Really, What The Hell Happened To “Voya” In The Loden Hotel?

September 13, 2010.

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by Andrew Morrison | Read that sign above again. Don’t focus on the spelling errors. Ignore that a supposedly fine dining restaurant of much repute is advertising a tuna melt, and nevermind that it’s nearly 10pm and the staff have forgotten to take in the lunch sign again. I want to, don’t you?

What the hell happened to Voya?

The much ballyhooed restaurant with so much potential in the Loden Hotel has faded away, slowly and without much of a peep. It’s been nearly two years since it opened, and it’s a mere shadow of what it promised to be when it arrived.

Back then, I was convinced it would be rock solid for years to come. I think I even pegged it for some awards. Why? Because it was chef Marc-Andre Choquette’s first swing at the independence bat after working as Rob Feenie’s chef de cuisine for over a thousand years. His cooking had long ago revealed him to be one of the most promising chefs of his local generation, and what he was doing here was really very superb. I top-tenned it in my annual 2008 list of the best new restaurants (#7 in 2008), and gave it one of the best reviews I’d written that year…

A London-style taxi emblazoned with the Loden’s branding stood at the curb when we approached last Wednesday night. A doorman swept my wife and I inside and into a lobby decorated stunningly on a minimalist tip. Elevators down a corridor to the right rose to the hotel’s 77 rooms, including a $4000 a night penthouse (we toured it, and left feeling weak-kneed and very poor), while to the left is Voya’s lounge, which opens on to the dining room. The former is as slick as it gets, with huge cylindrical chandeliers falling on sexy (if a little rigid) chairs fronting a clean-lined bar led by Jay Jones, one of Vancouver’s best bartenders (if not the best).

And yet…

Gone is Jay (to Pourhouse, then the wilderness). Gone is his number two, Simon Ogden (kicking ass at The Veneto in Victoria). Gone is Owen Lightly (a sous chef under James Walt at Araxi). Gone are the service staff (to the diaspora, the best to Main’s new Cafeteria). Gone, too, is the cuisine that I fell for almost instantly…

The first course, an amuse of ricotta fritters, was a rather pedestrian introduction (I’d been waiting over a year for this place, damn it, and you give me cheese fritters to say hello?), but then came the frog’s legs. Arranged impeccably in a row on a rectangular, gleaming white plate and coated in a sweet Asian BBQ sauce flecked with sesame, they were supremely succulent: obviously the product of a studied hand ($15). A second amuse, a tiny, chilled Qualicum Bay scallop lit up by a salty Vietnamese-style broth of fish sauce, peanut, and citrus, washed over my palate like a cold ocean wave. Next came tiny parcels of quail fastened and fried with chili and garlic, the outer crunch and tang of which gently juxtaposed the softly-textured and delicately-flavoured meat within. Warm, perfectly cooked leeks wrapped in house-made maple bacon followed. Presented as a tightly wrought discus, its balanced earthiness and saltiness were accented with the bitterness of endive and the nuttiness of hazelnut. So far, we’d only made a dent in the list of appetisers, but we couldn’t leave without trying a main course. The kitchen was kind enough to pare down an obscene, 16 ounce piece of halibut to 8 ounces for our sparrow bellies, which dropped the price from $38 to $26. Served with lemon, capers, and a side of sweetly meaty chanterelles, it drank up its brown butter sauce like a wayward sailor. It was probably the single best piece of white fish I’d had all year (halibut is hard to screw up but equally tricky to prepare in a fashion that will blow one away). For dessert, we were wowed by a chocolate dome centered with passionfruit and topped with a sprinkle of house-made pop rocks.

That review of mine is still on their website, which now makes me ask again – what the hell happened to Voya? I walked in tonight and found it empty save for a pair of suits drinking at the end of the bar. There was a barman and a single server, both who’d require a strobe light to look busy. It was a Monday night, granted, but the air was thick with a spooky sedateness that reeked of impending implosion, of a team going through the motions to run down a clock of obligation. It felt sad, almost like a crime scene.

The once gorgeous dining room had shrunk by half, the other now taken up by a pair of walled-off private meeting rooms for the hotel’s occasional corporate bigwig. Just one of the stunning chandeliers that once dominated the elegant, open space remains. Its singularity shocked, as if I’d just discovered someone had violated a painting that I loved.

But most traumatic of all was Choquette’s new menu, which read like the sordid wish-list of a first year undergraduate student high off his ass on a cocktail of cocaine, Red Bull and peer pressure. Was this really his food? Chuck burgers with cheddar and bacon? Beef sliders? Beef dip? Spaghetti and meatballs? Caesar salad? It couldn’t be!

It wasn’t him, of course. It couldn’t be. There had to be someone, a consulting, chain-loving accountant from the seventh circle of hell perhaps, who was making him do this under some serious, tear-worthy duress in the name of making ends meet. Does he need to be saved? He’s not asking for help (as far as I know), but the man must be a hostage held against his will. I mean, he’s plating nachos, for fuck’s sake!

Really, what the hell happened to Voya? From what I hear, they’re in ‘transition’, which is a common euphemism in this business for fucked. I imagine we’ll see a press release soon saying as much, albeit in the language of PR, which is to say that they’re changing, improving, re-branding, re-imagining…whatever.

I felt like an ant as I was leaving. They were playing Sinatra on the hi-fi, drowning out a baseball game that no one cared about…

Just what makes that little ole ant
Think he’ll move that rubber tree plant?
Anyone knows an ant can’t
Move a rubber tree plant
But he’s got high hopes. He’s got high hopes.
He’s got apple pie in the sky hopes…

That stupid ant…

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