With some planning and scheduling way in advance Taylor and I managed to book some time off in our busy schedules to spend a weekend together in Vancouver. And by spending a weekend together I mean seeing how many restaurants we could fit into those few days. Inspired by our 48 Hours in Seattle post we wanted to do a 48 Hours in Vancouver post which would include some infamous Vancouver institutions as well as some up-and-coming hot spots.
For our first night in Vancouver we focused on the Gastown neighborhood. This trendy and historical neighborhood, just minutes from Vancouver’s downtown core, is the ultimate foodie destination with loads of restaurants, cafes, bars and pubs.
Salt Tasting Room
Located down the ominous sounding Blood Alley, Salt Tasting Room is a small haven for charcuterie, cheese, and wine lovers. For this visit, we decided to share a tasting plate, consisting of a mix of 3 meats/cheeses, plus 3 paired condiments as well as crostini and bread for $16. You can choose your meats and cheeses off their ever-changing menu posted on the wall, or you can entrust your server to choose and pair for you. We spotted a truffle salami on the board that we knew we needed to have, but allowed our server to choose everything else and to also choose our wine pairings.
Our cheese was the Le Noble, a creamy brie-style cheese paired with local honey. The truffle salami was paired with a fig jam, and the last item was a bresaola paired with a spicy pear mostarda. All the items were clearly high quality and well-made, and each condiment pairing went really well with each meat or cheese item. However, the portions of each seemed really small when considering the whole tray was $16. The real value comes with a wine flight pairing, selected specifically to pair with each item on your tasting plate. You get 3 2oz. wine pours for $15. We would definitely still come back here many more times, it’s a unique spot to bring dates or out of town guests for that special back alley Vancouver experience 😉
Nicli’s Next Door
We first heard about Nicli’s Next Door through instagram, where we have spent months lusting after the amazing-looking plates of homemade pasta that are a specialty of this place. As an added bonus, Nicli’s Next Door was participating in Dine Out Vancouver, making it that much more affordable to try out for the first time. Janine ordered off the regular menu, while Taylor ordered off the Dine Out menu, so we could get a good picture of the kind of food this place produces.
We started out with two appy’s, the North Arm Farm Beets with mascarpone and hazlenut vinaigrette, and the Foie Gras torchon with red fife brioche, green apple, quince, and crushed pistachio. The beets were nicely roasted, and the mascarpone had a hint of tartness and a fluffy, whipped texture. The toasted chopped hazelnut on top added a great depth of flavour and crunchy texture. The dish was overall really flavourful and well-balanced.
The foie gras was……..heaven on a plate. As each of us took our first bites, we just sat back in our chairs and had a moment of euphoria. The foie was rich and velvety, without that gamey flavour that some foie can have. The buttery brioche was the perfect vehicle for the foie, and the apple added a much-needed acidic tartness to balance out the richness of the other ingredients.
For our main dishes, Janine ordered the gnocchi with a San Marzano pomodoro sauce, fresh basil, and mozzarella di bufala, while Taylor ordered the conchiglie with smoked pork ragu, San Marzano pomodoro, and parmigiano. The gnocchi was a perfectly-executed, good quality dish. There was something special about the simplicity of the dish, proving that it doesn’t take complicated ingredients and recipes to make something taste amazing.
The conchiglie had that texture of a perfectly cooked homemade pasta, with that el dente chewiness you just can’t replicate with storebought pasta. There wasn’t a ton of sauce on the pasta, and yet we were really impressed by how much of the flavour was soaked up by the pasta. The pork ragu had been smoked slowly enough to give it that melt-in-your-mouth, pull-apart texture.
This restaurant overall has really great value for the money you spend. We found by the end of our meal that we could have just as easily ordered an appy each and shared one pasta dish, and walked away completely full. The portions are generous, and the quality of the food is really high, making it totally worth the price.
After dinner at Nicli’s, we asked our server for her recommendations for a good spot to go for a drink. She immediately recommended The Diamond, a well-known craft cocktail bar in Gastown. It was packed that Friday night, but after about a 25 minute wait we were able to grab a table. The menu features everything from traditional cocktails to more modern or experimental creations, bringing unexpected flavours to the drinks they make.
The drink that really stood out for Janine was The Athenian ($11), made with olive oil-washed gin, rosemary, roasted pine nut, and french vermouth. The roasted pine nut was a very surprising flavour, and definitely stood out against the other ingredients. It added a rich, buttery flavour to the cocktail, making it one of the more unique cocktails Janine has ever had.
The atmosphere is pretty loud, so anticipate yelling the whole time to the people you’re with. Nonetheless, this spot has a young and fun vibe for Vancouverites to get good-quality cocktails. The prices are steep for the drinks, averaging around $12+ per cocktail. However, this seems to be standard for the new gentrified hot spots around the city, so if you’re headed that way be prepared to spend some cash.
After years of hearing about this place non-stop for years, Taylor finally insisted we go here to check out all the fuss surrounding Medina Cafe. But it’s not just all the chatter; the 1 hour lineup on a rainy January morning speaks volumes about how popular this downtown hot spot is. We started with the most popular item, the freshly baked Belgian liege-style waffles ($3.15 each), which can be accompanied with a wide variety of gourmet toppings ($1-$2 each). We opted for the milk chocolate lavender, salted caramel, raspberry caramel, and Ernest cardamom ice cream. With the toppings, it really comes down to personal preference; they are all of an amazing quality, and each of us gravitated towards a different favourite.
For the mains, Taylor ordered the Fricasse Champignon ($15) and Janine ordered the Harissa “Burger” ($17), while our other friend Mike ordered the Wolves Breakfast ($16). The Fricasse Champignon was a hash-style skillet, with two fried eggs, sherry-roasted mushroom ragout, spice-roasted potatoes, caramelized onions, applewood smoked cheddar, and seasonal greens with grilled focaccia. The flavours were mild and not overpowering, more of a wholesome comfort-food dish with natural simplicity.
The Harissa “Burger” had two fried eggs, preserved lemon and harissa-spiced beef in a grilled pita, with parmesan, tomato salsa, spiced hummous, baba ganoush, and seasonal greens. The whole dish had good flavours, but didn’t really stand out from the other dishes we’ve had here before. Compared to the other things Janine has tried, there are probably more exciting options to order next time, but Medina still gets an A+ for creativity. You definitely won’t find the standard fare of eggs benedict or omelettes here.
The Wolf’s Breakfast came served on a wooden board, and basically consisted of house-made charcuterie and other treats. It includes in-house cured peameal bacon, double-smoked medina bacon, andouille sausage, and merguez sausage. It comes with sides of pickled veg and house-made hummous, and you can round out this protein-fest with a fried egg on the side ($2). This is definitely the breakfast for gym rats, carnivores, and paleo eaters (I’m looking at you, Felix). The star of this protein party was the double-smoked medina bacon, which was thick-cut, and slightly sweet to offset the heavy smokiness. We all loved the idea of this dish, and would definitely order it the next time we go.
We love that this place goes above and beyond the typical breakfast joint, bringing in French, Mediterranean, and Moroccan flavours to the dishes they create. Their ability to think beyond the ordinary is what will keep us coming back time and time again.
After walking all over downtown to burn off our gigantic breakfasts, we decided to stop in to Bella Gelateria, having heard that they were participating in a hot chocolate festival taking place all over Vancouver. Local coffee shops, chocolate stores, and gelato counters were participating in this 4 week festival, showcasing each establishment’s creative twist on a classic hot chocolate.
Janine tried out the Bx3 (banana bread and booze), while Taylor decided to take a leap and try the Black Magic. The Bx3 had caramelized organic bananas, grand marnier, with creme de banane, white rum, and nutmeg, served with a slice of house-made banana bread. It wasn’t as sweet as Janine thought it would be (in a good way), and the banana flavour really came through. One could describe this hot chocolate as a big ol’ cup of love.
The Black Magic was made with organic black sesame seeds turned into a paste in the gelato lab, then added to 63% dark chocolate with hints of honey, berry, and vanilla notes. It was topped with fresh matcha whipped cream, roasted black sesame seeds, and served with black sesame biscotti. This also wasn’t as sweet as expected, and definitely wasn’t too overpowering with the black sesame flavour. Instead, this hot chocolate was subtle and complex, bringing in hints of unexpected flavours that paired well with the richness of the chocolate.
Another participant of Dine Out Vancouver, Hawksworth offered a 6-course, family-style Italian dinner, aka “Hawksworth’s Side Dishes Alla Famiglia”, for $67 per person. This was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up, especially since the average main dish at Hawksworth usually runs at least $42 and up. Since neither of us had ever been there before, it was a great way to test the waters at what some consider to be the best restaurant in Vancouver without totally breaking the bank.
We arrived maybe 2 minutes late, and were surprised to find out that the event had been oversold, leaving no space for the two of us to sit together. Another young couple found themselves in the same boat, but the staff very quickly worked to find a solution, offering the four of us a prime spot in the downstairs lounge area, where they’d serve us the same menu. To be honest, it wasn’t much of an inconvenience, as we saw that the upstairs event room was full of middle-aged (and older) couples, so we were somewhat relieved to meet some new people in the same age bracket to enjoy our meal with. The hosts were excellent at making sure we thoroughly enjoyed our night, making sure we didn’t feel like we were excluded or missing out on any part of the main event. Jozef deserves a special shout out for offering the highest-quality service that one would hope to expect from a place like Hawksworth.
The meal started with two appetizer dishes, a seared albacore belly with guajillo, avocado, sesame, and thai basil, and a winter radish and citrus salad, with almond, chili, and mint. Each dish was well-composed; the albacore was impeccably cooked with a nice sear on the outside while still tender and rare on the inside. The citrus and radish salad offered a freshness to cut the meatiness of the tuna, and presented beautifully with a ton of bright colour.
The main dishes included dandelion cavatelli with veal shoulder, black trumpet mushrooms, and grana padano, grilled sturgeon with radicchio, bagna cauda, and crispy onion, and salt-roasted beets with sumac yogurt, oats and dill.
The dandelion cavatelli was ridiculous. The pasta was perfectly cooked with that right amount of el dente chew, the sauce was heavenly and creamy, and the veal added a tender meaty dimension. The sturgeon was also cooked exactly right, and the radicchio added a much-needed bitterness to complement the richness of the fish. By far our favourite of the night was the beets, which were well-balanced between the sweetness of the beets, the tartness of the yogurt, and the toasty depth of the oats, which also added an interesting texture to each bite. Plus you really can’t go wrong throwing dill into that mix.
Dessert was a caramel pot de creme with whipped creme fraiche. Overall, this was a good dessert; however the meal was just too heavy to be finished off with something rich and decadent. It was also a bit one-noted, and could have used an element of tartness to cut through the richness. Something grapefruit-based would’ve been perfect.
As a sidenote, while all the wines paired with the dinner, including the sparkling wine at the beginning, were excellent, Janine did order a gin martini that was a bit of a let down. She ordered it dirty, but it didn’t taste like they made it with any olive brine. Additionally, for such a high-end place located in an area saturated with great local distilleries, it was surprising to find that the bar only offered the run of the mill gins you could find anywhere. They also used olives with pits in them, making it slightly awkward to eat while still looking attractive in a swanky bar such as this. But, at the end of the day, if all we can fault Hawksworth on is one mediocre gin martini, then I’d say we’ve come away winning on all sides.
Because this was such an amazing deal, and because the service and quality of the food really blew us away, we would definitely come back here again, and would easily recommend it to friends and family visiting or living in Vancouver.
Apparently it’s shocking to some people that a person can live 27 years and never have tried Xiao Long Bao. And apparently when you confess this truth, you get dragged to the nearest place in Richmond, BC that makes a decent soup dumpling. Shanghai River is a well-known Chinese restaurant in Richmond, offering excellent hand-made noodles and soup dumplings, among other delicacies. As you enter, you can actually see the cooks hard at work making the noodles through the open kitchen.
We essentially ordered a bit of everything, including jellyfish, xiao long bao, handmade noodles with pork, shrimp and chive dumplings, spicy fried chicken, and crab claw and shrimp balls. Our favourites were the soup dumplings, which necessitated a lesson in how to eat them from our (other) friend Mike. Stuffed with high-quality pork and rich broth, these dumplings were surprisingly fresh tasting with a hit of ginger in the filling. As a first-timer, Taylor would easily come back again to crush an order of these dumplings to herself.
We finished our brunch with just enough time to get over to the bus depot for Taylor to head home. This 48 hour trip definitely established that although we hit a ton of must-see restaurants, we have so many more to check out around Vancouver. But don’t worry, we’re already working on a list for the next 48 hours!