It’s been a while since I’ve had the pleasure of fine dining, and I realize now how spoiled I was to work in a high-end restaurant. Foie gras? Meh. Truffles? Well, sure. Valrhona chocolate everything? Sigh, if you must.
I know that it must seem like I live a semi-charmed life. Fine dining, art auctions, and what I’m about to tell you – that yesterday, I attended a luncheon that cost $150-$500 a ticket – must make it seem like I’m living it up. In reality, I’m one of the volunteers in the background who’s trading her time for food. Actually, aside from the food, I really enjoy people-watching. People-watching is always interesting, but people-watching the fabulous wealthy is such a treat.
So. Yesterday’s World AIDS Day luncheon at Cioppino’s was a lot of fun. I’ve never been to Cioppino’s, but it’s well-known in Vancouver for having the best spaghetti a la vongole (that’s spaghetti with clams in white wine) in the city, and is perpetually voted “Best Formal Italian” in Vancouver. Top it off with Pino Posteraro’s recent cookbook release, his winning the Gold Medal Plates in 2007, and his being voted Best Chef by Vancouver Magazine in 2008, and I hope you understand why I was so excited to attend this event.
The kitchen’s beautiful and you can tell that it’s efficient. Pastry is outfitted with its own deck oven and 25L mixer, but the countertops are stainless steel and you can bet that kitchen gets hot. No surprise then that Cioppino’s isn’t known for its chocolate work. There’s also a garde manger with its own curing compartment, and what looked like ducks and proscuitto getting all smoky and tasty inside.
The wine list is impressive, and that’s definitely an understatement.
The first course was a mixed greens salad, which looked like your typical mesclun mix. You know you’re in for a treat when the restaurant makes an ordinary-looking salad taste extraordinary. The vinaigrette literally popped in your mouth – lemon gave it a bright tartness, but that was mellowed by undertones of parsley (the whole thing being slightly reminiscent of tabbouleh, actually) and artichokes. The dish was finished with small dabs of fresh, just-salty-enough goat’s cheese. The salad was paired with a really nice rose, which I didn’t get the name of.
The second course was three rolls of venison cannelloni, and this was no ordinary cannelloni. The venison was perfectly seasoned and perfectly cooked, and rolled in impossibly fine sheets of hand-made pasta. The cannelloni was finished with a black truffle sauce, which was everything that it should have been: meaty, aromatic and satiny-smooth.
The third, and main, course was a beef tenderloin – perfectly pink and rare, impossibly tender – on a bed of cannellini bean puree, served with sugar peas and a drizzle of beef demi-glace. ZOMG IT WAS DELICIOUS. Everything was perfect: perfectly cooked, perfectly seasoned, and perfectly complementary with everything else. It seems so obvious, but that’s really the key to beautiful food – taking the time to make sure that everything, no matter how simple it seems, is perfectly done. It’s much harder than it sounds, and that’s why you pay so much for food like this.
The cannelloni and the beef were both paired with the house red, which is made especially for the restaurant. It’s a 2002 vintage of a mixture of grapes I didn’t recognize. This is no ordinary house red: it’s full-bodied, smells like smoke and cherries, and tastes like blackberries. There’s no tannic pucker, and it paired oh-so-nicely with the meat dishes.
Finally, dessert. I’m notoriously picky with restaurant desserts, and maybe even more so with high-end restaurants. Dessert was a dumpling of milk custard in filo pastry, flash-fried and dusted with icing sugar. The crispy, flaky outside (not at all greasy) provided the perfect contrast to the warm, sweet, creamy filling. It was served with a small scoop of homemade honey ice cream, perfectly creamy and smooth – and the ice cream sat on a tiny vanilla wafer (made of cigarette paste, for all you professionals out there). The plate was garnished with a streak of strawberry puree.
So yes, I loved dessert. I loved it so much that I finished my plate and had someone else’s for good measure. I even had room to try the sorbet plate that the girl next to me (lactose intolerant) got. She had two scoops of sorbet (raspberry and mango) that tasted exactly how fruit sorbets are supposed to taste: like fruit, and nothing else. Like the honey ice cream, they were just sweet enough, and perfectly smooth.
So, what can I say? Cioppino’s reputation is well-deserved. The food is amazing, the service is excellent, and I ate two desserts! I mean, seriously.
Cioppino’s Mediterranean Grill
1133 Hamilton Street