Basking in the shimmering shadows of snowcapped mountains and sparkling waterways, Vancouver, Canada, beckons to visitors—and their wallets. But while hotel costs reach toward the sky-high peaks, visitors can find bargain-basement prices on some of the best meals in a town full of world-class cuisine.
Perched on the western edge of the continent and closely tied to the flora and fauna of British Columbia, the city could easily rest on its restaurant laurels, charging high prices for fancy meals. But despite its expensive housing, billion-dollar scenery, and food-forward reputation, Vancouver is awash in affordable tasting menu options.
The tasting menu—multiple courses dictated by the kitchen, rather than chosen by the diner—turns a meal into an event, fusing the dinner and entertainment parts of the evening. And, more often than not, this prix fixe option is priced higher than both. But Vancouver’s trend of mid-level tasting menus at its best restaurants has taken over, and for $45 to $60 (USD), diners can enjoy a half-dozen or more courses and take an evening-long journey through the mind and menu of a chef.
The Ugly Dumpling, a corner spot on Commercial Drive, brought together two veterans of the Vancouver restaurant scene—chef Darren Gee and sommelier Van Doren Chan—to create a menu that’s casual but precise. Gee weaves French, Japanese, and Korean techniques and dishes with local ingredients, resulting in selections like oil-poached halibut with black bean sauce or dry-aged beef tartare with chili oil and pickled mustard. Meanwhile, Chan’s wine list—designed more like a coloring book—is full of fascinating, in-depth descriptions and adorable illustrations. But there’s barely reason to look at it, as the tasting menu—$38 for seven courses or $45 for nine—has drink-pairing options: three for $23 or four for $30. Chan draws upon sake, cocktails, and wine to match everything from the oysters with fig vinaigrette and horseradish to the red bean mochi cake for dessert.
Similarly, Pidgin restaurant marries Asian and French traditions with local ingredients, but in a fancier space and trendier neighborhood. While some of the menu prices might rise with the more upscale fixings, the tasting menu barely does: $50 will buy you eight courses, and for another $40 to $50, a choice of wine or sake pairings or a combination of both. Here, the vegetables stand out in dishes like sautéed mushrooms—functioning almost like noodles—atop squash puree with yuzu brown butter and ramen-style egg, and a corned beet (yes, beet) salad with ricotta cheese. And should you skip the pairings, the cocktail bar matches the zeal and innovation of the kitchen with drinks like the Roppongi Hills, with Nikka Coffey grain whiskey, shochu, bitters, and vermouth.
But while Ugly Dumpling and Pidgin take a modern approach to Vancouver’s influences, two of the city’s longstanding big-name restaurateurs also have similar options on their menus. Hawksworth Restaurant, often considered one of the top spots for fine dining in the city and where entrées alone tend to run upwards of $30, delivers a standard tasting menu for $85 ($140 with drinks). But for the budget-minded, the restaurant offers early birds (5 p.m. to 6 p.m.) a three-course menu for $37 ($55 with drink pairings). The low-priced chance to experience the grandeur of the Hawksworth space and the storied chef’s way with local ingredients comes with options like an octopus ceviche with guajillo aioli, radish, and rice cracker, or marinated heirloom tomatoes with miso aioli and cashew cheese to start.
At Maenam, Vancouver’s decade-old, still-much-acclaimed Thai standout, Chef Angus An has taught a master class in appreciating the nuances of Thai cuisine. For those new to the restaurant’s forward-facing twists on tradition and playful incorporations of local ingredients, the easiest way to get the full experience is through An’s tasting menu. Six or seven savory dishes come out family-style in a few different courses for just $44 per person ($40 for a vegetarian version). And for $19, diners can add a trio of three-ounce wine pours, or five-ounce glasses for $26. Dungeness crab sits atop miang kham, little betel leaf wraps; braised pork cheek comes dusted with truffle powder; and prawn cakes get a hit of flavor from local morel mushrooms.
Just blocks away at AnnaLena, Top Chef Canada competitor Michael Robbins brings his own interpretation of Vancouver cuisine to the table. For $57 (plus $41 for wine pairings), the tasting menu leads diners from oysters with foie gras and jalapeño, to halibut with hazelnut miso and fermented green garlic, to a grass-fed rib eye with red wine jus. Of Vancouver’s many offerings, it makes the best fit for those seeking a classic tasting menu format at a reasonable price.
But two of the city’s top farm-to-table restaurants also offer family-style tasting menus that provide a complete picture of Canadian Pacific Northwest cuisine in a way that is worth forgoing individual service. Royal Dinette’s $50 menu ($34 or $50 for wine pairings, but worth skipping for the strong cocktail menu) begins with bright, complex salads of in-season vegetables and big-flavored cheese, followed by house-made pastas conveying duck sugo or braised rabbit with mustard seeds, and segueing into desserts like an Earl Grey pavlova with burnt sourdough ice cream. For the same price at Burdock & Co., dive into family-style dishes such as chicken-liver pâté with sea asparagus pickle, elk bavette with chanterelle mushrooms, or blue cheese cheesecake with apricots and walnuts.
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