Blogger Lunch Meet at Nightingale
It was a special moment for 6 of us, some of the most active food bloggers in the city, who are very different individuals from each other, with different personalities, life experiences and writing styles, sitting at the same table, and sharing the excitement of being at probably the most anticipated Vancouver restaurant of 2016, Nightingale. We were brought together by one common interest, the passion for food and food writing, and we were eager to share this experience with our audience.
Nightingale is the latest establishment by Chef David Hawksworth, the man behind the critically acclaimed Hawksworth. The 2-level restaurant took over the old club house of the historical Marine Building, a piece of the most significant architectural heritage of Vancouver that I always love and proudly tell people where I used to work at.
The Dining Room
The interiors were just as majestic, with a super high and artistically designed ceiling, supported by tiled pillars and decorative walls filled with lively sculptures of flying birds. And every single diner who walks in here simply cannot ignore the stunning design of the magnificent bar, which has a towering display of bottles and bottles of spirits in vibrant colours. With the decorative birdcages and more of those “flying birds” on top of the super tall liquor cabinets, I felt like being in middle of the wizarding library at Hogwart’s looking for my special magic potion. Overall, the mix of chic and rustic makes the place exquisitely elegant and comfortable.
We were here for lunch. Looking at their menu, which was the only menu for both lunch and dinner, I was fascinated by the big shift from the Michelin style fine dining at the chef’s namesake restaurant to much more casual approach here, with mainly modern Mediterranean cuisine prepared with local ingredients and touches of pan pacific influences. The menu was of French bistro style with sections of Raw, Vegetables, Pizza, Small Plates, Large Plates, and Dessert. But there are a lot of dishes, almost a little too overwhelming for the first-time visitors to the restaurant.
First came the Beef Heart Tartare ($13), and it surprised me with its presentation. The finely shaved cured egg yolk is a very commonly used trick in Taiwanese or Cantonese cooking, besides adding flavours, making the dish look like being covered with luxury gold flakes. Here on this plate, the grilled bread, the green kale pistou, and beef heart tartatre were layering on one and another, and covered in both shaved yolk and white. While the shaved yolk worked, the additional egg white kind of saturates the golden colour. And long with the very odd shape of the bread pieces, it was all too rustic for me to find it attractive. Taste wise, the tartare was smooth, luscious and flavourful. The horse radish worked well to brighten the flavour while the kale pistou was subtle and adding that refreshing fresh herb quality to the dish.
The Braised tripe ($15) was cooked with chorizo in a bright San Marzano tomato sauce, and served with grilled bread with kale pistou. The grilled bread is the same with the one in the beef tartare dish and it is making those 2 dishes look very similar. It just felt like little bit of an afterthought to put the pistou on the toast just to add more to a dish. Some regular crunchy toast would just do fine with that delicious tripe, which was braised to very tender but still had a tiny bit of that snappy tripe texture. The tomato sauce was less acidic than I expected as it was complemented with a good amount of sweet and savoury flavours.
The Pacific Octopus ($19) was definitely a winner for a texture guy like me. First of all, it had to be a fairly sizeable octopus to produce those big mouthful chunks of meaty ocean goodness. And the octopus was slow cooked to a perfect balance of tenderness and chewiness, with a slightly smoky and crispy exterior from the quick grill before serving. And the different flavours from salty blistered caper, refreshing parsley, spicy fermented chili, and vinegar, all helped tremendously but none overpowering, proving how fresh and tasty that octopus is. I definitely recommend this dish.
The Over Roasted Cauliflower ($12) was praised almost unanimously. The cauliflower florets were charred and caramelized, tasting both nutty and sweet, and also had a soft but succulent texture. The nuttiness and the texture were further enhanced by the toasted sunflower seeds, while the green harissa added a kick of spicy to the flavours. It was definitely a great choice for comfort food without the guilt.
The Spicy Spianata Salumi Pizza ($17), with piquillo pepper, san marzano and fior di latte on top, was another rustically presented dish, and a nice glimpse of their fairly large pizza selection on the menu (10 pizzas!). Although there was less of the presence of the spicy Spinata salumi than I expected, the flavours of the tomato sauce with the melted cheese was excellent. When I bite into the crust, I can certainly appreciate the taste and texture of a great pie dough produced inside a wood fired oven .
For large plates, we picked the Casarecce ($26), a pasta dish with braised rabbit, rapini and a white wine sauce. It was a less memorable dish than others. Visually it resembled mac and cheese but with greens in it. The noodles were well made and perfectly al dente, but the very lean rabbit meat that has a quality close to chicken breast, I felt a creamier or a more liquidy sauce would bind the components together a little better.
The Grilled Pork Belly ($24) was nothing like what I expected. The pork belly was grilled, although still meaty and juicy, definitely not as soft and tender as the slow braised one often found at other places. With a sweeter seasoning, I would say it almost had a BBQ pork cheek quality that I found at a Cantonese restaurant. This is probably why it was served thinly sliced or it would be a little too chewy. The thinly sliced nectarine, along with white vinegar, added some freshness and acidity, giving the dish a ‘sweet and sour’ quality to the dish. And it was nice to have the pistachio as the final savoury touch. I found this this dish rather unique and playful – a great example of a brilliant dish with fewer components.
There were barely any hard decisions on desserts among us because we just ordered all 6 of them on the menu. That’s easy…
The first dessert came and was an instant hit among us. The Strawberry Shortcake Ice Cream Sandwich ($12) was whimsical and flavourful, with small chunks of real strawberries rendered inside the house made ice-cream, complemented with that buttery shortcake crust, not overly sweet but truly satisfying.
I adored the Hazelnut Financier ($12) just as much, constructed with soft praline and whipped espresso crème, served with more than a handful of candied hazelnuts on the side. It might look very different from a traditional financier, but it carries the lightness and the nuttiness of the original.
Next came a slice of the Meyer Lemon Tart ($12), served with raspberry compose, almond wafer, and whipped cream. The tangy citrusy flavour really shined through the light sweetness of other components. I really enjoyed the flavours but wished the filling had been a little softer and creamier.
The next trio of desserts all came in a mason jar. The Yogurt Panna Cotta ($12), was very smooth in the contrast of the crunchiness of the complimentary pistachio and pine nut biscotti. And the grapefruit marmalade on top of the panna cotta was quite tasty as I always like any grapefruit flavoured drinks or desserts. The Lime Crème with Strawberry and Vanilla ($12) tasted balanced, but since it had a similar flavour profile with the panna cotta and the lemon tart, it was less desirable for me because of the less memorable texture. The Salted caramel pot de crème ($12), was a little creamier in texture than the lime creme, and salt was used to offset the sweetness which was rather successful, making it a winner of the trio for me.
Like our last brunch meet-up, Food Wench from Drunken Noms and I both got a Bloody Caesar ($13.50). It was good but didn’t taste extraordinary for that price. She also got another classic cocktail, The Old Pal ($13), a mix of American rye, dry Vermouth, and Campari. The price of the cocktails here definitely on par with their sister bars at Hawksworth and Hotel Georgia. I would rather be interested trying their new cocktails than the classic ones next time.
We also had a chance to visit the mezzanine level of the dining area, which we discovered more flying birds on the wall. Since the ceiling was a lot lower here, it felt a lot cozier and more intimate sitting up here. We also found the enormous wood burning oven where they fired up their pizza orders.
From Hawksworth to Nightingale
As Hawksworth has become one of the most successful fine dining restaurants in the nation well representing Vancouver in recent years , it is a name that the locals are proud to recommend to their visiting family or friends. However, my most recent visit there, although having impressed my visitor with the impeccable quality of ingredients and service, didn’t seem as mind-blowing as expected. There were many components and flavours on almost every a la carte dish, almost too many, and it felt like walking the fine line between sophistication and over complication. But those were the same dishes that had won the restaurant many praises and accolades. What happened?
And here is my thought…
At a fine dining restaurant, every single dish is expected to be perfect or at least close to perfect, with all the components on the plate has to be impeccable – the looks, the flavours, and the texture. For this level of culinary experience, maybe a tasting menu dinner would be a much better choice. A carefully designed tasting menu allows the focus on only a certain number of dishes, which are relatively simpler and served in certain progression, providing a more cohesive dining experience and telling a much better story on the table. Going back to those main dishes that did not wow me at Hawksworth, the number of components were making it a lot more difficult to execute and produce consistent result. A great chef can only spend so much R&D time in the kitchen fine-tuning a brilliant creation, but the key of success is to deliver this dish perfectly every single time.
Compared to Hawksworth, here at Nightingale the food is much simpler, served in a more casual and unpretentious fashion, but still up to the high standards such as using locally sourced ingredients with great quality, and utilizing the chef’s classic techniques and constant innovations. And this would make the restaurant appealing to a much wider range of customers. This has become the trend of the restaurant scene in Vancouver.
It was an excellent treat at Chef Hawksworth’s latest eatery. Sitting inside such a visually stunning dining room but with such casual atmosphere was already quite refreshing. The food was rather solid with a few amazing dishes such as the Pacific Octopus, the Oven Roasted Cauliflower and the Grilled Pork Belly. And that Strawberry Shortcake Ice Cream Sandwich was quite remarkable as well. Although it was fun to eat and hang out with 5 other people, it would be a much better dining experience if there were only 4 of us sharing all the dishes. The whole menu could use some slimming down but I guess it’s good for them test out all the ideas at the beginning. I am looking forward to coming back here and trying the other dishes and the original cocktails.