Assessment: Barbara, hardened by the pandemic, a sustainable model for the future of restaurants


Barbara is a cool kitchen bar in Vancouver’s Chinatown.Darryl Dyck/The Globe and Mail

Last name: Barbarian Restaurant

Site: 305 E. Pender Street, Vancouver


Call: N / A

Food: Modern-Classic West Coast

Prices: Three-course tasting menu (with options), $70

Additional information: Open Tue. to Fri., 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.; credit card reservations required; max. group size four people; no takeaway or terrace

Barbara has a clear culinary voice and a distinctive point of view.Darryl Dyck/The Globe and Mail

Seventeen months after opening Restaurant Barbara, I’ve finally caught up with the boss – and so has COVID-19. Omicron hit the Chinatown kitchen bar earlier this month, shutting it down for a week.

It could have been worse. But the pandemic had already shaped and polished this little gem until it was hard as diamonds.

Barbara is a remarkably efficient and roundly lovely two-person company, led by Chef-Owner Patrick Hennessy and General Manager Claudia Fandino. Luckily, both contracted the virus at the same time (from separate holiday duties) and neither was sick, which made the stoppage brief.

Barbara is a two-person business led by General Manager Claudia Fandino and Chef-Owner Patrick Hennessy.Darryl Dyck/The Globe and Mail

Babs is an original, of course, with a clear culinary voice and a distinctive point of view (including politely controlled but inevitably ostracizing photographic protocols). But it’s also a sustainable model for the future of restaurants and hopefully we’ll see more.

The 15-seat room (now reduced to 10 due to social distancing restrictions) is essentially a large open kitchen with a bar to one side, surrounded by an L-shaped counter and a few high tables for two along from the opposite wall and front window.

The space is decorated with a lovely abstract mural by Vancouver artist Sarah Delaney, curved wood panels, and pops of neon pink. But the main focal point is Mr. Hennessy, calmly juggling pans and an endless succession of small plates in a compact stainless steel kitchen dominated by a giant automatically circulating extractor hood.

Chef Patrick Hennessy works in Barbara’s kitchen on January 12.Darryl Dyck/The Globe and Mail

The chef doesn’t have much time to chat, but the personal touch of having him deliver each plate with a detailed description of each handmade ingredient, composed in a carefully orchestrated dance just steps away, gives the experience a rare sense. of social intimacy that the pandemic has largely negated.

A three-course tasting menu is carefully selected with three options (one vegetarian) on each level. A new dish is added every week or two, but several signature dishes have remained constant, accentuated by the changing seasons.

Cauliflower flan.Darryl Dyck/The Globe and Mail

In October, for example, a deeply buttered squash flan was surrounded by charred chicory, crisp sage and roasted pumpkin seeds; by December, the flavor profile had shifted to cauliflower, smoked almonds and fresh herbs. Both versions were great.

Straciatelle.Darryl Dyck/The Globe and Mail

Almost all the ingredients are homemade, including the gently melting stracciatella (served with heirloom tomatoes or twice-cooked beets, depending on the month).

Mr. Hennessy’s technical skills are impressive, especially given the constraints of his gasless kitchen. The potato starch coating on an exquisite firm tender octopus was thin and crispy. And the seared skin of the Arctic char was browned until crispy (although the soft-edged strip loin could have used more color).

Spicy persimmon granita.Darryl Dyck/The Globe and Mail

His influences lean towards the classical, but often surprise. I almost gave up on oysters because a clean shell, while nice, usually doesn’t say much about a chef. But these delicate Kusshis, dressed in a perfectly balanced reseda, were in reality only a vehicle for a frothy Vichyssoise adorned with a crispy nest of leek matches.

Crispy octopus.Darryl Dyck/The Globe and Mail

Its flavors pack the punch. The beef tartare (not ground to order, but crisp nonetheless) has a slightly dry-aged funk that pops underneath the blackcurrant bent mayo. Juicy sweetbreads are drizzled with richly acidic sherry jus. Pink veal tongues luxuriate under balls of smoked eggs in a bed of creamy remoulade spiced up with vibrant dill.

Even the honey-drizzled fried eggplant, which was served as a free snack between courses, gave the garlicky chermoula dip some stiff, fragrant competition.

Barbara’s wines are hand-selected by Mrs. Fandino.Darryl Dyck/The Globe and Mail

The bold flavors pair well with an exacting list of high-acid local natural wines, many of which are produced in such small quantities that you’ll never find them on store shelves. Wines are hand-selected by Ms. Fandino, who graciously pours samples if it helps convert boring classic wine drinkers to the meaty, fuzzy peach thrill of a low-skin contact Muscat. She also mixes deeply dimensional cocktails as she weaves her way through the tight space with contagious warmth and flexible octopus arms.

This isn’t the first time Mr. Hennessy has circled the block. He started working at the Beach House in West Vancouver as a teenager, has cooked at many notable local restaurants (Raincity Grill, Chambar, Kissa Tanto) and has been keen to open his own since returning in 2011 from a stint of a year in New York as one of eight sous chefs at Eleven Madison Park.

In the meantime, he’s run an underground kitchen in his apartment, played on private yachts, built furniture, and survived an extraordinarily serendipitous kidney transplant, provided by a previously unknown family donor who appeared in no time. time.

He had no intention of opening a restaurant that wouldn’t be profitable, and the pandemic forced some adjustments that made Barbara not only a leader, but more likely to survive in the long run.

When it opened in June 2020, the tasting menu was optional — and $20 cheaper. Now priced at $70 for three courses (with some snacks) and no longer optional, it’s probably one of the most expensive fixed prices (per item) in Vancouver.

It’s not the best, not by far. There are much more ambitious, innovative and artfully prepared tasting menus all over the city. But its price is realistic given the spiraling costs in our crisis-ridden economy. And with only 10 seats, Barbara doesn’t have to win over the masses.

My only complaint: the $7 granita is an extra too far. It’s just flavored ice cream. A tasting menu seems incomplete without dessert, and this optional extra leaves a sour final impression.

Because Vancouverites have a terrible habit of not showing up for reservations, reservations must be made with a credit card. Cancellations with less than 12 hours notice (very reasonable) are charged $50 per person. This should be standard practice throughout the industry.

Last summer, Mr Hennessy implemented a shorter working week and closed the restaurant on Saturdays. It’s usually the busiest night for a downtown restaurant and that’s almost unheard of. This is admirable, because hotel workers also need a life. And with just two people doing everything from morning prep to washing up, it would be very easy to get burned out.

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