1944 West 4 Ave.
Rating: **** 1/2
Dinner & drinks for 2: $80
Signature dish: Buttermilk fried chicken
Signature drink: R & B Ale
When Fuel Restaurant announced back in December that they would be closing and re-opening as a lower-priced, more casual operation, I was saddened, but not surprised. 2009 was a tough year for restaurants, and this was not the first restaurant reboot I had witnessed (see Maenam, L’Altro Buca). I was worried about how well Fuel’s original concept — local, sustainable, artisanal, West Coast —would translate on the new comfort-based menu at Refuel.
Worrying always was highly over-rated.
A handful of visits over the holidays revealed the same, thoughtful attention to provenance and quality that had won owners Tom Doughty and Robert Belcham so many dining awards in the past. The chicken was still Polderside, the pork was still Sloping Hills and the charcuterie was still Belcham’s own in-house brand, The Cure. All of the local suppliers, in fact, are in evidence on the new menu. The changes are in the content, not the quality, as in a little less foie, a little more deep-fry.
A long list of snacks, sides and starters includes hits like spiced pork ribs ($7.50), devilled eggs ($3), and the absolutely divine housemade butter ($0.50). Ox tongue salad ($11.50) may sound strange, but the proof is on the palate, where the meat melts away before you even start chewing on the watercress.
Buttermilk fried chicken ($18) was a staple from the old menu, and happily survived the change. It’s just as moist on the inside and crispy on the outside as it ever was, and the portion doesn’t seem to be noticeably smaller — in fact, I could swear the pieces are a bit bigger. It’s not a fancy plate, but the fresh coleslaw, and housemade gravy and biscuit — the latter with the merest hint of jalapeno — is just enough to leave you feeling extremely comfortable.
It also felt very comfortable eating with my hands in the new room. As much as I enjoyed the chicken at Fuel, the formality of the old room always made me feel slightly squeamish about finger food. And there is something inherently wrong about using a fork and knife on fried chicken. The redone space, however, is just casual enough that it is eminently appropriate — even required — to go the greasy finger route. The atmosphere now is definitely more in tune with laissez-faire Kitsilano, as the relaxed attitudes and frequent loud laughter of the other guests indicated.
The dry-aged beef burger ($14.50), topped with cheddar and bacon, was another moist and massive mouthful that left my friend feeling slightly burp-ish (in a good way). The fries are cooked in beef tallow, and reminded me of the salty perfection of McDonald’s fries a couple of decades ago, before they switched to vegetable oils. Crispy Humboldt squid ($9.50) was tasty and topped with lime, fresh cilantro and shredded green chilis — the last, however, were used in such massive quantities as to have me reaching frantically for the water several times. When I mentioned this to a staff member, they let me know that I could always ask for less heat — or even none — on future orders, but I still would have appreciated advance warning.
Another visit had us trying the lemon risotto ($10), an unusually simple dish garnished with shallots, parsley, and not much else — and it works.
Desserts are all $6.50, and included a lovely apple-pear crostada that was much elevated by the housemade sour cream ice cream. Our favourite, however, was the glass of peanut and chocolate parfait, layered with bits of honeycomb.
Born-again Refuel is just what the neighbourhood needed — a casual, relaxed bistro of excellent quality and value-driven price points.
The Marlborough region of New Zealand is temperate maritime region on the South Pacific, and home to varietals like Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and, notably, Sauvignon Blanc. Cloudy Bay’s 2008 Sauvignon Blanc combines a nose of passionfruit, pineapple and fresh basil with a palate of capsicum and green olive. Light acidity and a hint of lime make this a perfect match with Asian fare or freshly steamed mussels. BCLS $35.
Gastown’s Long Table
The Irish Heather (212 Carrall St.) is going strong with its Long Table Series. Enjoy a different entrée with a glass of red wine or beer for $15 or $17 every night in January and February. Full menu details available at ltsmenu.blogspot.com. Reservations by email only at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Trio of Tasting Menus
C Restaurant and Raincity Grill will all be offering three-course prix fixe dinners for $38 from Jan. 21 to 31. Nu will be offering a $28 option during the same time, and three-course lunch for $19.90. Visit www.kambolis.com for menu details and reservations.