St. Lawrence is finally here. The Quebec-inspired restaurant from the Kitchen Table crew (see also Pourhouse, Ask For Luigi, Pizzeria Farina, Joe Pizza) at 269 Powell Street (formerly Big Lou’s Butcher Shop) held two friends and family services over the weekend and are set to open to the public tomorrow night (Tuesday, June 27). Michelle and I attended the first of these, on Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day, and ate ourselves silly in celebration.
Scout had been tracking the development of St. Lawrence for a long time. It was great to finally experience the shared vision of chef JC Poirier, the designers at Ste. Marie, and the branding talents at Glasfurd & Walker. This was a passion project for Poirier, a native-born and raised Québecois, so I think most people’s expectations, both aesthetically and gastronomically, are going to be justifiably high. I suspect they’ll be met, as St. Lawrence is as promising a restaurant I’ve seen open in Vancouver since Kissa Tanto launched last year.
Craig Stanghetta, Katie Dolphin and Jessica MacDonald of St. Marie did a fantastic job with the interior. They’d just come off a big hotel gig with the design of Botanist in the Fairmont Pacific Rim so it’s interesting to see them return to the small and intimate, which is where the company made its name (see Savio Volpe, Mosquito, Pidgin, etc.). Everything about it feels very homey and personal. This is most plainly evidenced by a couple of old black and white Poirier family photos, but it’s also seen in the little details, like the wee curtains above the kitchen pass, the repeating fleur-de-lis motif, and the shades of blue throughout. But don’t be fooled. It’s very refined. There’s just too much good taste in obvious play for St. Lawrence to fit the casual mold.
That sophistication manifests physically in the ease with which the room is served. Though the front of house team is small, it’s clear they know what they’re doing. Led by Michael Ziff on the floor and Yacine Sylla behind the small bar (both former fixtures at Chambar), there’s a quiet confidence to the room that helps to make guests feel at home. There’s no crush of support staff crowding the room and the short, gorgeous bar isn’t a scene thanks to the limited cocktail selection. If there was a soundtrack, I didn’t hear it. (Probably Serge Gainsbourg and Leonard Cohen.) I’ve only witnessed the one service but much like sister eatery Ask For Luigi, the busier it got, the smoother it appeared to operate. I think that bodes well for all concerned.
On the food front, the first menu from Poirier and chef de cuisine Ashley Kurtz (interview) is exactly as expected, which is to say – again – deeply personal and cleaving close to the Quebec theme. Dishes are simply presented (on elegant, branded plates) with very little in the way presentation flourish. I saw most of them go out and tasted several. Big flavours were being expressed with some subtlety, and the richness we most associate with cuisine de campagne was not as heavy as I was anticipating (flaky vol-au-vent with mushrooms drenched in Mornay sauce notwithstanding — we’ll see how things roll in winter). Think exquisitely smooth-textured duck ballotine and little puff potatoes ankle deep in a silky maple sauce, and ooh, that venison tourtiere they teased at one of their pre-opening pop-ups. And straightforward sugar pie for dessert! “It’s simple and generous”, Poirier told me a couple of months ago as the menu was still being developed. “There will be nothing precious about anything we do. It will be honest but technical, and you won’t ever see the technicality.” That is, of course, unless you go looking for it. It’s there, and it’s ridiculously delicious. Take a good look, and make a reservation before everyone else does…