Update: ensemble closed in August 2012.
A number of months ago, my friends took me out to celebrate my turning another year older and (this is debatable) another year wiser. I chose ensemble for the event ― it’s yet another new place on the north-east corner of Thurlow and Smithe in downtown Vancouver that has seen a high turnover of restaurants over the past few years. But, more than a year after its opening in May 2011, it looks like ensemble is here to stay. The executive chef is Dale MacKay, winner of Top Chef Canada Season 1, and one reason, in addition to the reviews I had read, why I chose this particular restaurant. I was curious if the judges at Top Chef Canada knew what they were doing when they gave MacKay the top prize.
Two of my friends were waiting for me when I arrived; we ordered cocktails while we waited for our fourth companion, who finally showed up 45 minutes later. But, despite the busy room, there was absolutely no rushing us on the part of our server. The atmosphere was lively ― a perfect venue for a birthday party and for four boisterous, laughing friends who were in the mood to make a lot of noise.
Like many of Vancouver’s fine dining establishments, ensemble characterizes its food as “Contemporary French meets West Coast.” All of the dishes are tapa-sized, and we opted for the four-course tasting menu with wine pairings.
First up was a Dungeness crab crêpe with pineapple, daikon, and avocado. This appetizer was picture-perfect, served cold, fresh, and crisp, and the pineapple gave it the smallest hint of sweetness. I absolutely loved the wine choice: a bubbly Spanish cava.
The second course was Moroccan spiced black cod, with chick peas, cashews, and black trumpet mushrooms. I’ve never had cod so delicate and light. The black trumpet mushrooms were the perfect accompaniment, as was the 2010 Pinot Gris from Penticton’s Poplar Grove winery.
The meat course was beef shin and fries, with watercress and a carrot purée, paired with the 2011 Enrique “Icque” Foster Malbec. Like the cod before it, the beef was melt-in-the-mouth quality. I’ve often eaten steak et frites in France, but have to admit that I’ve never been overly impressed with French frites. The fries that accompanied the beef shin, on the other hand, were the best any of us had had in a very long time.
To finish: chocolate fondant with hazelnut-nougatine ice cream. Chocolate fondant was a new experience for me and I loved it. Its soft pudding-like centre reminded me of a dessert a long-ago roommate used to make, with the rather ordinary name of Brownie Pudding.
In honour of my birthday, I was also presented with a cone of piping-hot sugar-dusted madeleines, which I gladly shared. For the dessert wine, we returned to the Old World with a glass of Broadbent Madeira.
By the end of the evening, both my appetite and curiosity were sated. Dale MacKay is certainly a Top Chef, and my friends and I were so impressed with our first experience at ensemble that I am sure we will be back.