ON A MISSION: Looking For The City’s Best Gnocchi And Finding It In A French Bistro…
by Claire Lassam | I wish I could start this off by telling a sweet story about my Italian grandmother teaching me how to make potato pasta, or even of my non-Italian mother who embraced my father’s heritage with gusto by showing me how to push the yukon golds through a ricer and carefully fold in just the right amount of flour, but this is not the case. I do vaguely remember my Nona’s gnocchi, but in a far off, nostalgic way that makes me wonder if I’m not just exaggerating them with a trick of memory. Mostly, I remember reading and re-reading Thomas Kellers recipe, and all the worrying and fussing and time it took the first time I made his gnocchi. I could never forget the overwhelming relief that came when I took that first bite. It was not just relief, but also happiness, the slightly awestruck feeling that I had done it right (I think I was only 15, so there were more misses than hits at this point).
Anyway, it was in that instant that I first fell in love with proper gnocchi; little nuggets of potato that were soft and fluffy with just enough bite that they held together for a magic instant before melting away entirely. They required time, energy and a little finesse, but they were worth it. When bound – typically – in a little tomato sauce, they make the perfect comfort food.
The trouble, for me at least, is always the time and the lack of space. I find myself eating them out more often than making them in, and so my mission this week was to find Vancouver’s best gnocchi dish. I needed the soft, ethereal little dumplings to be served in a sauce with character; a real exemplar that would inspire me to return again and again. It wasn’t easy.
Most classic Italian restaurants get the texture right, so I began with Il Giardino and Cioppino’s. Both produced lovely versions (I have it on good authority that it’s the same recipe at both), but Cioppino’s won hands down in the tomato sauce department, what with their delicious addition of mozzarella di buffalo. Still, at $25 a bowl, I felt a little gouged, even with the wonderful cheese.
I went to Campagnolo for a different experience, and found a tantalizing, Roman-style gnocchi made with semolina flour (not potato). Sadly, the texture was disappointing (the dough was over-salted) and the sauce lacked punch. Boneta’s was a big improvement, and thus far my favourite. They were tiny and covered in a wild mushroom cream sauce with a wonderful lemon juice zing. It was so good, in fact, that I went twice. The gnocchi themselves could have been a little softer (they had a slightly gummy texture, probably from working the dough just the smallest amount too much), and on both occasions the sauce was split (the bottoms of the finished bowls were all oil with bits of white sauce trapped within). Imperfect, but still very good.
The best was found by accident. I didn’t expect to find any gnocchi on the menu at Tableau, the French bistro at the foot of Coal Harbour’s Loden Hotel, but when some friends and I popped in for a drink and I saw them on offer, I had to give them a try (I was feeling lucky, and lucky I was). These were flawless, placed as they were atop a pool of pesto cream sauce and dotted with wild mushrooms (not getting soggy underneath). Every time the dish would begin to seem too rich, I’d get a bite of a roasted tomato – still sharply acidic – and it would make me start craving the cream again. They were pan-fried to finish, and despite the resultant, crisped exteriors, they were still meltingly tender. They were thus endowed with more flavour, allowing them be the star of their own show. And in this girl’s opinion, that’s exactly what they should be.
Claire Lassam is a baker, blogger, and freelance writer based in East Van. She has been cooking and baking her way through the city for nearly five years, working in restaurants ranging from Cioppino’s to Meat & Bread. She currently toils at Beta 5 Chocolates and runs the baking blog Just Something Pretty.