Mozart vs. Salieri, Freud vs. Jung, Godzilla vs. Mothra – great rivalries all. But the greatest rivalry that Vancouver has witnessed was when David Hawksworth squared off against Rob Feenie. A time when one could dine one night and be dazzled by Hawksworth assuredness at West, and then be completely seduced the next night by tight rope wizardry at Feenie’s Lumiere.
Those days are behind us. Tastes, business models, and life priorities have changed. I hazard, and this is completely a wild guess on my part, that both David Hawksworth and Rob Feenie are much happier now, having measured themselves favorably on the world stage and against each other – it was time to move on.
David Hawksworth opened his eponymous restaurant a number of years ago, and the gorgeous room, with it’s hushed neutral palette luxury, dazzling art work, and smoothly informed service has become the de-facto venue of choice for sharp fine dining. This is the alpha dog of Vancouver high end restaurants, a place to save up for and savor. And the restaurant has embraced this role wholeheartedly – with prices that mean that you’ll pay $100 for a meal before even glancing at wine or cocktails.
When the dishes work – they are hard, if not impossible, to fault. The beef neck ravioli with sunchokes and salsify is an exercise in layered savoriness – each element unfolding seamlessly, shreds of beef beautifully tender yet retaining it’s character. The pan roasted sablefish with charred leeks and fennel, lifted by notes of ginger and yuzu is exactly on point. Hawksworth’s preparation of fish is consistently of the highest calibre, properly cooked without the usual rubberiness that results from sous vide abuse.
The superbly tender lamb loin slicked with a sticky lamb jus and accompanied by delicate petals of potato and onion is Sunday roast elevated to glorious heights.
The dishes stumble though, when Asian elements are badly applied. Japanese squid, scored and overcooked to a curly chew had lost all inherent sweetness and texture. The raw tasting red chili sauce dabbed on top and jolts of funky fish sauce did not help matters.
A main of sturgeon, notoriously difficult fish to cook well, was perfectly tender and sumptuous, but bafflingly lacquered in garish red glaze that was pure sugar, and the accompanying cucumber salad provided no textural or flavor counterpoint. The net effect was hot fish candy.
Overall, the menu is disjointed and does not coalese into a coherent vision. Asian sharpness and bite of one dish having to, somehow, inform and flow into another dish of pure French rich heaviness. It doesn’t work and it’s left to the diner to figure out how to put together the meal’s narrative, rather than listen the chef’s story.
What’s really missing is David Hawksworth’s point of view.
Today, Vancouver chefs support and collaborate with each other, building strong community ties. And of course, that is a good thing. But when the West vs. Lumiere Battle was in full swing, the food reached a level that remains unmatched today. Two huge talents putting their all on the line, night after night, year after year. Vancouver Magazine’s Best Formal Restaurant Award being passed back and forth – a trophy claimed, lost, and then reclaimed by opposing armies.
David Hawksworth’s business ambitions are pretty apparent, but I miss the thoughtful bravado and fearlessness I saw at West. No one should begrudge his success – he’s worked very hard for every little piece of it. I just wish he was a bit more hungry.