Au­tostrada driven by pasta

Best Eats Gail John­son

The Georgia Straight - - Food -

Carbs may have be­come one of the most vil­lainized foods in mod­ern his­tory, but for many peo­ple there’s noth­ing more in­dul­gent and com­fort­ing than pasta: maybe served sim­ply, shells tossed with but­ter and cheese, or per­haps in a more cel­e­bra­tory dish, like lin­guine with fresh mus­sels, plump prawns, and white wine.

If there’s one thing Lu­cais Syme loves eat­ing and cook­ing, it’s pasta. Lo­cal food lovers who fol­low chefs will know his name from the many Ital­ian restau­rants he has been part of in one way or an­other since he moved to Van­cou­ver from Ed­mon­ton in 2003 to study at the Pa­cific In­sti­tute of Culi­nary Arts: Adesso Bistro (now closed), La Buca, La Quer­cia, and La Pen­tola, to name a few.

In 2014, he opened Ci­nara, an Ital­ian-in­spired eatery down­town, with his wife and fel­low chef, Gil­lian Book. For proof of just how well re­ceived this restau­rant has been, con­sider that Ta­cofino re­gional ex­ec­u­tive chef Ste­fan Hart­mann (for­merly of Bauhaus) and Don­nelly Group di­rec­tor of culi­nary de­vel­op­ment Chris Ste­wart (for­merly with Hawksworth) were both spot­ted din­ing there re­cently, and An­drea Carl­son, ex­ec­u­tive chef/ owner of Bur­dock & Co. (for­merly of Bishop’s), held a hol­i­day staff party there. When some of the top chefs in the city pick a place to dine dur­ing their rare down­time, it’s a tes­ta­ment to what’s com­ing out of the kitchen.

Whether or not Van­cou­verites rec­og­nize Syme’s name, they will want to know about his lat­est ven­ture: a ca­sual Ital­ian spot in the heart of Mount Pleas­ant.

Au­tostrada Os­te­ria takes its name from the Ital­ian word for “high­way”. Syme runs it with his busi­ness part­ner, Dustin Dock­endorf, whose ré­sumé in­cludes po­si­tions at Joey’s and the Beach House. It’s small (24 seats) and is sparsely dec­o­rated with a mu­ral of a rac­ing car (by Syme’s brother Jonathan). And it puts the spot­light on what Syme does best: sim­ple but ex­pertly ex­e­cuted share plates and pasta dishes, the kind of cui­sine that’s served with­out fan­fare all over Italy.

Syme, who also worked for a short while at Ciop­pino’s and later did a stage at the cel­e­brated Char­lie Trot­ter’s Restau­rant in Chicago, says he wants to bring a taste of un­fussy but re­li­able Ital­ian din­ing to Van­cou­ver.

“I en­joy the whole Ital­ian food phi­los­o­phy: tak­ing great in­gre­di­ents and let­ting them shine in their most per­fect state,” he tells the Straight by phone. “It’s my favourite kind of cook­ing and cui­sine: do­ing pasta that’s made well with good in­gre­di­ents but do­ing it ca­su­ally. We saw a bit of a void there in Van­cou­ver. We wanted a small, fun neigh­bour­hood place, just like an os­te­ria where peo­ple are car­ing about the in­gre­di­ents and about their cus­tomers, a kind of mom-and-pop place.”

For now, there are seven pas­tas to choose from (stuffed pas­tas such as ag­nolotti are com­ing). There’s that clas­sic ca­cio e pepe, con­sist­ing of cheese (here, Pecorino) and black pep­per, with but­ter and snail-shell-like lumache noo­dles; it’s mac ’n’ cheese for grownups. Gar­ganelli pasta is tube-shaped, like penne rigate; it’s en­livened with Pecorino, sweet fen­nel sausage, and bright peas. Rich duck-and-an­chovy ragu, mean­while, ac­com­pa­nies spaghetti. There’s risotto with ap­ples and squash, too.

High­lights among the starters in­clude whole white an­chovies on toasted fo­cac­cia with radish, pick­led cu­cum­ber, and herbed but­ter; the ap­pe­tizer is bor­rowed from Ci­nara, where it has long been a cus­tomer fave. An­other toast has del­i­cate duck liver, aged bal­samic vine­gar, and cor­ni­chons.

Vitello ton­nato—sliced veal with a thick tuna-and-ca­per sauce—can be found ev­ery­where in the Boot, from Miche­lin-starred restau­rants to non­de­script eater­ies; here in East Van, it’s best when you or­der it with a side of soft, salty fo­cac­cia.

Meat­balls in tomato sauce; a beet salad with wal­nuts, Gor­gonzola, and ap­ples; and a lo­cal-seafood Bibb let­tuce salad with pre­served lemons help round out the of­fer­ings.

Sev­eral vari­a­tions on Ne­groni (in­clud­ing a sparkling ver­sion with Pros­ecco) lead the to-the-point drinks list. Be­cause the wines will be chang­ing reg­u­larly, they are listed not by la­bel but by de­scrip­tion, in lay­man’s terms such as “aro­matic, touch of sweet” for a white and “el­e­gant, bright Pied­mon­tese” among the reds. Wines are poured straight from the bot­tle, bring­ing home that fam­ily-style feel.

Ap­pe­tiz­ers range from $5 to $17, while mains run from $18 to $21. With any luck, this lat­est ad­di­tion to the city’s list of ca­sual Ital­ian-din­ing restau­rants will not be this team’s last.

AU­TOSTRADA OS­TE­RIA 4811 Main Street; 604-428-6820. Open Wednesday to Sun­day from 5 to 10 p.m.

Chef Lu­cais Syme and wine ex­pert Dustin Dock­endorf have opened a new ca­sual Ital­ian eatery. Brit­ney Gill Photo.

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