Story by Adrian Brijbassi
Vacay.ca Managing Editor
VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA — If you can’t bring the table to the farm, David Gunawan has done the next best thing. The chef at newly opened Wildebeest has agreements in place with farmers in the Vancouver area that gives his restaurant control of specific animals and their diet. It’s an arrangement that brings the farm-to-table concept a little closer to an ideal reality.
Wildebeest opened on August 22 with high expectations because of the reputations of its chef and owners, Josh Pape and James Iranazad. While the food is very good, it’s Gunawan’s desire to maintain such tight contact with the source of his products that may be the most interesting aspect of Wildebeest.
“I have a passion for where our food comes from,” the chef told me during a visit last week. “It concerns me that a lot of times we don’t know what goes into the feed of the animals and that bothers me. Food safety is a very important issue for all of us.”
Gunawan was formerly the chef at West, the 17th-ranked restaurant in the 2012 Vacay.ca Top 50 Restaurants in Canada list, and spent a year at De Wulf, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Belgium, before taking the reins at Wildebeest. He works with his suppliers to select the feed he wants for the pigs, cattle and poultry that will end up on the restaurant menu. Some of the farms have areas designated for Wildebeest, Gunawan says.
“I have a good relationship with these farmers, going back to my time at West, and I’m able to work with them to get the product we want.”
The animals are raised with the purpose of being served at Wildebeest, with the feed intended to create optimal nutrition and flavour, the chef and owners say. They also point out that by buying the whole animal, they get a better price, which is one reason they are able to give customers a reasonably priced experience. With a menu of share plates, only two items ($24 Chicken Duo and $42 Angus beef ribeye steak) cost more than $20.
Vancouver’s Hottest New Restaurant
While the restaurant’s name may make you think it’s about game meats and charcuterie, that’s not the case. Initially rumoured to be Vancouver’s answer to the Black Hoof in Toronto and Animal in Los Angeles, Wildebeest has an earthiness and surprising lightness to its dishes. It was Iranazad’s three-year-old son who suggested the restaurant take the name of his favourite animal after his dad and Pape were stumped for what to call the establishment.
Although the pork jowl ($15), with plums and bourbon barrel-aged maple syrup, impresses for its flavour and tenderness, the fish and vegetable dishes are just as much highlights of the menu. Gunawan’s halibut ($17), poached in olive oil, is matched inventively with a whey sauce that has the texture of barley, and the heirloom radishes ($8) are served in a honey yogurt and beet sorbet. Presented on the plate like a miniature garden, it’s the sort of innovative dish you would expect from Marc Lepine at Ottawa’s Atelier. Gunawan encourages you to eat the radishes with your hands, holding them by the stems and dredging up as much of the yogurt and sorbet as you can with the balls of the vegetable.
“Dave’s a very creative chef,” says Iranazad, who also owns Abigail’s Party in Vancouver’s Kitsilano neighbourhood. “We give him the freedom to do what he wants in the kitchen and I think he likes that.”
Gunawan will sometimes run his own dishes, delivering them to guests in the 65-seat restaurant that’s decorated with items that resonate with the historic feel of Gastown, Vancouver’s improving district that has managed to build a culinary reputation despite also being home to one of North America’s bleakest drug scenes. Wildebeest joins such outstanding Gastown locations as L’Abattoir, Bao Bei, Salt Tasting Room and Nicli Antica Pizzeria.
Once inside, you’ll walk on Douglas fir planks that date to 1885. They had been covered by a laminated floor until Pape and Iranazad ripped it up when taking control of the property. The decor also includes pulleys that used to draw the curtains at the city’s old Pantages Theatre and antique items that are reminiscent of the Prohibition era. The intimate downstairs wine bar, which holds 60 people, has the feel of a speakeasy.
“There’s a vaudevillian atmosphere in Gastown and we’ll have some of that in here,” says Iranazad, adding that he hopes to bring live music to the venue.
Thanks to Pape, Wildebeest will be a draw for the drinks as much as the food. Pape is responsible for The Diamond, quite likely the top cocktail bar in Canada, and he has designed a drinks menu for Wildebeest that’s sensationally diverse. You’ll want to try the Al Fresco ($10), with bianco vermouth, cucumber, jalapeño and lemon — a smooth, easy-to-drink cocktail with complex flavours.
“I think it’s what people have come to expect,” Pape says. “When they go out for a good meal, they want a cocktail list that’s interesting, high quality.”
More About Wildebeest
Location: 120 West Hastings Street, Vancouver, BC
Reservations: Telephone: 604-687-6880; or book online at the restaurant’s website.
Hours: Tuesday to Sunday from 5 pm to midnight (a weekend brunch menu may be coming before the end of the year).
Menu price range: Share plates, $4-$42
You must order: Pork jowl ($15), with plums and long pepper-scented oats, and bourbon barrel-aged maple syrup.