December has once again somehow insidiously crept its way into immediate proximity. Imperatives to buy! buy! buy! will reach fever pitch in a couple of weeks and the combination of eggnog flavoured everything and Dean Martin crooning about coming home for Christmas will contribute to the numb, faintly nauseous festive fatigue that sets in by the time my kids are off from school.
I try to focus on the things that I like about this time of year and allow those to overshadow the shameless commercialism that dominates the seasonal discourse. Being home with the kids is high among those things, especially if we get a smattering of rare Vancouver snowfall that prompts us to dust off the haggard, hairline fractured plastic disks upon which we will careen down the patchy slopes of Cleveland or Carisbrooke Parks.
Good, honest holiday cooking is another thing that still makes me happy. I’m not talking about those cynically overpriced menus that exploit corporate functions all around town, but rather the thoughtful, well-executed comfort dishes that emerge from the kitchens of local eateries in tasteful acknowledgement of the season at hand. Fortuitously, there are a number of such kitchens on the North Shore and I have selected a handful of them for your consideration in the weeks of celebratory dining ahead.
Perhaps the venue with the most urgent appeal is Gusto di Quattro, the venerable Italian dining institution with the coveted #1 Lonsdale Avenue address that has furnished countless excellent meals over its nearly 40 years of operation (the restaurant began life as Trattoria Corsi in 1981, launched by Vancouver industry legends Edith and Antonio Corsi). Patrick Corsi shared with me that at the end of January Gusto will be closing for extensive redevelopment, an initiative that could take up to 15 months to complete. Throughout December and January the restaurant will offer a retro Quattro-inspired menu along with the current menu. On offer will be dishes from the Mangia with Quattro cookbook as well as crowd favourites that have appeared on menus spanning back to the early ’80s. Antonio Corsi will even make a few special guest appearances, recreating the magic that started it all from the kitchen. The restaurant will be open everyday through the holidays except for Christmas Day. I recommend you book a table soon to get in on the action. Quattrorestaurants.com. 604-924-4444
The always excellent Tour de Feast, the French-influenced eatery on Mountain Highway where impeccable food meets a casual, down-to-earth environment, is serving a nice selection of indulgent winter dishes throughout December in addition to their usual rotating menu of daily and weekly features. Holiday dishes include Charred Endive and Watercress Salad with schinkenspeck, blue cheese, buttermilk vinaigrette, and hazelnuts, Foie Gras Mousse with house baked brioche, Beef Bourguignon, honey glazed carrots, lardons, and texture of turnips with gnocchi, or Roasted Rack of Lamb with pommes aligot. For dessert Tour will feature a traditional Crème Caramel with cognac and vanilla chantilly. The restaurant is offering a five course taster menu on New Year’s Eve for a very reasonable $65 per person, as well as brunch on New Year’s Day. Tourdefeast.com. 604-980-1811
Another comforting taste of the holidays can be found at the family-run Baker and Baron Cafe where owners Barbara and David Goelst, the eponymous baker and baron, offer some of the warmest, most sincere hospitality you’ll find anywhere. In the coming weeks the small, open concept eatery will delve headlong into seasonal cooking with house roasted ham, turkey and chicken with traditional fixings, as well as Christmas cakes, Christmas puddings, mince pies and more. These latter baked goods should be pre-ordered because according to tried and true traditional recipes, goodies like fruit cakes made with brandy need some time to mature for maximum flavour.
Baker Barbara’s popular “cruffins,” muffins made of delicate, expertly rendered croissant pastry (you need to try one of these if you have not already) will also be holidayed, with limited time versions that will include mincemeat. Baker and Baron has developed a specialization in custom orders as well, tailoring dishes to client preferences and the space, which is conventionally open for breakfast, brunch and lunch only, can be rented out in the evenings for custom family or office celebrations. Bakerbaroncafe.ca. 604-770-2425
If you want a warming glass of Glühwein, the traditional German mulled wine that is synonymous with the season, but don’t want to battle the crowds at the Christmas market, consider dropping in on Jagerhof. The Tyrolian-themed eatery is offering the popular drink throughout the month of December along with a handful of other limited time seasonal treats like a dessert of Gingerbread Men with the chef’s house-made eggnog ice cream, Alsatian Pear Tarte Tatin flavoured with cloves and star anise, served with vanilla ice cream, and Rheinlander-style Sauerbraten (sweet and sour red wine-based sauce with raisins) and Wild Boar Ragout. Vintage Tyrolian décor, warm service, and big, comforting flavours from hearty meals make this one of my personal favourite wintertime destinations. Jagerhof.ca. 604-980-4316.
At the time of publication of this article there may still be a smattering of seats available for Mangia e Bevi’s popular Christmas Eve dinner service featuring seven creative, inspired seafood dishes in honour of the Italian tradition, Feast of the Seven Fishes. If you can’t score a table for that, the restaurant’s smaller dining room has some availability for a few nights for private parties in December. Mangiaebevi.ca. 604-922-8333
Arm’s Reach Bistro is nearly all sold for its New Year’s Eve dinner, but it may be worth a call to try to snag one of the remaining tables, while sister restaurant, the pasta, casual Italian, and fun wines-by-the-glass haven InGrain Pastificio, is open for private holiday parties for 20 to 35 people on Mondays throughout December, offering menus from both restaurants. Armsreachbistro.com. 604-929-7442
Edgemont’s approachable West Coast elevated dining gem, Canyon, is deliberately side-stepping the often costly holiday prix fixe approach in favour of its regular a la carte menu, replete with seasonal specialties including Braised Rabbit Haunches with olives and chorizo, 30-day aged, Grass-fed Prime Rib Steak with bordelaise mushrooms, Coq au Vin, fresh black Burgundy Truffles with Gravlax and scrambled eggs, and Veal Tenderloin with wild mushrooms, sage and polenta, and baby leeks. Lunches are exceptionally busy throughout December, so reservations are recommended. Thecanyon.ca. 604-987-8812
And finally, the recently reviewed and truly outstanding Rive Gauche has just launched an updated menu in time for the December rush, with new dishes that include Scallops Gratinees with tender leeks, mushrooms and truffle Mornay, or Bourguignon-style Short Ribs with baby onions, bacon, mushrooms, and mashed potatoes. RVGauche.com. 604-925-2503.