North Shore dining scene gearing up for festive season

The Observatory, The Modern Pantry, The Portly Chef and Beach House all reliable gems for holiday fare

It is an annual Dish tradition to recommend seasonal food and drink options at the outset of December. This year, I am dismayed to report that one of my favourite traditions, a loaf or two of the North Shore’s best stollen from Artisan Bakery, is no longer an option.

The Lower Lonsdale shop has shut down with very little fanfare. I reached out to co-owner and German baking master Markus Jaeger, who launched the business with his similarly designated wife and business partner Ursula, to find out what had happened. I don’t feel it is my place to share the specifics of what was confided in me about the decision to move away from the business, but I can relay that the Jaegers sold their operation back in 2016 and have not been affiliated with Artisan Bakery (neither the retail shop in LoLo nor the production bakery off of Main Street) since then. This was news to me, but certainly helps to explain why such a popular and respected operation that filled a niche in our market could disappear; sometimes the heart of a business is its people, not its offerings, and in Artisan’s case, you would be hard-pressed to find more dedicated, experienced, or passionate operators than the Jaegers. In light of this, perhaps the bakery operation’s successors never stood a chance.

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Artisan’s closure is indicative of a sort of reckoning down in LoLo, a settling of the dust that was agitated in recent years by a flurry of openings, renovations, and wholesale restructuring. A picture is emerging of a food and beverage scene down there that is predicated on diversity, but with a particular bent towards either healthy or trendy concepts. The recently fallen Captain’s Boil, with its old school boil-in-bag, market price seafood feast approach to dining was replaced with the on-point mazesoba and ramen joint, Kokoro, profiled in last week’s column. The protein-centric Meatery (Windsor Meats’ restaurant concept hailing from their still popular Edgemont Village operation) has folded, while vegan spaces Green Moustache, Buddha-Full, Glory Juice Co, and Café by Tao continue to draw a steady clientele. The old District space, an integral part of LoLo’s original era of reinvigoration over a decade ago, failed to find its footing once chef-owner Paul Mon-Kau vacated the business and still sits empty, while powerhouse casual dining spaces like Tap & Barrel and Browns Social House, targeted towards a young clientele that does not remember a pre-Earls dining scene in Vancouver, fill their rooms effortlessly with fare that is a reliable, if predictable, facsimile of the best efforts of leading independent kitchens around the city and beyond. Meanwhile, the 28th location of juggernaut chain Joey Restaurants is gearing up for a mid-January 2020 opening in the Shipyards. The newest location is looking to out-behemoth behemoth Tap & Barrel with a 6,600 square foot waterfront restaurant with a nearly 400-diner capacity.

We are gearing up for a season during which everyone tries to capitalize on the spending frenzy by offering something, anything, even tangentially related to the holidays in order to justify higher prices. Two venues from last year’s holiday recommendations list – Baker and Baron, and Rive Gauche – have not survived long enough to rank for a second year. However, North Shore restaurant closure tumult notwithstanding, there are still some reliable gems out there that can be expected to deliver reasonably and responsibly against your expectations when it comes to holiday fare.

The first among these is an often out-of-sight, out-of-mind venue, Grouse Mountain’s high-end Observatory Restaurant, a venue set on the top floor of the chalet on the top of the mountain. Despite its modest celebrity these days, perhaps no other location speaks more to popular culture ideas of what the holidays should look like than The Observatory; in fact, at the time of filing this story, early snow flurries have already dusted the alpine and overnight temperatures are holding steadily below zero. There is no question that this is a venue that hits the pocket book a bit harder than most, but if you factor in the inclusion of a complimentary Skyride ticket into the cost (with which you can access the mountaintop up to two hours in advance of your dinner reservation), the investment seems a touch more palatable. Christmas Dinner includes dishes such as Celeriac Veloute with Roasted Gala Apple, Baked Oysters with Chorizo and Fennel, Strangolapreti (Northern Italian Spinach Dumpling) with Winter Squash, Wild Mushrooms, Hazelnuts, and Gruyere, and Beef Tenderloin with Kale, Cipollini Onions, Potato Confit, and Black Truffle Jus. The restaurant excels at thoughtful, meticulously prepared plates which, combined with its location, make it a natural choice for special occasions.

Another great bet through December is The Portly Chef, the culinary team of which has valiantly persevered since the tragic passing of founding owner and executive chef Jeff Batt back in early summer of this year. Under the direction of Chef Batt’s wife and co-partner, Emily, The Portly Chef continues to dole out elevated comfort food (particularly well suited to the season) in unpretentious digs in central Lonsdale. The menu is updated regularly, but fare includes dishes like the signature Spicy Squid with lemongrass, ginger, lime, pickled jalapeno, chili’s, cilantro and green goddess aioli, Beef Tenderloin “Oscar” with tiger prawns and béarnaise, and still one of the best bowls of Fettuccine Carbonara you can find on the North Shore with hefty chunks of salty, house cured pork belly.

Ok, so I need to preface this one with full disclosure: I have not been here to do a review. Yet. My inclusion of the new Beach House (which reopened on Nov. 22 after a protracted, top to bottom renovation) is on the merit of the excitement of, well, seeing the new Beach House. I mean, come on! If you are a restaurant nerd like me, it is already on your list, despite the fact that this is an Earls side-project. Let me rephrase that. I am keen to check out how the Earls group has handled the reinvention of a popular spot with such spectacular real estate, even though I would not typically add a review of a new Earls proper to my review list. Reservations are in high demand already, however (as evidenced by an unsuccessful bid for a recent Friday night table for four), so scoring a December table may be tricky, plus, it needs to be said that a grand reopening just in time for December chaos is a potential service disaster (you do not want to be ironing out the kinks while serving corporate parties of 15). Maybe they have been quietly practicing for a few weeks now, who knows? The new menu is, unsurprisingly, seafood heavy, and features dishes that include Smoked Sablefish Chowder, Roasted Salmon Collar, Ahi Tuna Tacos, Poke, Chorizo Mussels, Pan Seared Monkfish, Icelandic Arctic Char, and Prawn and Scallop Spaghettini. If you try it before I report back on it, drop me a line and let me know what you think.

Finally, for those who, like me, indulge in more baked goods through December than they do through the rest of the months of the calendar year combined, there is happy news this season with the opening of a unique pop-up shop in Old Dollarton. Through Dec. 24, The Modern Pantry, one of 2019’s best casual eats discoveries (and still home to the best damned quiche I’ve eaten all year), takes over the space next to their permanent location at 2055 Old Dollarton Road to produce holiday baked goods and special boxed assortments of goodies for gifts (and holiday party contributions). While the North Shore’s heavy hitters in the confection space continue to fashion ornate, multi-story Christmas condos out of tempered manjari chocolate ribbons and sparkly macarons, Modern Pantry owner and chief baker Kendall Gustavson turns out smart but approachable fare that won’t break the bank.

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