by Andrew Morrison | The decline and fall of fine dining is an easy, old hat complaint among local chefs, restaurateurs and food writers. Slickly designed, calm and confidently expert dens of aspiration and ambition – those last redoubts of the endangered Lumiere ilk – have for years accounted for fewer than 1% of new Vancouver restaurants, so whenever a new one appears – with all its civilized quiet and tasting menus – they’re always objects of intense fascination. I expect it will be thus at L’Abattoir‘s new exclusive offshoot, 1 Gaoler’s Mews.
That’s what they’re calling the new 9 seat chef’s table-style spot behind the award-winning Gastown restaurant. The name is its address, which is located on the main floor of the private dining facility L’Abattoir launched in the original Shebeen spot in 2014. 1 Gaoler’s Mews is going to start off as a once a month affair on May 19th, 2017. Based on my experience at a test run a couple of weeks ago, I reckon it and the dates that follow will be quick sellouts. As it was a ‘friends and family’ style of service I won’t go into the dishes I enjoyed except to say that everything was well conceived, well executed and adeptly paired with some very interesting wines (I sang for my supper in direct feedback). However, I will share other thoughts and notes…
It’s always fun to have a front row seat to watch the making of one’s dinner, and it was an especially fascinating thing to see co-owner/chef Lee Cooper – a fellow of few words during service – introduce dishes, answer questions and engage those present. Co-owner Paul Grunberg was there, too, prodding for guest feedback from the peripheries while sommelier Lisa Haley gave brief but thorough introductions to each of her pairings. I knew each of the other eight guests assembled that night, but the cozy, bar-height seating is a straight row with everyone in communion facing the kitchen. Crosstalk and shooting the shit is tricky as the orientation – fittingly, I suppose – is that of an audience, but it’s more intimate than that sounds. It’s not a church pew subjected to chefs dispensing edible benedictions. It’s a good time.
Conceptually, it’s similar in scope to Brooklyn’s Blanca, an elegant 12 seater tucked behind the owners’ more casual eatery, Roberta’s. What’s fundamentally different is the size of the gulf between the dining experiences. Roberta’s is basically a cluttered pizzeria, while Blanca has a couple of Michelin stars. Now that is a gulf. To the average diner, I wonder how distinguishable the difference will be between L’Abattoir and 1 Gaoler’s Mews. There is a gulf to be sure, but it’s one that’s been dug out by exclusivity, reach and scope rather than quality, talent and cost. One is gold, the other is platinum.
It’s a smart move for several reasons. For starters, it’s only nine seats and in operation for just one evening a month (to start). Even if they price it high (they won’t price it cheap), its fancy factor will appeal to special occasioners and food-lovers with ‘fuck you’ money (our city has plenty of both). Secondly, it’s a great way to keep staff – especially cooks – engaged and ambitious. The kitchen at L’Abattoir is hardly the minor leagues to 1 Gaoler’s majors but I expect the more driven cooks would sooner take their tweezers to the former than the latter if given the choice. Further, if it’s as successful as it should be, it will lend to L’Abattoir – arguably the best, most respected and tightly run restaurant operation in the neighbourhood – an even brighter halo than it already wears. Finally, if it flops – and I would be stunned if it did – it would be no big deal as they have no problem booking private functions in the space upstairs. “This isn’t about making money,” Grunberg told me. “It’s about inspiration. It’s about challenging ourselves, our staff, to reach a little higher.” Reaching is good.
That’s why I’m excited at the prospect of it. There’s always room for ambition in Vancouver’s food scene, and I expect it will always be on display at this place. Pity, then, that it’s just once per month. After the first run on May 19th, expect subsequent services on June 23, July 21, August 18, September 29, October 27, and November 24. Tickets to the first three dinners will be released on Monday, May 1st at 10am. I’ve included some shots from the dinner I attended below, plus a glimpse at their branding by Glasfurd & Walker. Follow along via @gaolersmews.