It’s not often that I get to walk into a restaurant under construction and be surprised by what I see. Usually by the time I cross the threshold I’ve either seen renderings or been previously privy to the site in stages from raw space to frame out. I was gobsmacked earlier this week when I stopped in for a look at Mak N Ming in Kitsilano. To be frank, it’s much better looking than I was anticipating! It was hard suppressing the shock when co-owner/chef Makoto Ono showed me around, so I didn’t even bother. “This was not at all what I was expecting,” I kept saying. I think I may have forgotten that Scott & Scott were doing the design, or perhaps I didn’t. Maybe I just assumed it would follow the same aesthetic lineage of their other Vancouver restaurants, as one can easily trace their design DNA through the arrivals of Bestie, Kin Kao and Torafuku. Mak N Ming is something entirely different. For context, here’s an excerpt of what I wrote about the place back in July:
Chefs Makoto Ono and Amanda Cheng are opening a new restaurant together in the old Thai Star location at 1629 Yew Street in Kitsilano. The culinary power couple is doing so with the backing of Julius Dong, who supported Ono when he opened Gastown’s PiDGiN with Brandon Grossutti back in 2013.
They’re calling it Mak N Ming – a play on their names and their popular Instagram account (Ming being Amanda’s proper name). The intimate eatery will be a considerably smaller and bar-less affair (850 sqft) with just 28 seats and a tiny, two person kitchen. The goal will be to follow a more formal, more personal, more refined, more Japanese-meets-French interpretation of the Pacific Northwest than what we’ve yet seen in Vancouver. That means tasting menus, some a la carte items, wine over cocktails, no open kitchen, and no share plates. Think of it as a quiet corner shrine to cuisine.
In a recent conversation with the team, I brought up the long shut Lumiere restaurant on the West Side, thinking it could stand as an exemplar of what they might be aiming for at Mak N Ming. This prompted a surprised chuckle from Makoto, who filled me in on the challenge as he sees it, which is more like threading a needle between Lumiere’s legendary fine dining chops and say, the more relaxed and playful approach we saw from him at PiDGiN. “I really miss Lumiere,” he told me. “We want to pay homage to it.”
He definitely can. Don’t forget that Makoto was the first ever Canadian Culinary Champion (2007); that he launched the eponymous “Makoto” in Beijing and the celebrated “Liberty Private Works” in Hong Kong; and that he’s the son of famed chef Sadao Ohno, who ran one of Canada’s best sushi houses – Edohei – for a quarter of a century (and yeah, Makoto worked there too). The guy has crazy skills.
But they won’t dare go the whole stuffy hog. It’s a fine balance. Vancouver diners may not suffer formality gladly any more, but that doesn’t mean we’ve all suddenly surrendered our taste for excellence. We roll in our own weird way. If it’s really good, we’ll go. But if the perception of value isn’t there and it makes us feel uncomfortable or like we’re being duped in any way, it will be damned to the void. They appear to know this well, and are planning accordingly.
Inside it feels like a smooth cross between Lumiere and Aurora Bistro, two long gone but much loved restaurants. The table tops had yet to be balanced when I was in so they looked a little screwy, but it wasn’t hard to imagine them straight and true. I love the wood walls and the vertical lighting, and the central service station with its polished stone ice well is a straight up stunner. The simple, elegant branding by Glasfurd Walker is naturally in absolute lockstep with the look of the room. When it opens to the public I’d be amazed if it wasn’t immediately shortlisted for every local accolade for restaurant design.
The menu, too, is something to look forward to. I don’t want to give the whole thing away, but it reads exactly like Makoto and Amanda were wanting it to based on our first conversations about it this past summer, which is to say accessible, familiar, playful and refined. The influences – Japanese, Modern European (mostly French), and West Coast – are clearly expressed, and there’s an ethereal edge to the staccato descriptions and text. Tasting menu and a la carte, with a tidy drinks list to match. Very promising, to say the very least. Cross your fingers for an opening in two weeks or less.