by Andrew Morrison | Restaurant wonks and food lovers will be happy to learn that the main floor of the old building at 261 Powell St. (next to Bean Around The World and Big Lou’s Butcher Shop) has been picked up by a pair of industry veterans who are aiming to turn the raw shell of the place into a 93 seat restaurant by the end of Spring 2013.
Those same folks will remember chef Stu Irving (above right) from his days at Cobre, Wild Rice, Bin 941 and, most recently, The Diamond, but they’ll have to go way back to recall his business partner, John Cooper (left above). Cooper used to work with Irving at Raintree in its 1990s Gastown heyday, back when the now long defunct restaurant was nurturing the early careers of Michael Dinn (JoieFarm), Tyson Reimer (Peckinpah), Andy Crimp (ex-Chambar), Karen Barnaby (Fish House), and many more (it shuttered in 2002). He only just returned to the front of house this year.
Their new project is called Cuchillo (Spanish for “Knife”). The food concept sounds like a slightly more health-conscious evolution of Irving’s work at Cobre, which closed last year after its lease came to an end (it is now another location of Rodney’s Oyster House). From what I understand, the plates will be modern interpretations and presentations of dishes that would be recognized by the peoples and cuisines of Latin America, so if I were to give it a name, I’d call it Modern Pan-Latin. Though there will be plenty of meat on the menu, expect to see some vegan/vegetarian stuff on it as well, albeit without any lifestyle harpery (Cooper is a vegetarian, but he’s not the least bit evangelical about it).
I don’t have an exact date for the building’s beginnings, but it’s in Japantown (DTES) and looks like it has 1890-1910 bones; lots of thick wooden beams and – get this – grey brick, not red. There are several SRO apartments on the three upper floors, the side windows of which can be seen up through the cool-looking, angled skylights casting natural light on one side of the soon-to-be dining room (these look like transparent buttresses). The whole was recently redone from top to bottom and given a seismic treatment, so there’s a naked corset of reinforcing steel wrapping around the room’s waist. From the schematics (see below), you can see a lounge area that includes an 18 seat bar facing a 30 seat communal table leading to a dining room proper opposite Irving’s open kitchen (the design is being done by Mary Lou Rudakewich from M Studios). The whole thing is long and thin with very high ceilings; rather reminiscent of Wildebeest. According to Irving and Cooper, there hasn’t been a business in the space for roughly 30 years (they don’t know much about it except that it was a Japanese bath-house at one point).
It’s just a few blocks from my house, so I’m very interested to see how they do here. It’s a big room on a stretch of the Downtown Eastside that hasn’t seen an interesting restaurant in some time (the food program at the No. 5 Orange notwithsanding), so it will have its challenges. And despite Irving’s long history of cooking interesting things in the neighbourhood and how Cooper’s Mom was once upon a time Miss Gastown in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade (she used to own Maggie’s Boiler Room on Powell in the 1970′s), the pair will almost certainly be labelled “gentrifiers” by the many NIMBYs who claim to represent the DTES. When I remind Irving of this, he bridles. “I grew up white trash and clawed for everything I have. How could people possibly make that argument?” When I tell him that people will still make the argument regardless of his upbringing, his intentions, or his history of toil in the community, he just shrugs his shoulders and says, “I cook honest comfort food, nothing fancy.”
Fat Dragon, as we just saw, couldn’t make it past nine months in these parts. Will Cuchillo fare differently? That remains to be seen, but for the sake of my appetite I certainly hope so. There are stark differences that work in Cuchillo’s favour, chief among these being that it’s on the 200 block of Powell, and not the 500 block. And there might as well be a chasm between the two addresses. Fat Dragon was pretty well isolated where it was, and Cuchillo is much more accessible; closer to Main, closer to Gore, closer to the hordes of Gastown, and on the immediate doorstep of Railtown’s countless small business offices. I reckon it has a significant leg up on account of its location. But we’ll see. They don’t even have their building permit yet, and opening day is a long time away. In the meantime, take a look…
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Andrew Morrison lives and works in Vancouver as editor-in-chief of Scout and National Referee & Judge at the Gold Medal Plates and Canadian Culinary Championships. He also contributes regularly to a wide range of publications, radio programs, and television shows on local food, culture and travel; collects inexpensive things; and enjoys rare birds, skateboards, cocktails, shoes, good pastas, many songs, and the smell of camp fires.