points and boosts one’s confidence when asking for pairing recommendations.
A chocolate tart for dessert is pretty to look at, but quickly turns into a molten puddle. Better to go in the same direction as the menu concept—a little bit of the classic with a dash of the unexpected. An earl grey pot de crème with a lemon shortbread cookie and whipped milk is a perfect example.
In fact, it’s a reflection of the general message that Cooper seems to want to express: I’m not afraid to take chances; you shouldn’t be either. This is one chance you’ll want to take again and again.
Photo credits: Lee Cooper and Shaun Layton: Glasford & Walker. Interior: Bruce Edward Starham.
Food: Laura Layshon.