A Feast for Foragers

Ever since my October interview with head chef Chris Whittaker in the half-built dining room of his new restaurant, I’ve been eagerly awaiting Forage’s grand opening and the opportunity to try his food. This Thursday I finally got my chance. In fact, I got a lot more than I expected.

Aside from being struck with relieved amazement at how well the interior décor had turned out, when my girlfriend Alex and I first walked past the hand-welded iron emblem that adorns the Robson Street façade and through the huge wooden door, I was met also with a surprise of a more personal nature… My expected party of two was to become a party of five.

Joining us that evening were Forage’s PR manager and Vancouver food scene savant, Sue Alexander; the Listel Hotel’s Regional Director of Communications, Lise Magee; and the food blogger and self-proclaimed ‘locaphore,’ Jason McRobbie. The look on my face might have said shock but I’m sorry to say it probably seemed to say fright. Alex’s said the same.

So there I was: With my fresh-faced restaurant reviewing abilities put in the hot seat and my hungry feeling of expectation turned fast into perspiration. What came next? THE WHOLE MENU! You see, the advantage of dining in a group versus dining in a romantic pair is that, while the latter offers a quiet and intimate evening, the former affords the eater (i.e. a very hungry and curious me) the chance to try damn near every dish the place serves.

But of course, we began with drinks. Forage makes three signature cocktails. Of the so-titled savoury, sour and sweet, I chose the sweet. A two-ounce tumbler of muddled peach and mint, Left Coast hemp vodka and a touch of honey, with two skinny straws. Jason chose the sour option, which he deemed “honest.” (“Honest” would prove a go-to descriptor for him as the evening progressed and, for my part, I did not disagree). Sue also ordered some snacks. Though the spicy kale and apple chips were appetizing, it was the crackling-laden popcorn that really got my taste buds buzzing.

By the time the white wine arrived, so too did Chef Chris Whittaker. He did his usual demure. The man, a culinary marvel, is more modest than even his menu’s categories imply: snacks, irons, boards, plates, bowls and sweets. The wine, from Naramata’s Nichol vineyards, was a surprisingly full-bodied Pinot Gris. The next course included both a plate of Fraser Valley beets spiced up with candied hazelnut black pepper praline, goat cheese purée and cress, and a helping of charcuterie served on a wooden board. Turns out that the same guy who welded the iron sign at the entrance also fashioned the brand with which Whittaker himself emblazoned ‘Forage’ into each of these timber planks.

So began the feast. The delicious chicken liver parfait, my hosts educated, is beginning to replace foie gras as the chief sought-after meaty luxury in Vancouver. They agree that treats like this exemplify Forage’s willingness (or insistence, Alex might argue) to make use of all parts of an animal— a policy known in the industry as ‘nose-to-tail.’

With that, allow me to introduce the roast bison bone marrow. “Bone alone,” rhymed Jason, an activity (wordplay, that is) he relished throughout the night. Whitaker’s presentation of this unique dish was welcomingly unceremonious. (Again, it wasn’t quite welcoming enough to entice Alex beyond her marrow-related reservations). I can attest the bone’s contents were silky, warm and mouthwatering. And this meat intensive portion was not without its appropriate wine pairing. Sue chose Tinhorn Creek’s Cabernet Franc. The grape varietal lived up to its current vogue.

#BCwine could have been the hashtag for the evening. The restaurant’s list promotes four special wines on tap (sic). Yes folks, wine on tap! Apparently, making wine available in this form reduces the environmental burden, by cutting down on bottles and other throwaway trappings. Also, by circumventing the usual risks involved with uncorking a whole bottle (i.e. the wine goes bad), the taps enable the restaurant to sell the stuff by the glass at a much lower rate. What a great idea.

As we moved through the meal, my head clouding from alcohol and marrow consumption, two facts nonetheless became clear to me: 1) The stated goal of localism is realized on the plate and 2) The serving of high-quality food is done so at a low price. On the website Whittaker pledges, “Products will be sourced from local and organic farmers, fishermen and producers whenever possible.” He adds, “To me forage means that we no longer seek out excess and indulgence, but instead revisit a time when we respected the land and oceans and took only what we needed to survive.” The Albacore tuna bowl revealed this philosophy delightfully. Oceanwise-certified Albacore, cooked to rare perfection; locally foraged blackberry and fir jelly; chanterelles which had once been the residents of nearby forests; accompanied by warm brown butter gnocchi, hazelnuts and squash. This entrée was listed at $20. The other dishes we chose ranged from $10 to $16.

Alex, while at once my slightly bewildered plus-one and talented photographer, also posed a particular hurdle to the Forage staff. She informed them she’s a celiac (can eat no wheat). Our gregarious dinner guest Sue was relieved that Alex did not self-identify as a gluten intolerant, a recent fashion statement which neither of them have any time for. The Forage kitchen showed no difficulties accommodating the dietary restriction. Where possible, the wheaty ingredients were kept separate from the others. They even cooked up a classy gluten-free version of their pain perdu for dessert. All was not lost.

Granted, I was treated like some kind of royalty— Jason’s commentary: informative; Sue’s leadership: savvy and generous; my hands full, as well as my mouth. It would seem absurd, in my position, not to have enjoyed the meal. Yet, from my glances around the unassuming and elegant dining room, I could tell that the sense of happy, hearty well-being pervaded.

Forage’s sleek service and sustainable fare pleased everyone. Despite its somewhat out-of-the-way locale, just over the hump at Robson and Broughton, I hope Vancouverites discover this honest new eatery and come to value its eco-friendly (not to mention wallet-friendly and stomach-friendly) charms.

Photography by Alexandra Prier