There is a new restaurant opening at 1879 Powell St this week. This is the same block of Powell that is home to Straight and Marrow, the Pie Shoppe and Aleph.
If you’re trying to picture exactly where in the block this address lands, let’s just cut to the chase: it’s the old Trans Am space.
Everyone loved Trans Am. Nobody wanted it to close. We all wanted to eat burgers and drink beer there forever. But covid happened, and it did close.
Lucky for Vancouver that the space fell into good hands.
The new project, Elephant, is brought to us by Miki Ellis (Dachi, Ugly Dumpling), Stephen Whiteside (Dachi, Ugly Dumpling) together with chef Justin Ell (Lee) (previously Crowbar, Superflux). The trio took possession of the space October 1st and immediately rolled up their sleeves to make it their own.
When I asked the team what they felt about taking over a location with such a fierce cult following, Miki Ellis explained: “We’re real excited to be in the space, it’s such a cozy and unusually sized room for this city. Trans Am was so special, and also sooo Gianmarco [owner] (which is the best!), but it could never stay the same after he left, so it’s feeling very different in here, and I think that’s necessary and good.”
The room is small – just 18 seats – so there wasn’t a lot that could be changed structurally. Gone are the charmingly cluttered backbar, heavily mirrored walls and vintage stools that made Trans Am feel like the decked-out apartment of your coolest college buddy, but the metamorphosis that you see in the pictures below is largely the result of paint and polish.
The colour palette of the 524 sqft room is now a soothing gradient of greys with punches of leaf-green and whispers of pink. At night, the satin finish on the light concrete-grey countertop of the 10 seat bar picks up the glow of candles. The walls are relatively unadorned other than a series of slender mirrors and some shelves for plants and bottles to perch on. There is one large format painting, a detailed section of a radicchio leaf painted by local artist Michelle Nguyen, that hangs on the west wall by the front of the room. Sconces along the east wall hint at the same radicchio pink as Nguyen’s painting, which is again referenced in the smokey pink hue of the mirror at the north end of the room. Overall, Elephant is sleek, but warm. Minimalist, but playful. One could even say it’s Dachi, but smaller.
Similarities between Dachi and Elephant don’t stop at decor. The menu at Elephant, like it’s big sister up the hill, is also designed to be highly responsive to what is in season locally, and the food will be supported by a thoughtfully composed list of organic, biodynamic, lower intervention wines with added offerings of sake, craft beer and a handful of amaro and dark spirit-forward cocktails. Despite the obvious (and welcome) shared DNA, Elephant will be its own thing.
Using the small apartment-sized kitchen as his base, chef and co-owner Justin Ell will be ‘cooking the way he likes to eat’ – which is to say: simple and full of flavour. The menu will be Omakase-style (5 courses, changing daily to reflect the seasonality of local farms). Expect dishes similar to those pictured below (various pickled vegetables, dashi-braised and charred celeriac, with a walnut gomae, ‘Som Tam’ salad with kholrabi and chilli lime peanut dressing, rutabaga with shiro-miso and a house-made chickpea brown butter panko and beef tartar with a bonito horseradish).
Kelcie Jones (previously wine director at Chambar) will be on the floor, and in charge of the wine. Justin’s style of honest, clean cooking dovetails perfectly with Kelcie ‘s enthusiasm for natural wines. From what I have seen the synergy between floor and kitchen in this tiniest of spaces should make Elephant the kind of restaurant that allows the diner to leave decision making at the door.
Service, which begins this weekend, will be Omakase (by reservation). A la carte dining is also available on a walk-in basis. Elephant will be open Friday – Mon 5pm-midnight. Reservations are available here. Take a closer look inside…