AWESOME THING WE ATE #911 | Big Steaks And Tableside Caesars In The Belly Of Hy’s
by Andrew Morrison | If I had not only a guarantee that dinosaurs were genuinely tame but also solid assurances that their breeding was being strictly controlled by heavily-armed paleo-geneticists, I’d be totally OK about having them back to roam in very small numbers.
I feel the same way about steakhouses. The adoration I had for them as a wide-eyed child of limited tastes has insured a residue of affection still powerful enough to bring me back to them at least once a year. And the more traditional they are, the better. I’ll have none of this Pinky’s “Steakhouse for Girls” or Black & Blue discotheque nonsense, thank you very much. I want a 75 year old server named Frank calmly maintaining my table with an economy of words and actions. I also want to bask in the moody darkness. Not the dumb Donnelly style of darkness seemingly designed to shield our senses from seething ugliness, but rather the type on that rare ethereal plane wherein the act of dining amplifies the scant light provided by candles and the occasional wall sconce. Its faint flame is nearly doused by the dark wood panelling but it still dances off the white jackets of the staff, flickers on the linen, and makes the odd bit of brass piping shine like gold. Such a light also lingers on the serrated blades of over-sized steak knives, bathes in the bowls of big Bordeaux wine glasses that need to be washed by hand on account of their vast brittleness, and takes the creepiness out of the ancient oil portraits staring back at you from the walls. Light is a key facet of the old school steakhouse atmosphere, anchoring the experience even more than the sound-deadening carpet or the refreshing absence of hats.
There are only two exemplars of such light in Vancouver, Hy’s Encore and Gotham Steakhouse. I’ve just eaten at both on back to back evenings. I regret that I didn’t take a camera or a notebook to Gotham, preferring instead to dine like a regular human being (just this once). The steaks were first rate – blackened Chicago filets and strips with crab legs and prawns – and the service was superb, but for the purposes of this story I’m only going to relate how things went at Hy’s Encore.
Hy’s, as you know, has been on Hornby St. since the early Cretaceous. Believe it or not, the decor has actually been “updated” from the Arthur Fishman-designed original (1960′s), but it’s as I’ve always remembered it: dark, deathly quiet, and frequented by corporate Ron Swanson types and old codgers wealthy enough to afford especially sharp dental work. The room’s baronial pretension doesn’t feel the least bit Vancouver-y, and I like that. It’s an absolute escape, like something out of Jules Verne. There’s no stylish bartender holding court with plaid pomp and twirled moustache, no ubiquitous soundtrack or desperately obsequious two minute “quality check” that makes you want to throw a punch (“How are the flavours tonight?” Pow!). It’s just ordered effortlessness, the sort of pampering that has mostly gone out of this world, or at least this city.
The food, as you can well imagine, hasn’t changed that much since I was a child. The Caesar salads and Bananas Foster are still made flawlessly a la minute and tableside [6, 3]. All of the ancient standards are there, everything from $17.95 Are You Kidding Me non-spot prawn cocktails  and slightly rubbery, garlic-wombed escargot  to French Onion soup and boozy Mussels Normandy. They even offer 1,000 Island salad dressing! The steaks are still perfect, only now they are even more exorbitantly expensive. My favourite remains the “house special” Gorgonzola Filet, an 8 ouncer done medium rare (I’m a lightweight, I know) topped with a melted knob of hot, fabulously stinky cheese. I always choose the double-stuffed potato as my starch. The distance between it and say, mashed potatoes is similar to the distance between a piece of red liquorice and a whole Black Forest cake. To wit, the kitchen scoops out the innards of a baked potato and then blends the hot stuff with butter and cream before piping it back into the jacket and topping it with sour cream, bacon, and chives. The combo sets you back $44.95, but did I mention the bread! My god, the bread…
I don’t think the kitchen gives a shallot about molecular gastronomy, craft beer, or charcuterie, let alone “local” and “sustainable” sourcing. Sourcing here is a matter of the back end of trucks and clipboards, not relationships with farmers or artisan suppliers. There is no team of whistling foragers combing the woods for mushrooms, and instead of a rooftop herb garden there is a castle parapet from which, one presumes, the staff are tasked with defending the building if ever there comes a rabid horde of abusive vegans.
And please let that be fine for once or twice a year, because steakhouses are woefully endangered. Granted, not all of them need to survive. Just a few, if you please. No one gave a damn when the graveyard-like West Cordova location of Morton’s closed in 2009. Likewise the stillborn Pinky’s chainlet, which just plain sucked hard until it went away. But if Hy’s were ever to fall, there would be no small amount of weeping, for that would be the end of the dinosaurs, and there would be no resurrections.
Hy’s Encore | 637 Hornby Street | Vancouver, BC | 604683-7671 | www.hyssteakhouse.com