Vancouver Eats: Cinara

There is something to be said about a neighbourhood restaurant.  It may not always boast of the grandest and most dazzling interiors to wow its patrons, or a far-reaching reputation to headline food magazine covers.  However, I find that they tend to be more focused on the food, unclouded by the pressures of fame, and more in tune with the likes and dislikes of the local crowd, meandering to their changing palettes and demands.  In time, the restaurant becomes a part of the community fabric, quietly surviving as an extended kitchen for its neighbours, transporting them to a different place and time, and steering them into unchartered shelves and aisles at the grocery store.

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We finally found ours at Cinara, a place Paul passes on his walk to work every day.  He has been wanting to try it since he curiously peered in months ago and it was only last week when we took his parents there for dinner that we finally stepped inside. Boy were we blown away!  So much so that we went back last night for more.  I couldn’t believe I had found a slice of Italian heaven in Vancouver, let alone down the street in our neighbourhood.

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Our server Dustin, who served us again last night, reminded me of a young, good looking Steve Carell complete with the charm and humour to boot.  Just the sort of person I want to serve me on any ordinary night, no pressure, no nose in the air, just a laid back vibe and an order-at-your-leisure-because-this-is-not-a-restaurant-but-your-kitchen attitude.  Shall we start with a snack to start?  With a heaping spoonful more of that unabashed wit, please. Oh just you wait, Dustin, you will remember our names.

Dustin didn’t charm us alone, he had a little help from the cozy and intimate space filled with modern wood elements, such as their wooden tables with wooden tripod legs, and beautiful custom-made glass and metal lights that softly glow from the ceiling and walls, all against a brick backdrop. The brightest light emanates from the open kitchen which with its open shelves of pantry goods and cookbooks made us feel like we were in a little restaurant in one of Florence’s back alleys. Or even perhaps at an Italian Nonna’s dinner table eating the most delicious dishes with explosive flavours served on the prettiest mismatching plates.

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Only here, Lucais Syme is the Nonna, and he is neither Italian nor a grandmother.  He is a tall, warm, cheerful man, who’s smile stretches from ear to ear.  His passion for feeding people is evident in the way he proudly talks about his food and when I snuck into his kitchen to browse his cookbooks, we immediately connected over The Good Cook series that we both inherited from our Moms.  Who says an Italian Nonna can’t be a tall, blonde male with Irish heritage?  He certainly cooks like one.

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The appetizers we shared set the tone for the rest of the meal.  Simple, fresh and seasonal ingredients with bold flavours.  Everything Italian food should be.  We tried to dissect each one, as I normally do, to see if we could recreate them at home. Each dish seemed simple enough but just like your favourite Nonna, Lucais’ kitchen makes every component from scratch in-house like the lip-smacking pickles in his white anchovy toast.  Trust me, it makes all the difference.  Thank God they’re just a few blocks away.

White Anchovy Toast with maitre d’hotel butter, pickles and herbs.

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Beets, Pecorino Pepato with sunflower crisp, dill and yoghurt.

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Kale with spiced squash, confit duck gizzard and cerignola olive oil.

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Paul ordered the Fraser Valley duck breast and confit with legumes and charred cabbage. Crispy skin.  Melt in your mouth meat.  Precisely what he wanted when we went back last night.  I suspect he’ll be ordering this for awhile.  The man loves his duck and this Nonna sure cooks it to perfection.

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This saffron risotto with scallops, roast lemon and mascarpone sent me up to cloud 9 after my first bite.

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It was thoroughly creamy as a risotto should be and the scallops grilled and cooked perfectly.  One would never expect any less from a Nonna.  What elevated the dish, however, was the thoughtful addition of roasting the lemon before incorporating it into the risotto.  The deeper lemon flavour, along with just a tinge of its acidity, brightens and cuts through the richness of the creamy risotto helping to curb the slight nausea I get after eating an overindulgent rich dish.  I thought this was genius, and look at that pretty scalloped edge around the plate, food pun absolutely appreciated.

I sometimes like to challenge my extremely sensitive sour taste buds when it comes to desserts.  So I said yes to the lemon tart with carmelized orange and whipped creme fraiche.

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While I enjoyed the delicate, flaky crust, my wimpy sour taste buds could not stand up to the lemon forward tartness of the filling.  It’s perfect for those of you that love tart desserts.  Lucais was clever enough to make the lemon filling rise tall by poking holes in the crust and filling it with more curd halfway through the baking.  I know my Dad will love it.

I don’t ever expect much when it comes to desserts at Italian restaurants because I don’t go for the sweets, I go for the food. And when I lived in Florence, great food was always only steps away.  My favourite restaurant was Garga, located just a few streets down from where I lived.  I only ordered their cheesecake for dessert every time, but I went back over and over again for everything else which was always delicious, comforting and a treat for my over eager taste buds. Grazie mille, Lucais, for giving me my Garga in Vancouver.  And a Nonna to call my own.

Congratulations on making this year’s Canada’s Top 100 Restaurants list!  I hope you stay small, true and focused.  As long as you keep the food coming, I’ll keep my mouth wide open.

– SS

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