I have a go-to pho spot close to the office. Food there is prepared quickly and consistently, and the service is warm and familiar. I tend to order the #14, or beef noodle soup with rare beef, brisket, tripe, and tendon.
The pho is adequate, but not stellar. I can tell that they have found the right economies of scale in the kitchen, balancing volume and cost with just enough depth of flavour to pull it off. It is by no means a place where meals are prepared as painstaking labours of love. The menu is rote Vietnamese fast fare: spring rolls, salad rolls, shrimp paste steamed on sugarcane, a lineup of pho variations, and vermicelli bowls with lemongrass pork, chicken, prawns, or beef.
There are countless places just like my work staple and my #14 will simply be #6 somewhere else, a few blocks away, across town, wherever. This is the nature of a proven casual diner formula and there is nothing wrong with it; the formula serves a purpose and nine times out of 10, it does the job, satisfying hunger at a reasonable price.
But what about that 10th time, that outlier occasion when I want something more, something cut from a finer cloth?
Enter Wooden Fish, the latest opening in the suddenly food-centric district of West Vancouver, where now some of the North Shore’s very best and most exciting venues operate. Wooden Fish does thoughtful Vietnamese cuisine, served and cooked by people who love food. I know this because I engaged with the staff on my recent lunch foray into the space. There I encountered an infectious enthusiasm that informed every aspect of my meal, from my initial greeting to the guidance I received making my menu selections, through the meal itself, which was so packed with bold and exciting flavours and sophistication of preparation that I was left with the thought that I may well have found my first contender for meal of the year.
I started my meal with an iced Vietnamese coffee: espresso prepared over an ice-filled glass with condensed milk. The resulting brew is a creamy, sweet and bitter treat, which will be a great thirst quencher in the coming months as the temperature climbs. In fact, I am surprised more local cafés don’t do a version of the Vietnamese iced coffee; it has such universal appeal and I feel like it could be a competitive advantage over the staggeringly sweet synthetic syrup drinks that currently dominate the cold coffee market.
In any event, first up for lunch was an appetizer of Grilled Baby Octopus in house-made satay sauce, served with wedges of salted daikon and tamarind dipping sauce. I chose this dish over Vietnamese Escargot, an intriguing sounding preparation with steamed, chopped escargot in pork paste with lemongrass and ginger, accompanied by a ginger-infused fish sauce for dipping.
See what I mean here? This is most definitely not your standard quick and easy Vietnamese casual fare. Other tempting dishes on the menu included Tiger Prawn Salad with grilled pineapple, Vegetarian Spring Rolls with taro, jicama, and wood-ear mushrooms, and Braised Lamb Leg in Vietnamese spices with banh mi.
The baby octopus dish was comprised of four hearty specimens, splayed out starfish-style with grill-seared tips. The octopi sat atop the tamarind sauce and little logs of cured daikon were piled like firewood off to the side with carrot. For my taste, the octopus was ever so slightly under-done, but I would rather this than over, and in truth, the combination of flavours was so good that the subtle temperature concern seemed trifling.
Wooden Fish presents every table with a selection of four earthenware pots containing house-made dipping sauces that, to my mind, transformed the meal from very good to excellent. These garlic-heavy sauces included a brilliant orange hot sauce with a striking, fiery chili flavour, an outstanding puree of lemongrass, another flavour-forward puree of garlic and chilies, and an ingenious but simple condiment of marinated garlic slices that was like an ultra-fragrant, sweet and sour vinaigrette.
I applied all of these condiments liberally throughout my meal, including atop my already outstanding main course, Duck Confit with garlic rice and purple cabbage. The confit was easily one of the best I have had on the North Shore, meaty, beautifully seasoned with star-anise dominant Five Spice, with impeccably crispy, light-as-air skin.
Vietnam is a culinary wonder of a nation but I tend to forget that its difficult past included a significant period of French occupation. Lingering evidence of that influence informs the cuisine, which has taken French specialties (confit, baguette, fine liver pate, pot au feu, etc.) and reinvented them with a distinctly local flair. I can safely say I have never eaten perfectly executed duck confit atop seasoned rice before, let alone with lemongrass puree and nuoc cham (seasoned fish sauce-based dipping condiment); the combination was a revelation.
As I am a lifelong fan of pho, I added a bowl of Wooden Fish’s Hanoi-style Beef Noodle Soup to my order as a take-home dish for dinner. Not surprisingly, the broth of the soup was intensely flavoured and exceptionally prepared, clearly the product of hours upon hours of slow rendering. I added optional bone marrow and oxtail to my soup order ($3 and $7 respectively), which took the deeply rich soup right over the top. I would suggest that if you are more accustomed to a lean version of pho with a lighter broth, you may find these additions a bit too fatty as they definitely result in enhanced oiliness of the broth. I personally relished the additions, but must concede I would not make them habitual.
Wooden Fish is fully licensed and offers a small selection of wines, beers, and cocktails.
I would be remiss if I didn’t note that Wooden Fish occupies the former Inn Cogneato space. I was sorry to see the long-running Persian/Mediterranean casual eatery close its doors as I had fond memories of Inn Cogneato meals dating back to the business’s original location on Lonsdale Avenue. Nevertheless, I am delighted that its successor is a creative, friendly, and extremely promising new independent restaurant that I hope has an equally good run.
My meal, including the take-home pho entrée, was $64.
Wooden Fish. 1403 Marine Drive. 604-926-6789. No website at the time of publication.