In my six and a half years of writing this column, West Vancouver Italian rock star restaurant Mangia e Bevi has furnished one of my all time favourite meals on the North Shore.
It was in my earlier days of this gig and I was showing off a little, if I’m being honest, inviting some friends along for a meal with my wife DJ and I for the purposes of a review. It was great fun, the kind of dinner during which the me-chanics of the meal become invisible. Wine glasses seemed to be topped up always, as if by magic, while plates arrived and were cleared with such rhythmic precision that we hardly noticed when we were 10, maybe 12 dishes into the meal and umpteen layers deep into lively conversation about the topics of the day. The hefty bill was hardly a surprise at the end of the night; indeed, we worked hard to pack away that much into a single sitting. DJ and I still talk about that meal with those friends and Mangia has remained a rock solid recommendation from me to friends in search of a great Italian experience.
As I wind down my time with the North Shore News (this is my second-to-last column), I once again sought to impress. This time the audience was just my good friend Gil, with whom I have enjoyed all manner of review meals since 2013, some extraordinary, some extraordinarily trying. We visited Mangia at 8:15 p.m. on a recent Saturday evening following an early start on bites and beverages that included mid-afternoon wings and chili cheese dogs at accomplished barbecue venue Smoke and Bones, then cocktails at the best cocktail bar in all of North Vancouver (arguably all of Vancouver, if you want to compare quality of cocktails across the bridges), Sons of Vancouver, with a stop at neighbour The Woods Spirit Co. tasting room for the best classic gin and tonic money can buy.
We were in decidedly easy spirits by the time we arrived at Mangia e Bevi, which was at capacity save for our reserved table, a heartening sight in this market of fierce competition and fickle diners. What can I say, faithful readers? This place brings out the decadence in me. During this visit, I did eventually notice when we were eight courses into the meal, but not because the experience was any less fluid than before, but rather because we were only two stomachs packing away enough food for a table of six. Even in the stark light of retrospect, I must maintain that this most recent meal was a second, high-ranking favourite among my long list of review meals. Mangia is a thoroughly extraordinary restaurant, one that strikes just the right balance of high-end and accessible, supporting the kitchen’s truly stunning output with a suitably polished front of house experience that nevertheless does not lose sight of the fact that Italian cuisine is, on the whole, a celebration of simplicity supported by ingredients of the highest order. There is not much one needs to do to a perfectly ripe tomato, for instance, to make it shine. Knowing when to pull back and afford an ingredient, rather than a chef, the limelight seems to be a central tenet of Italian cooking.
And so when Beef Carpaccio ($17) arrives, deep red and paper thin, as if shaved with a scalpel so as to begin to melt in the mouth before the process of mastication even begins, the diner is not left wondering who rendered the dish so expertly, but rather how more creamy Parmesan truffle aioli, which tops the beef, might be procured, perhaps in a small take-away ramekin with a view to spreading it on toast the next morning in pursuit of a newer, better definition of a breakfast of champions. Or when a thick, velvety soup of cauliflower with truffle oil drizzle and toasted hazelnuts ($13) is nearly finished, the question isn’t whether or not the kitchen team has won many accolades (they have), but instead if it would be poor form to lick the bowl like the family dog being fed under the table by the toddler.
A dish of steamed mussels in spicy madras curry and white wine cream sauce ($19) revealed an impressive grasp on the complexity of Indian spicing, while the fat, succulent mussels bursted with salty, buttery complexity, confirming their very recent extraction from local waters.
A bottle of La Crema Chardonnay from Sonoma delivered against its tried and tested promise of boldly tropical, oak, butterscotch, and burnt caramel notes, making it a heavy hitting, 1980s-centric style of white wine that nevertheless was matched fully by the confident flavours of the appetizers.
A basket of ficelle and focaccia helped to mop up residual sauces before the mains arrived. We ordered three mains between us, which were presented on a single, imposing wooden board, to be eaten family style, placed in the middle of the table with serving tongs and side plates. A boldly flavoured Tagliolini pasta ($23) featured smoked duck and wild mushrooms in sage oil, all combining to yield a heady, earthy, pungently delicious entrée. Halibut with potato crust in a limoncello-chive butter ($38) was precisely as good as it sounds, the delicate, moist fish complemented perfectly by the tangy sauce, an inventive riff on the classic fish accompaniment, beurre meuniere, traditionally made with butter and lemon juice.
A final entrée of lamb sirloin ($38), grilled to a perfect medium rare, sliced, and then served with the most ridiculously indulgent, pillowy, spot-on gnocchi with grilled vegetables, stole the show, leaving me wondering if I ought to bleat in euphoric appreciation of the dish instead of nodding my head in polite assent to the server’s query about whether everything was “tasting alright so far.”
We paired a boutique super Tuscan red, Valdisanti by Tenuta San Giovanni, with the mains, the cedar-like, smoky, fresh tobacco and black cherry-tinged wine offering up plenty to discuss in addition to the food. For those of you wondering how two average dudes possibly put all this stuff away, you should know that we ended up with about one third of the entrees left over to take home, and at least half a bottle of wine each with which to do the same; many people don’t realize or remember that B.C. law permits the removal of a partially consumed but fully sealed and bagged bottle of wine by a restaurant patron. The provision makes it possible to try some original, licensee-bought wines at home.
Mangia E Bevi Ristorante, 2222 Marine Drive, West Vancouver. mangiaebevi.ca, 604-922-8333.