Restau­rant of the year

Vancouver Magazine - - Restaurant Awards -

St. Lawrence 269 Pow­ell St., st­lawrencer­estau­

“My fam­ily never went to restau­rants when Iwas grow­ing up,” re­calls JC Poirier as he leans for­ward over a rare empty ta­ble at this year’s Restau­rant of the Year. He points back at the kitchen, al­ready in full ca­coph­ony five hours be­fore open­ing, and says, “But we’re mak­ing the type of food here that I loved eat­ing at home when I was akid.” The chef speaks with the heavy ac­cent of his Québé­cois up­bring­ing, and it’s al­ways a bit of a jolt to re­al­ize that some­one who is so much a part of this city’s culi­nary fab­ric—in ad­di­tion to St. Lawrence, he is also an owner of Ask for Luigi, Pour­house, Pizze­ria Fa­rina and, re­cently, Di Beppe—ar­rived in this town only 14 years ago with­out speak­ing a lick of English. He worked along­side Rob Fee­nie and fel­low Que­be­cer Marc-An­dre Cho­quette at the leg­endary Lu­mière, where, build­ing on the lessons he learned un­der Nor­mand Laprise at Mon­treal’s To­qué!, he be­gan the task of fig­ur­ing out how to trans­late his youth­ful love of cook­ing into a tan­gi­ble tal­ent.

If Poirier were in­ter­ested in build­ing a cre­ation myth, he would wax about his long-held dream to one day open a restau­rant that was an ode to the food of his child­hood, but, re­ally, if he has any trait that ri­vals his cook­ing skills, it’s his mat­ter-of-fact prag­ma­tism. He learned the hard way—with the clo­sure adecade ago of his first ven­ture, South Granville’s much-loved but un­der-pa­tron­ized Chow—that the num­ber-one job of the chef/owner is to cook not for your­self but for the cus­tomer. So, a few years back when he got into au­then­tic pizza, he fig­ured out how to chan­nel that pas­sion into a com­mer­cial for­mat, and that mor­phed into the lo-fi (and low-risk) Pizze­ria Fa­rina. Its huge suc­cess moved him to mould his pas­sion for Ital­ian food into Ask for Luigi (and lest any­one think he’s more acon­cept guy, he worked the cramped line at AFL for the first two years). But it was clear from its open­ing last sum­mer that St. Lawrence was some­thing on a whole other plane. Sure, the space had to be right (it’s close to AFL, the rents are rea­son­able, it can ac­com­mo­date enough din­ers to be fea­si­ble), but once he ze­roed in on an idea that moved him—the con­flu­ence of clas­si­cal French and Québé­cois cui­sine—it was off to the races: “It was the eas­i­est menu I’ve ever writ­ten,” he con­fides about the first time he put pen to pa­per to imag­ine what St. Lawrence would be­come.

The re­sult is the in­ter­sec­tion of a chef at the top of his pow­ers with an owner who knows ex­actly how far his cus­tomers are will­ing to go with him. In this case, it’s the for­mer Big Lou’s spot on a tough sec­tion of Pow­ell, trans­formed by Craig Stanghetta into a cozy space that seems si­mul­ta­ne­ously luxe and un­der­stated. “I want it to look like it’s al­ways been there” was Poirier’s di­rec­tive, and as you walk through the door you re­cede into a space that es­chews our city’s re­lent­less fo­cus on the out­doors and en­velops you in some old-world charm.

But that charm of­fen­sive is just be­gin­ning. “I can’t re­call the last time I’ve seen amenu with such flow,” mar­velled one Restau­rant Awards judge, and( with only a hint of hy­per­bole) the dishes do play off each other like a sym­phony: the clas­sics (a mas­ter class of a steak tartare, a beau­ti­ful mound of puff pas­try hid­ing wild mush­rooms in Mor­nay sauce, a clas­sic meat pie first el­e­vated with veni­son and then grounded with a play­ful Habs flag planted in the mid­dle) give way to the fan­tas­tic (a savoury Paris–Brest that subs sweet cream out for foiegras mousse, as­tan­dard quenelle but made with fish and paired with mussels), which give way to a wine list that’s clas­si­cal in its Gal­lic­ness but play­ful within those con­fines—nat­u­ral Vou­vrays, mag­nums of Bour­gueil scat­tered among the Ch­ablis and Bordeaux. And the al­le­gro rice pud­ding is sim­ply the best this town has ever seen.

“This is the sort of restau­rant Van­cou­verites used to have to travel for,” was the com­ment of one judge.

Lit­tle of it seems to faze Poirier. He still ap­pears to sweat the busi­ness side: a com­ment that the restau­rant is con­stantly full is met with an im­me­di­ate and re­flex­ive recita­tion of times when there are spare seats (ed. note: Tues­days at 9:30). He’s still hap­pi­est when he’s on the line, fo­cused on the daily ter­rine, obliv­i­ous of the overnight suc­cess of St. Lawrence, 15 years in the mak­ing.

Bal­anc­ing Act Chef Alex Chen in his el­e­ment: em­ploy­ing pre­ci­sion and cre­ativ­ity in equal mea­sure.

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