How the Blue Water Café got it right

At this Vancouver seafood restaurant, you get to enjoy ethical bounty, without the lecture

Jacob Richler

The Blue Water Café, which anchors the bustling Hamilton Street strip in Vancouver’s Yaletown, was evidently conceived according to the contemporary philosophy that sustenance includes entertainment. On this particular damp Saturday evening, it has just gone six o’clock and from my freshly assumed perch at the front bar I am observing no fewer than four bartenders rushing this way and that, working blenders, filling ice buckets, and performing an occasional percussive dance with their cocktail shakers, all in a well-orchestrated assault on the impressive local thirst.

Further down the bar toward the rear of the room, a second spectacle is unfolding in a manner far less frenetic, but just as productive: here, with swiftness and grace and no appearance of hurry, the grey-haired Yoshihiro Tabo is turning out platter after platter of sushi, sashimi and nigiri rolls with his staff of two. And directly opposite—across the 170-seat dining room, which is filling fast—one finds executive chef Frank Pabst directing his front kitchen crew of seven, already pumping out plates in a steady rhythm. Should you wish to follow all of this action, but, like the contemporary sports fan or concertgoer, prefer to view it enlarged and once removed on the Jumbotron instead of live and real, there is a flat screen television mounted over the bar running closed-circuit broadcasts from each cooking station. So you can follow the whole show without leaving your stool, or having to turn your back on your drink or your companion or any other object of your fancy.

“It’s for business travellers such as yourself travelling alone,” says the fetching bartender, as she delivers my Hendrick’s martini, very dry, stirred and not shaken—just as requested—and then follows my inquisitive gaze to the flat screen over her head, where some nifty Japanese knife-work is on display. “So they have something to look at while they’re sitting here.”

I thought that was why she was here. No matter; I for one am here to look at the fish. For the interesting fact of the Blue Water is that since the day it opened in 2003 it has been a perennial favourite in the seafood category in all of the Vancouver restaurant rankings. And this has been accomplished above all else by virtue of culinary merit in a place of a scale that dictates you should least expect it. Add the seats on the terrace, the private rooms and the bar to those in the main dining room and the tally here can reach 300 diners at one seating. There is no confusing the place with Le Bernardin; but the Blue Water aims for a broader significance—and it achieves it, and then some.

A meal here invariably begins with a little something from the raw bar. There are 20-odd oysters to choose among (all of them farmed, most in local waters), and a host of multi-tiered towers of iced raw and cooked seafood. A single diner like me might opt instead for something small from the sushi bar, where chef Tabo, who in Japan is licensed to disembowel and rearrange a fugu (blowfish), hereabouts focuses on far more benign local species, like salmon and tuna, along with a few predictable farmed imports like hamachi. Tabo—or Yoshi, as everyone seems to know him—prepares dishes of accomplished refinement and restrained inventiveness that showcase some lovely knife work. Tonight he serves me a tartare of fatty tuna. Not toro from the scarce and struggling bluefin, nor even something sliced from its lesser cousin, the yellowfin, whose stocks are in better shape but still nothing to boast about. This tuna is a local albacore, and chef chops its flesh just the right amount, reducing it to a state of admirable balance between discernible texture and mush, and then folds into the mix a little chili-sourced heat, moulds it in a timbale, and places the raw yolk of a quail’s egg on top. A first bite captured by chopstick pierces the yolk and renders the mildly tartare beneath irresistibly creamy. A sprinkle of crisp-fried scallion on the next sampling lends the mix some pleasant crunch, and soon enough, the plate is clean. Which is as it should be, because the time has come to take a seat in the dining room. For what brought me to the Blue Water tonight is not the supporting act at the raw bar but the main event: the work of chef Pabst.

My interest lies in particular with his approach to resolving what might well be the most complicated issue implicit in the composition of the contemporary restaurant menu: simply put, how does one properly select seafood on the basis of the health of its particular stocks, their long-term prospects and the impact of the manner by which they were fished or farmed without letting all this environmental due diligence get in the way of a good nosh-up? This is a major conundrum for any good contemporary restaurateur, and it is a lot harder to resolve in a large and enviably busy restaurant like this one than it is for any other. The celebrity chef with the destination restaurant with 60 seats or fewer can always lead a faithful clientele to some hitherto little-known fish—like, say, escolar or farmed sturgeon or Tasmanian sea trout, to name just a few that enjoyed an unexpectedly good run in the frying pan over the last five years. And the small restaurant also customarily enjoys the indulgence of its customers when, midway through service, the day-boat Chatham cod or Ipswich clams or something of that ilk is crossed off the menu—because the experience of partaking of relative exclusivity requires a sophisticated tolerance of the vagaries of the fishery.

But at a place like the Blue Water, where two or three hundred customers make for only a humdrum Friday night, the game is different. First of all, required sales volumes all but preclude sacrificing menu space to novelty fish that are unlikely to catch on with the customers. Secondly, what is listed there had better be in infallibly good supply. Lastly, whatever is touted on the menu in black and white as a sustainable, ocean-friendly seafood choice had better be that and more, because out here on the West Coast people have a habit of paying rabid attention to such things, and the often myopic local outlook has it that even farmed fish such as nice, nutritious and inexpensive Atlantic salmon is a strike against the planet rather than for it.

So out of necessity the Blue Water plays it safe: every fish, shellfish and mollusc that makes an appearance on its long menus, from the raw bar to sushi bar to the main dining room, comes with a stamp of approval for consumption from Ocean Wise, the conservation program launched by the Vancouver Aquarium, Seafood Watch, the Monterey Bay Aquarium program that inspired it, SeaChoice, or some other respected watchdog like it. So chef Pabst focuses on serving local Dungeness crab, trap-caught (never-dredged) prawns, ahi and albacore (never bluefin or even yellowfin) tuna, B.C. or Alaska-sourced wild sablefish (for now), as well as local wild scallops, salmon and halibut. And for that virtually insignificant segment of the clientele who wish to go a step further, Pabst also promotes a series of abundant if admittedly unglamorous and frequently overlooked fish-next-door that he terms his “unsung heroes,” available as a full tasting menu upon request.

Tonight this begins with a sardine escabèche: a pair of sardine fillets, properly browned but barely cooked through, tangy with marinade, warm to the touch, draped prettily—as prettily as a headless sardine can manage—over a bed of lightly pickled onion, dressed in thick cream laced with caviar. Then comes pan-seared mackerel, served crispy-skin side up on top of a bed of beet brunoise enriched with truffle. Next, mild-cured herring, skinned, cross-hatched in the grill, and placed overtop sliced fingerling potatoes, onions and a warm cream sauce. Then farmed white sturgeon, pan-roasted and balanced over two shoots of salsify, encircled with lentils stewed with tomatoes. Lastly, I get sablefish, its marinade of sake and brown sugar bronzed from the grill,
with a buttery potato purée to one side, and to the other an array of slender French green beans, precisely à point and so given to a squeaky collapse between the teeth.

The sardines were drawn from local waters, where they still flourish, and the shortnose sturgeon caviar that enhanced their sauce was not harvested in the wild, but from a farm in New Brunswick (top marks for sustainability, but an admittedly dodgy carbon finprint). The mackerel and herring were taken from local, healthy wild stocks, too. The white sturgeon is locally farmed—and inland where such operations can do little harm. And the sablefish, despite its decade-long starring role on good menus from coast to coast, is apparently going strong.

And just as important, one can enjoy all this ethical bounty without being proselytized to, or expected to fire up your appetite with a pre-menu treatise about the diminishing bounty of the sea or the story of how that bar rail on which you are currently resting your feet was made out of 100 per cent recycled B.C. car tire. Which is to say it reminds me less of your typical West Coast experience than it does of the fact that once, some 20 years ago, I ate a vegetarian meal by accident and without noticing it in a fine Italian restaurant in New York; in other words, the good food comes first here and the message a distant second, as it should be. It does not hurt that Pabst likes robust flavours and cooks with big notes. Or that while he sometimes demonstrates an awareness and inclination to Asian flavourings, when he is cooking oily fish like these sardines, herring and mackerel, he instead draws on a youth spent immersed in the flavours of Germany and Belgium—and some of the finesse acquired over his formative years as a young chef, in a host of Michelin-starred restaurants across the south of France.

“I can’t help it,” Pabst said to me afterwards with a smile and a shrug. “That’s all my fingers know how to do!”

Jacob Richler’s book, My Canada Includes Foie Gras, will be published by Douglas & McIntyre in the fall of 2009.