Vancouver: Culinaria at The Art Institute of Vancouver

Yesterday I ate dinner next to Mila Kunis, but the best part of the night was the tartar sauce.

Let’s back up. I had agreed to go to a group dinner with some colleagues who were also in Vancouver, but at about 5 pm local time I hit a wall. I was just too work- and travel-weary to handle a big group event, so I bowed out. I headed back to my hotel room, Skyped with J, and blogged a bit. After that, I really wanted to be in bed vegging in front of some fluff TV, but I needed food. I decided to just make do with the hotel restaurant and headed down.

Fortunately (given how my night turned out), the noise level there was so high as to be completely intolerable. I turned tail just as soon as I walked in and hit the streets in an unplanned search for an alternative. Earlier in the day, I had noticed a small restaurant nearby sponsored by the culinary school at The Art Institute of Vancouver. They weren’t even half full when I approached, so after I took a look at the posted menu, I headed in.

The nicely decorated modern space was staffed by two friendly, experienced servers (a man who initially greeted me, and a woman who did most of the waiting on me). They providing a relaxed professionalism at the front of the house for the student chefs who, through a wall of glass, could be seen hard at work (and sometimes playfully joking around with each other) in the kitchen.

The restaurant offers a prix fixe three-course dinner for just $28. (I didn’t bother to bring my phone when I headed downstairs, so sadly no pics of my meal.) I had already settled on the wild local salmon for my entrée, so I asked the server to suggest a nice red wine pairing. At her recommendation, I had a glass of Cedar Creek 2009 Pinot Noir, which I really enjoyed. As the menu explains, “Our beverage program has been created around our philosophy as a Canadian-based culinary school to support local producers wherever possible. To that end, all the wines on our list are from Canadian wineries using 100% Canadian farmed grapes and almost all are from British Columbia.”

My wine was soon followed by some nice bread and herbed butter. Then, to my pleasant surprise, a chef brought out a fish-and-chips amuse-bouche. On a small plate, a little piece of deep-fried fish was served over a light, tangy tartar sauce (soooo good!) garnished with a few microgreens and two extra-thin crispy chips. The amuse-bouche tied with the salad for my favorite dish of the night. Speaking of which, for my first course I had an endive salad that featured blue cheese, pears macerated in port, and candied pecans. Really lovely, though if I’d been prepping the dish I probably would have used a bit less cheese and a bit more endive, but my plate went back to the kitchen completely empty.

My salmon main course was quite good, but I didn’t love it, maybe because it was served with some of the skin on, which isn’t really my thing. Like the salad, it was a very generous serving: a big piece of fish atop a lot of veggies plus potatoes. With dessert still to come, I gave up before I made it all the way to the end of the dish. None of the dessert options ended up really striking my fancy, so I let the server guide me to the chocolate cake and mousse with raspberry sauce, served in a glass as a sort of parfait. It wasn’t fantastic, but that didn’t stop me from finishing the entire thing.

In the end, I left completely sated, pleased at how lovely the space and service were, and charmed by the enthusiasm of the chefs.

Oh, yeah, I almost forgot: I also left with my second “Hollywood North” celebrity sighting. After a brief, unintrusive, tactful interaction between the waitstaff and the man at the table to my right while his female companion was in the washroom (yes, they say “washroom” up here), the servers eventually confirmed that said companion was in fact Mila Kunis of Black Swan, Saving Sarah Marshall, That ’70s Show, and more. No one made a fuss while Ms. Kunis was in the restaurant, but the servers had a lot of fun bantering about it with each other, me, and the chefs after the couple had left. Our good-natured interaction about the brush with fame we’d had was another tasty morsel in an unexpectedly wonderful evening.

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