781 Denman Street, Vancouver, BC
Email: nookrestaurant [at] gmail.com
Hours: open 7 days a week from 5pm
Owners Mike Jeffs (chef) and Nicole Welsh
Nook is a cozy pizza, pasta and antipasto restaurant in the West End of Vancouver. The room has a vibrancy to it as the thin crust pizzas and pastas are prepared in an open kitchen near the back of the room and antipasto items – crostinis, Burrata, La Quercia Prosciutto and salami platters are at the front of the room. The menu is kept intentionally small and focussed so that we can feature a number of daily specials. The wine list is all Italian and features many hard to find labels with the majority being served by the glass. If you are looking for a place with really good food, really good wine, great energy with a knowlegeable staff and a fun soundtrack playing throughout the room – Nook is the spot for you.
Vancouver Courier | Tim Pawsey
Perched on a stool at the corner of the bar of West End restaurant Nook, the Hired Belly and his team of selfless researchers suddenly find themselves in foodie heaven, working through a fresh and flavour-packed list that yields no end of delight and surprise.
Newly minted Nook (781 Denman St., ph. 604-568-4554) is a sibling to nearby Tapastree, just around the corner–itself a long-running, notable haunt and one of the city’s earliest small plates proponents. Maybe that explains how this one-time schnitzel house seems to have been effortlessly transformed into a “serious” yet unpretentious Italian haunt focused on authentic plates and soundly sourced ingredients.
No surprise, Nook has already been discovered by locals and tourists alike, so your visit might start with a bit of a wait. But the rewards are worth any time put in at the door. Not only that, the staff is alert to who’s in line and makes sure you’re seated as soon as possible.
Offered the chance, we jumped at the bar. Designed as much for dining as for sipping from the room’s smart, well-priced and almost entirely Italian list, it doubles as the room’s charcuterie and cold plates prep station, a forward outpost of the bustling open kitchen in back, which concentrates on pasta and pizza.
Soon we’re sipping on floral Falanghina ($34), fighting over tastes of prosciutto-wrapped figs and a medley of crostini, with inventive toppings such as ricotta with grilled radicchio, pistachio and fireweed honey ($6). These and a salami plate are prepared bar-side, by the ever attentive Christy, who manages to make us feel more than welcome as she juggles her orders.
The kitchen obliges with fresh, handmade gnocchi with meatball morsels ($15), as well as roasted tomato, olive, onion and ricotta-laden pizza ($14). When it comes to the temptation of affogato (ice cream bathed in espresso, $6) and liquor-soaked tiramisu (arguably one of the best we’ve tasted, also $6), resistance proves futile.
Next day, I return before opening hours to find the room in full play, literally, with sound system cranked to build the night’s energy, with most of the activity around the kitchen’s pastry board, as the evening’s supplies of gnocchi, ravioli and other pasta are being made from scratch–just one crucial element of Nook’s early success.
Truly good restaurants don’t merely satisfy, they titillate, seduce at every level and wrap you in the comfort of their rhythm–so much so, that you can’t wait to come back.
Put Nook in the book.
Westender | Andrew Morrison
The southern blocks of Denman Street are filled with some of the city’s most narrowly focused food shops, little one-trick-pony altars to indulgence that reflect the neighourhood’s sizeable 40-and-under demographic and its seasonal influx of beach-loving visitors: Dairy Queen, gelaterias, a chocolatier, and chain outlets exclusively dedicated to cupcakes, cookies, and cream puffs, never mind Vera’s Burger Shack, Fatburger, and all those pizza and gyro joints. Quite rightly, the stretch between West Georgia and Davie boasts a variety of nicknames, among them Sweet Street and Heart Attack Row. My personal favourite is Fatassenstrasse.
There is noticeably less of this along the blocks of Denman further to the north, between Robson and West Georgia, where the success and relative longevity of restaurants including Kintaro, Café de Paris, and Tapastree combine to cast an air of culinary seriousness that neatly counters the gastronomic frivolousness up the street. New restaurants here are few and far between. Last summer, while looking for a new place to test drive, I chanced upon Schnitzelz, a then new fast-food concept that saw the tired old Austrian staple reinvented (and misspelled) in many guises, none of them remotely appetizing. But what the hell, I thought, I might as well. Two bites into my meal, however, I’d had enough. As is true of much to eat on Denman, it wasn’t worth writing about.
Fast-forward nine months, and Schnitzelz has been put out of its misery and replaced by Nook, a small Italian trattoria that has four things going for it right out of the gate.
First, instead of being another chain restaurant or another beast born of high-fructose corn syrup, Nook is brought to us by Nicole Welsh and Mike Jeffs of Tapastree, the small-plates mecca located just around the corner. They bring with them battalions of established customers, and the goodwill of a community already familiar with them.
Second, Nook is pretty, having been designed by Scott Cohen and Stephan Gagnon, the duo behind good-looking rooms including Les Faux Bourgeois, Jules Bistro, Bistrot Bistro, and the newest location of Nuba. Distinguished by a long 12-seat bar lined with chrome-legged highchairs upholstered in garish red, and cream-tiled walls and floors, it’s a classic diner made Euro. A meat slicer is positioned front and centre, and staff are dressed head to toe in black. The music sways comically from obscure ’80s rock to dub reggae.
Third, Italian cuisine is staging a big comeback in Vancouver right now. The recently opened L’Altro Buca, just a few blocks away on Haro Street, was the first new Italian restaurant the West End had seen in many years, and it’s doing gangbusters. Clearly, an audience for Nook exists.
Fourth, the prices play to these recessionary times. None of the dishes are over $15.
So, yeah, talk about ducks in a row. The only way Nook might have screwed it up would have been if the kitchen couldn’t cook or if the service proved irredeemably awful. Happily, both are bang on.
The meat-heavy menu smartly avoids the kitchen-sink temptations that the challenge of Italian cuisine brings out in non-Italians. Very good crostini ($6 each) opened the meal: the white bean and olive version was smooth then pungent; the grilled radicchio and candied pistachios on ricotta with fireweed honey was a dance between bitter and sweet; the caper-topped chicken liver spread was a simple, crunchy, and savoury treat that needed nothing more nor anything less. A fourth version (on the specials board) came topped with a seasonal tower of mashed green peas, fresh tomato, and mozzarella — basic, flavourful, and evocative of the height of summer (which, let us not forget, is still to come), this was the best of the lot.
A selection of antipasto followed, including bowls of olives ($4), delicious little meatballs ($9), and thin wedges of quality focaccia ($4), upon which we laid long sheets of too-lean prosciutto and olive-oil-doused buffalo mozzarella ($12). We also enjoyed a taster of very good salami (from Seattle’s famed Salumi) that included a mild soppressata and a sweet and spicy dark-molé type ($12).
A gas-fueled pizza oven produces surprisingly fine thin-crust pies, each priced between $13 and $15. (A wood-burning oven would be ideal, but there are only a handful in the entire Lower Mainland). My wife and I sliced through a pie loaded with fresh arugula, prosciutto, and roasted garlic, and eyed five others that were just as refreshingly uncomplicated. There were six pastas along the same lines and price points: The pesto with sundried tomato and pine nuts was fresh and lively; and the orecchiette with sausage, fennel, and chilies provided a solid punch. But the bolognese was prepped debole, the mildly-flavoured southern version, red-tinged with the kiss of tomato paste. I would have preferred the brown, significantly richer robusto ragu style characteristic of the north.
I love Nook for its simple approach to an often over-complicated milieu, and for its utter lack of pretense. I also like that it only serves Italian beer (Moretti, Menabrea, and Peroni; $6 each), and that the almost exclusively Italian wine list is abrupt and well chosen. In fact, I’m hard pressed to think of anything that I didn’t like about the place. That’s only partly because small, original, and charming neighbourhood restaurants are increasingly rare in these days of big-box hegemony, and rarer still on a street defined by sugary superfluousness. Mostly, it’s because the food is good and affordable. It’s always exciting to see a place like this open, but it’s even more exciting to know it will survive.