DINER: Inside Kaulback & Oliver’s Highly Anticipated “Mamie Taylor’s” In Chinatown

February 28, 2013.

We first broke the news about the coming of Mamie Taylor’s back in November of last year. We didn’t know much about the Chinatown restaurant back then, except that it was a project by Gastown fixtures Simon Kaulback and Ron Oliver, and that it was to be located in the old Keefer Bakery space at 251 East Georgia. We didn’t even know the name at the time, or who the chef was. Still, knowing the principals was good enough for us. The pair, who manage Boneta and The Diamond restaurants respectively, are widely considered tops among their peers, and the address – just a couple of blocks from the Scout office – is on one of our favourite stretches in the city (between Gore and Main, right across from Phnom Penh). This 100 seater also marks their first trip into the wilderness of independence, so they’ll be pouring a lot of heart and soul into it.

The only other thing that we had some inkling of back then was the food concept…

…it sounds to me like they’re planning to do something akin to adventurous American comfort food, the kind of gastropubbish, rough and ready (but nevertheless refined) sort of thing one eats at Calgary’s Model Milk, Portland’s Woodsman Tavern, New York’s Spotted Pig, Charleston’s Husk, and San Francisco’s Park Tavern…

They have since hired a chef, and I’m glad to say that it’s the young and talented Tobias Grignon (below, between Kaulback on the left and Oliver on the right).

Grignon comes to the job via Kitsilano’s super steady Bistro Pastis, where he toiled as executive chef for two years. Previously, he was the sous chef at The Vancouver Club and chef at the now defunct Senova. I’ve seen the first draft of his menu, and it reads similarly to how I imagined it would, which is to say rather attractively, with the refined, old school American streak unmistakable. Think fried chicken with creamed nettles, buttermilk biscuit, and cumin raisin jam; grits with duck egg, prosciutto, white cheddar, and tomato relish; pork chops with squash corn bread, bacon-wrapped apples, tiger blue cheese, and cider reduction — among other flashes of Lower 48 familiarity (yea, verily, I even spied a burger).

It’s tempting to call such items “modern twists on American classics”, but that’s a lazy turn of phrase (usurped by the Guy Fieri set) and I’ll be damned if I’m going to use it. To me, given the name – Mamie Taylor’s – and what I’d already been told of the concept, Grignon’s dishes read like the sorts I would imagine Teddy Roosevelt would regularly dig in to. Why? Because Roosevelt was emblematic – in my opinion – of the United States before anything was “classic” about it. He was rotund but boundlessly energetic, always cajoling, ever hopeful, quick to smile, and projecting quiet power with dirt under his fingernails and sweat on his pocket square. And yet, even though he led the Rough Riders up San Juan Hill and was one of the most prodigious big game hunters to ever haunt the continent of Africa, he was still a bit of an asthmatic fancy boy who studied biology at Harvard. He had great taste, and he loved food. I mean, just look at him.

Roosevelt’s presidency – especially his first term – exemplified the pre-war, pre-Prohibition era; a crazy time when new inventions – telephones, radios, automobiles, airplanes – came fast and furious. It also welcomed the first hot dog, New York’s first pizzeria, the first hamburger, and a great many other American culinary cornerstones. The USA was a rambunctious teenager on his watch, keen to try just about anything but knowing full well what it liked.

Contemporary with these developments was the “Mamie Taylor”, a new cocktail invented in 1899 by a Rochester, NY bartender named Bill Sterritt. The combination of scotch whisky, lime juice and ginger ale was named after a young and popular actress/singer who starred in a traveling troupe (her real name was Mayme Taylor – the misspelling being immediate and universal). It was while visiting Ontario Beach, according to a 1902 article in The Post Standard, that…

“she was asked with a number of other members of the company to go out sailing on the lake. As the day was hot and the breeze rather strong, the party returned after a few hours longing for some cooling refreshments. When Miss Taylor was asked what she would have she expressed the wish for a long but not strong drink — in fact, a claret lemonade. When the drink was served it was very evident that it wasn’t a claret lemonade, for it looked like a delicious long drink of sparkling champagne. On tasting it Miss Taylor found it much to her liking, but asked to have the flavor softened with a piece of lemon peel. When this was done the new combination drink was declared a complete success. Bystanders had been watching the proceedings and noticing the evident enjoyment with which Miss Taylor and a few of her friends relished in new drink they finally asked the hotel keepr what drink it was that was being served to them and without hesitation the hotel man replied “a Mamie Taylor” and the name seemed to meet with instantaneous favour and has become famous all over the country.”

Though the cocktail became a national sensation, appearing in countless newspaper articles and being the drink of choice at the 1900 Republican convention (which – ahem – elected Teddy Roosevelt), it soon after dropped off the radar. Completely. And so did Mayme herself. A decade after that serendipitous sail on the lake, both cocktail and woman were lost to the American tradition, languishing as ghostly footnotes and generational punchlines, the Victorian equivalents of “New Coke” and the Backstreet Boys. On the one hand, her story typifies how easy it was to become (and inspire) a legend at the turn of the century, and on the other hand, she’s a symbol of vanity’s endgame, the skull of Yorick in Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar?

Where, indeed.

But I digress. The restaurant won’t see a portrait of Roosevelt hanging above the bar, nor will it sport an aesthetic that borrows heavily from Legends of the Fall. It’s just that the name and Grignon’s first menu draft seemed to me to be pretty synergistic, combining for a sweet spot in time when a cook’s creative juices weren’t watered down by the dogma of tradition.

“It behooves every man to remember that the work of the critic is of altogether secondary importance,” Roosevelt once said, so you can treat my own thoughts and predictions as they are. I anticipate a proper, good-looking cocktail bar – as good as Boneta’s and The Diamond’s – with a food program dishing out refined, well-presented Americana. I’m sure that Kaulback, Oliver and Grignon will detail their concept and share it in good time, but for now – as you can see from the photos – their priorities are the hammer and nail.

Mamie Taylor’s is scheduled to open in the Summer of 2013.

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