AWESOME THING WE ATE #901: Everything We’ve Tried So Far On The Menu At Cuchillo

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To eat the whole menu at Cuchillo would be quite a feat. The beast is like a Tolstoy novella translated into Spanish. Finishing it is being hamstrung by the fact that we have yet to encounter anything at the new Latin-themed restaurant in Japantown that we wouldn’t order again. It’s therefore easy to fall into the trap of ordering the same things on each visit, leaving whole sections to wilt in waiting. The thing will take us ages to get through in its entirety, but that’s a problem we don’t mind having.

So far, we can recommend the following: heartily flavoured duck crackling tacos with roasted garlic and punchy blackberry habanero jam [1]; dense but still creamy white bean and Parmesan dip with excellent tortilla chips [2]; the damn fine house Mojito [3]; our favourite dish so far – the albacore tuna ceviche (you smash it up with the back of your fork) with purple potato causa made with double smoked bacon [4]; gently chili-spiced BBQ pulled pork tacos with refreshing mango papaya salsa [5]; tall Esteban Canal cocktail of thyme and cilantro infused Pisco, pear nectar, lime juice, honey, egg whites and bitters [6]; fried bread lightly dusted with chipotle sea salt [7]; baby husked corn (a new thing for us), grilled, buttered and flavoured with pequin pepper [8]; high-wire balanced Mexican Firing Squad cocktail of El Jimador tequila, lime juice, housemade grenadine, and angostura bitters [9]; pan-roasted heart of palm (where else can you get this?) served with a Basque-ish tomato/piquillo piperade and an awesome saute of cactus paddle and kale [10]; and the ground lamb mole tacos with sardo browned parmesan popcorn [11].

It had been a long time – years, even – since we’d supped at chef Stu Irving’s trough, probably not since he was the co-owner of Gastown’s long-shuttered Cobre (now Rodney’s Oyster House). We didn’t completely forget how good he was, but it was a happy, filling thing to be so deliciously reminded. And “H”, the bartender, is a straight up scientist who really knows what he’s doing with every bottle on his shelf.

One last note for the folks who decry or otherwise describe Cuchillo as an “upscale” eatery: the food might be top drawer, inventive, and especially easy on the eyes, but the prices range from $5 to $21 a plate, which is significantly cheaper than most other restaurants of a similar caliber. Dinner costs less here than it does Earls and the Cactus Club. Is it as cheap as the Ovaltine or a fill-up at Prime Time Chicken? No. Few meals are that affordable, but the quality at Cuchillo is much, much higher. So maybe stop with the “high end” and “fancy” bullshit. It’s just fiction – and not the kind that’s worth reading. Just sayin’.

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DINER: Inside Cooper & Irving’s “Cuchillo” At Main & Powell (On Track For Late May)

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by Andrew Morrison | It might not look like it from the photos above, but Stu Irving and John Cooper’s Latin American-themed Cuchillo restaurant is getting close. Despite a few hiccups here and there, construction appears to be coming along nicely. Here’s some of the skinny that we first reported back in January…

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 1990′s 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).

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It’s an old space that hasn’t seen a business in 30 years, so it’s been something of a challenge. I recently toured the space again and dug what I saw, especially the mosaic work fronting Irving’s open kitchen. It should be gorgeous when it’s finished. I’m also really looking forward to seeing what Erin Sinclair (of This Is East Van book fame) will do with the feature wall next to the entrance (a layered mural, from what I’m told). Cuchillo is still on track for a late Spring opening. I’d be surprised if it wasn’t open before the end of May.

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DINER: Celebrated Chef Stu Irving Turning “No.5 Orange” Menu Into Big Sausage Fest

by Andrew Morrison | Out of the many thousands of headlines we’ve published over the years, I’ve got to say that the one above is my all time favourite. But is it true? Yes it is! On Monday, March 4th, legendary peeler bar No. 5 Orange at Main & Powell will see a serious sausage upgrade to its menu implemented by none other than chef/legend Stu Irving, the very same fellow who once upon a time ruled the kitchens at Bin 941, Wild Rice, Cobre, and The Diamond. He’s currently in the midst of building the Latin-themed Cuchillo down the block at 261 Powell (due this May).

So how exactly did the seemingly unlikely arrangement with the gentleman’s club come about? According to Irving, the No. 5 Orange is where he used to take his kitchen team for pre/post service meetings in the Cobre days. “It’s like Cheers, but with boobs.” he jokes, adding that he’s known the staff and management there for over five years. “They approached me about revamping the food program, so I said what the hell, sure.”

In addition to a specialty half pound burger, a Philly cheesesteak, and a big ass meatball sandwich, Irving has created eight different hot dogs; everything from Beerwurst Reubens and Nacho dogs to Japa-style (with nori and ponzu mayo) and Clubhouse turkey dogs. They’re all made at Woodlands Smokehouse on Commercial Drive (all except “The Cooper”, a veggie dog made with meatless southwest chili). Take a look at the menu drafts after the jump… Read more

DINER: Two Industry Veterans Set To Open “Cuchillo” Eatery On The DTES This Spring

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…

CuchilloJohn Cooper and Stu Irving | CuchilloCuchilloCuchilloCuchilloCuchilloCuchillo

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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.

DINER: Chef Stu Irving Brings New Mexican Food Concept To The Diamond In Gastown

by Andrew Morrison | Yesterday I was surprised to discover that on the immediate heels of a full kitchen upgrade at The Diamond has come a complete change in the Gastown restaurant’s food concept. Gone are the gyozas and the rest of the Asian-influenced dishes. They’ve all been replaced by incoming chef Stu Irving’s ceviches, soft tacos, and tapas plates. Irving, you might remember, was chef/co-owner at the Latin-themed Cobre just a few doors to the east (closed this Spring), so the new milieu is right in his wheelhouse. Last night was their first service with the new dance card, and word around the neighbourhood is that they killed it. Take a look at the new, tasty-looking menu in full after the jump… Read more