As C and I make our way through the myriad of restaurants in Vancouver, I’ve come to a realization that finding one that really tugs at my heartstrings is becoming a more and more arduous task. Sure, I’ve enjoyed a lot of meals over this span, with some really satisfying the craving of the moment, but no matter how much I long for it, I have yet to find a place that I’d like to visit no matter the craving, occasion or company.
For a while now, I’ve heard a lot of good things about the gustatory delights that Chef Hamid Salimian and his team at Diva at the Met have been cooking up. Whether it is from colleagues, friends and more recently the media, the overwhelming sentiment is that Diva at the Met is one of Vancouver’s best dining experiences and I was determined to give it a try hoping that it would finally bring an end to my search.
Not dining with C this evening, I was joined instead by a group of my friends all of whom have never eaten at Diva at the Met before but were anticipating this meal as much as I was.
Dinner starts off with four “snacks” or amuses with each being heavily influenced by Chef Salimian’s Persian background. I was thoroughly curious to give this a go as it is not often that I get to have Persian inspired cuisine in this format. But after finishing off the final amuse, I could not help but feel disappointed as I had either execution or flavour issues with each snack.
Take for example, the unfortunate distracting sheet of film that was stuck on my palate while having a savoury macaroon version of a Kashk e Bademjan (a traditional eggplant dip/spread). Imaginative for sure, the aerated kashk macaroon was light and delicate, while the eggplant filling was quite subtle in taste. But unfortunately for me, due to the aforementioned sheet of film, my mind was pretty much preoccupied in devising a way to get rid of the film. I’m anal this way, with the smallest of details really eating away at me. And falling short of sticking my finger in my mouth to scrape of the residue, I was left at the mercy of the film to melt on its own pace. Luckily though, it did before the next snack arrived. Phew! I was left to ponder weather the kitchen staff had a chance to sample this item before serving it to us as my friend sitting right beside me also had the exact same experience, and I’m pretty sure the kitchen staff would have as well.
Or on the other the side of the coin, the aggressively strong sweet and sour flavours I tasted in the final snack, the Sekanjabin Kaho palate cleanser. Now I understand that sekanjabin is supposed to taste this way, but serving it with a romaine granita and apple mint grastrique, compounding the sweet and sour even more, made it land on the wrong side of the fence for me. To be honest, I was quite surprised to my reaction of this snack as I have a pretty high tolerance for really sour flavours (more on this later), so maybe I was just not used to this particular application of the ingredients. But what seemed quite strange to me was, as a palate cleanser, wasn’t the Sekanjabin Kaho supposed to clear my sense of taste for the upcoming courses and not override it with something else?
Fortunately though, the disappointments I had from the snacks were alleviated a little with what arrived next. A slow poached egg accompanied by shreds of pork hocks, sunflower seeds and finished off with a sunchoke velouté. Really you can never go wrong with any variation of eggs and ham, but letting it swim in a pool of sunchoke richness from the velouté and the occasional surprise of added texture from the sunflower seeds made sure that this dish was not another run of the mill egg and ham offering. I particularly enjoyed this even more once the egg yolk was mixed with the velouté as it mellowed out some of the saltiness from the hocks and velouté. The highlight of the evening without a doubt.
The olive oil poached lobster salad that followed was a dish that I had high hopes for. As they say “you eat with your eyes first” and this item delivered in this aspect. When presented, I could not help but think how nicely the course was plated with the red, yellow, orange and green colours really popping out against the black ceramic plate. However, whatever excitement I initially felt was dialed down after tasting how muted and one dimensional the flavours of the dish were. I was waiting for the lobster to really shine but even after eating it with the other components on the plate, such as the trout roe and radishes, it never happened. Don’t get me wrong, it was not a bad dish at all, but in concept I felt it was one that should have been better. It just did not materialize.
Usually the course I anticipate the most primarily because of the star ingredient, the foie gras course was one that did not agree with my taste buds again. Served chilled and in the form of a thin sheet blanketing the rest of the ingredients on the plate, the foie gras flavour was conspicuously missing in action as each spoonful was prominently dominated by the sweet, sweeter and even sweeter flavours from the raisins, fig and halva. This course could have definitely used the help of an acid component to balance it out and was one of the bigger let downs in the evening. A sentiment that was shared by my fellow dining companions as well.
Of the three heavier courses served in the tasting menu, the duo of lamb was definitely the best of the trio. What I enjoyed most about this dish, was the use of both fattier and leaner cuts of lamb to juxtapose the difference in flavour and texture. The striploin which was cooked just right – still reddish pink – was naturally sweet and despite being tender, still had a good bite to it. The belly on the other hand, was rolled into a medallion and seared well to form a crispy crust to seal in the juices until the last moment when you bite into it. It was definitely fatty and deadly (in a good way), easily stealing the show from all the other components on the plate. The accompanying farro risotto added a much needed creamy starch component which paired well with the both cuts of meat, while the turnips added just enough sourness and acidity to complement the richness in the belly.
The other two mains, the ling cod and yarrow meadows duck, were solid plates but not really otherworldly. At its core, the dishes stayed true to the bounty of the Pacific Northwest with the subtle Persian influences offering a slight flavour twist, however, I could not help but feel a slight sense of déjà vu as similar variations of these dishes are quite common in Vancouver. And again, just like the snacks, execution issues begin to pop up like an ugly garden gnome, making it hard to ignore. The confited duck leg, for example, was particularly dry, while the accompanying pomegranate sauce was over reduced and as a result was quite strong and thick.
As an interlude before diving into the dessert items, I’d like to take some time to write about the spacing/timing between courses that evening as I feel it was quite a big part of our table’s experience. To provide some context, our reservation was for a party of five with one person having an aversion to eggplant, so some of the courses had to be slightly altered for this one individual. With these parameters in hand, it was pretty consistent throughout the duration of the tasting for our table to wait a good 20 – 25 minutes between courses. Now to be honest, I am not sure if there really is a set amount of time that has to be followed once one course finishes and the other begins, but personally, waiting 20 – 25 minutes for a course just seems too long. At its finest, when menus are spaced out properly, my sense of time completely disappears and I need not worry when the next course will arrive as it magically appears in front of me at exactly the right moment. But at its worst, I constantly check my watch and count the seconds when the next course will arrive. This was our experience that evening and if it were not for the lively and entertaining conversations being had at the table, it would have been an even more torturous wait.
Now part of the fault could have fallen on our shoulders as we failed to communicate our displeasure to the front of the house team, but when dining at a restaurant that advertises itself as “Vancouver’s premier dining location”, I would have expected more. The fact that we waited without mentioning a single word and the staff not acknowledging any issues makes me believe that having prolonged waits between courses may just be the norm. Which is quite unfortunate.
I wrote earlier about having a high tolerance for really sour flavours and the pre-dessert was one that fit this exactly. Like a pebble sitting on top of a shallow puddle, the calamansi sorbet, encased in a black sesame crust, was surrounded by a pool of honeyed pineapple and rose water. The beauty in this dish was the inherent sour flavour from the calamansi that smacked me right in the face initially but then mellowed out to a soothing comfort afterwards. And unlike the earlier courses, where the prevalent flavours were too strong and just kept on compounding itself, each sour bite played the role of a master arbitrator, convincing my taste buds that each successive spoonful would be sweeter (but still sour to a lesser degree) compared to the previous one. The sesame crust, honeyed pineapple and rose water contributed to the mellowing of the sourness for sure but in a very supporting role.
The main dessert of the evening was the caramelized white chocolate mousse with orange, beet sherbet and cilantro. The beet sherbet, sweet like corn and refreshing, was the highlight for me. But unfortunately that is where the praise for this dessert begins and ends as no other components on the plate really had a lasting imprint on my mind.
The vision is clear. It’s there on each plate, to varying degrees – new world western techniques, Pacific Northwest bounty, Persian influences. It’s hard to ignore. But does it work? Not for me at least. But saying this, I have no doubt that for others it will (as mentioned earlier in this post).
Flavours were either too aggressively strong or too muted and one dimensional. Courses that I enjoyed, worked well because I could relate and successfully tugged at my heart strings. And one too many times, a flaw in execution or a prolonged wait in delivery, rather than flavour, crept up just when I thought the menu was making some head way.
Excellence is in the details and this was lacking in other aspects aside from the meal. Obvious black marks and scrapes on the white linen tablecloths left behind by the use of the black ceramic plates in multiple courses. And the vacated coat check station, left us on our own to look for our jackets at the end of the night.
Underwhelmed, is the exact word I would use to describe the experience in its entirety – aberrations fleeting in my mind rather than ever lasting memories.
With all the overwhelmingly positive reviews and praise out there for Diva at the Met, I cannot help but feel to be the lone blemish on record. But for that one night at least, I could feel comforted to know that others in my table felt the same way.
And so, my search continues…
To view pictures of the meal 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