I cannot really find fault with anything about my recent meal at Ancora Ambleside, the newest instalment in a string of restaurants and food businesses to open in the 1300 Block of Marine Drive at the high-end Grosvenor building. I visited Ancora on an early weeknight with my friend Gil for a menu sampling; both of us were already familiar with the restaurant’s parent business, a Vancouver room of the same name situated in the old C Restaurant space at the foot of Howe Street on the seaside pathway.
The West Vancouver Ancora is situated at ground level on Bellevue Avenue, where the park access roadway seems to be under interminable construction. The restaurant has a wrap-around patio and boasts a distant ocean view from the window tables. The design of the space is elegant and modern, with an imposing glass wine cellar at the entrance, a long central dining room with both booth and stand-alone tables, a bustling open kitchen with bar-style seating, striking light fixtures, massive windows, concrete columns, and a high, ornate ceiling.
Service throughout our meal was professional and personable. The menu featured an exciting confluence of Japanese and Peruvian influences, reminding me at times of the ground-breaking work of Nobuyuki Matsuhisa, whose eponymous Nobu restaurants in the U.S. still set the bar for Peruvian Japanese fine dining, and whose Matsuhisa Restaurant in Los Angeles I had the pleasure of visiting once for a mind-blowing 16-course omakase meal during which I was brought a beer by the famed chef himself.
Everything we tried from the Ancora menu was impeccably prepared and creative to the point where my one quibble – that a dinner special of Branzino (herb-stuffed, whole-cooked fish) came with no sides and required a $14 add-on of truffled mashed potatoes – seems trifling.
Then again, perhaps that one trifling complaint is indicative of a bigger challenge that has nagged at me since my meal. You see, in addition to sharing a finely honed Nikkei* culinary approach with the Matsuhisa empire, Ancora also shares another notable attribute: a very hefty price tag. The truth is, I have concluded that as a matter of course I simply would not be able to afford my meal at Ancora again. That Branzino, moist and fragrant, cooked with Nikkei spices and filleted tableside, was already $38. Add $14 for the side of starch and it was a $52 fish dish. My main, a stunning combination of seared scallops and pork belly with squid ink tagliatelle and pork crackling, was $40.
Now look, the easy counterargument here is that one could choose lower priced items from the menu (there were a handful), or maybe proceed straight to mains, skip cocktails and dessert, order a couple glasses of wine rather than a bottle, and one would end up with a less daunting bill at the end of the meal.
Gil could have chosen charred broccoli for $9 instead of mashed potatoes. That may well be the way to do it. From the perspective of this reviewer, however, a restaurant like Ancora specializes in a certain type of nuanced, multi-layered dining experience, one that begins with the practiced greeting of the host, picks up steam as the guest takes in the décor, finds momentum through a clever aperitif to whet the palate as the guest listens to a seasoned server describe the night’s specials, then knocks it out of the park with a thoughtful sampling of the menu. Hell, the menu is even laid out this way: oysters and caviar are described on the left panel, the extensive raw bar offerings appear in the middle section, appetizers occupy the top right panel, and mains and add-on sides round out the rest.
A cocktail list and a dessert menu bookend the selection process, while a wine list sits confidently on the table throughout, strategically placed between the lovely, bulbous stemware with which each table is pre-set.
I know how this works. I used to do this for a living and my friend Gil still does. If I train my eyes properly I can actually perceive a bold line that begins on the cocktail menu and terminates on the dessert wine list, weaving a path through the dining wilderness like a highlighted map.
Not being one to ignore such familiar cues, I followed that line and began the meal with a wasabi-infused Margherita ($17) served in a black sesame and salt-rimmed glass. Gil followed suit with a Pisco Sour ($15). We ordered a dozen oysters ($54!) – six delicate, buttery Kusshi and six meatier, more metallic and mineral-forward Chef’s Creek – along with a glass each of crisp and bracing New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc ($14.50 per glass). The oysters were pristinely fresh and accompanied by lemon, grated horseradish and a basic mignonette.
From the raw bar menu, which is replete with tempting creations from sashimi and ceviche to signature Peruvian causas (elegant little towers of fresh ingredients bound together by potato) we chose two pieces each of ultra-fresh local uni (sea urchin roe), served simply as nigiri, which is to say perched atop a round of rice and nori ($5 each). The urchin was glorious, lushly creamy and bursting with briny ocean goodness as it disintegrated on the tongue.
Gil and I shared an appetizer of Shrimp and Nova Scotia Lobster Risotto, recommended highly by our server, and thoroughly enjoyed the richness of the preserved lemon and thyme-lifted rice and the unusual addition of toasted hazelnuts, as well, of course, as the succulent medallions of lobster. I would not describe this as a particularly generous dish, but at $24 it was reasonable value for the two of us.
Our server applauded us for our sensible wine choice, remarking on the exceptional quality-to-price proposition of our $66 bottle of Meyer Pinot Noir (definitely among the lower priced bottles on the menu), a B.C. gem of a pinot, which I selected as a suitably weighted red to pair with my aforementioned scallop and pork belly dish, which was, it must be said, extraordinary. Gil had a bite of my squid ink tagliatelle and lamented not having a portion of that alongside his naked fish, while I was taken by the exceptional balance of the plate, which also included two impressive wedges of earthy matsutake mushroom and a delicious Hong Kong influenced XO sauce.
Dessert and a glass each of dessert wine followed. A plate of Spiced Picarone (puffy, chewy balls of fried dough, $12) were outstanding, dripping with spice-laden syrup and melting ice cream of lacuma (a Peruvian mango-like fruit). Gil’s Carrot Cake ($12) was a wonder of deconstructed plating elegance and featured a delicious dollop of tangy buttermilk ice cream. Paired with delicious but thoroughly unnecessary dessert wines, Tokaji from Hungary and Sauvignon Blanc from South Africa, $18 and $16 respectively, the meal came to an indulgent end.
I am certain that the Ancora dining experience can be scaled back to be somewhat more accessible, but even at its most humble, this is a high-end restaurant, one that solidifies my appreciation for the rarefied privilege of being able to review the odd place like this for this column.
For those of you who weren’t doing the math as you read along, our meal was over $400 before gratuity.
Ancora Ambleside 1351 Bellevue Avenue, West Vancouver. Ancoradining.com. 604-926-0287.
*Nikkei is a broad term commonly applied to Japanese influences abroad, like the cuisine of a Japanese expatriate or emigrant who is no longer a citizen of Japan.