Casual dining is Vancouver’s bread and butter. From cuisines that span all continents to atmospheres that cater to a variety of social niches, the city is laced with an endless array of moderately-priced, laid back establishments to choose from. However, as with anything that gains popularity, the spawning of so many causal eateries has flooded this segment of the Vancouver restaurant market, and finding ones that really stick out for its uniqueness has become difficult.
Wildebeest, located in the Gastown neighbourhood of Vancouver, is one place that at first glance seems to be baked from the same cookie cutter mold used by its fellow neighbouring restaurants. With high ceilings, exposed brick walls, a dimly lit restaurant space, background music on loop and a stylish cocktail program, there isn’t much on the surface that differentiates it from the rest. But digging a little deeper and peeling back the layers of minutia, reveals the restaurant’s core and main selling point.
With a lot of temptations to over think and stylize food these days, the primal approach Wildebeest takes with its menu is a welcomed change of pace. The menu, which partly reads like a butcher shop selling unwanted parts of an animal, has a healthy mix of dishes that uses offal, seldomly appreciated cuts of meat and traditional west coast fare. All of which are complemented by a short list of additional ingredients that do not take away from the main protein on the plate. And from the items we ordered that evening, the sweetbreads, pork jowls and beef cheeks were by far some of the stand outs.
The roasted sweetbreads were accompanied on the plate by wild mushrooms, caramelized buttermilk and a porcini vinaigrette. The sweetbreads had a glasslike crunchy exterior and a smooth creamy inside. The wild mushrooms and caramelized buttermilk tasted like mushroom gravy when eaten together. They also added a richness that complemented the subtle flavour from the sweetbreads.
The pork jowls, served with long pepper-scented oats and bourbon barrel-aged maple syrup, had amazing texture. Cut thinly, it was springy and had just enough bite to it. The oats mixed with the maple syrup was not overly sweet and worked very well with the pork, bringing out its natural sweetness. With the entire table in agreement, we ordered a second serving of the pork jowls.
A huge honking cut of beef cheek is presented in a shallow bowl with vanilla roasted rutabaga, shallot crumbs and carrot jus. It was really tender and cooked to a point where the fattiness in the natural Angus beef melted right into the meat keeping it moist and full of beefy flavour.
With how well the meat and offal centric mains were received by our group, it was not quite the same with the starters, the beef tendon daikon salad and oysters. Lost in the salad’s cilantro, daikon, Szechuan pepper vinaigrette and sesame powder was the soy-braised beef tendon. It was cut so thinly and its flavour was drowned out by the sourness in the salad that we hardly noticed it was part of the dish. Additionally, the raw Pacific coast oysters finished off with a sprinkling of Ardbeg Scotch were surprisingly served at room temperature which made it a tad off-putting.
Besides regular dinner service, Wildebeest also does brunch every Saturday and Sunday so C and I stopped by a week after our dinner to give it a try. True to form, the brunch menu does not stray away from the simple done well concept, but rather than the family style format served at dinner, brunch has both individual and for the table options. C went with the very rich scrambled eggs, bone marrow, parsley salad and toast. I decided on the smoked steelhead, roasted beets, hard boiled egg, foraged greens and honey mustard vinaigrette salad. Sweet from the beets, salty from the smoked trout and refreshing from the greens, the salad seemed to be one of lighter items on the brunch menu but surprisingly it filled me up.
During our dinner at Wildebeest, one of our dining companions mentioned that it was a good thing we were visiting at the time that we did as there were rumblings that the mastermind behind the concept and menu, Executive Chef David Gunawan, was leaving or had already left his post. As it turns out, our friend was right and it was reported back in mid January that Chef Wesley Young was taking over the kitchen.
We had not had the chance to dine at Wildebeest while Chef Gunawan was at the helm so it’s hard to say if it has changed at all. But from our experience, Wildebeest still stays true to the original vision that was put in place and that initially brought the restaurant to our attention. Whether this has an impact on the restaurant’s direction is hard to say. Personally I hope not, but as long as it does not deviate too far away from what has already made it quite a treat and continues to improve on some of the dishes, there will always be a place for it among the sea of casual dining restaurants in Vancouver.
To view pictures of our meals in its entirety, click through the photo set below. If you are using a mobile device, please click here for compatibility.
Thanks for reading,
S & C