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Really, What The Hell Happened To “Voya” In The Loden Hotel?


by Andrew Morrison | Read that sign above again. Don’t focus on the spelling errors. Ignore that a supposedly fine dining restaurant of much repute is advertising a tuna melt, and nevermind that it’s nearly 10pm and the staff have forgotten to take in the lunch sign again. I want to, don’t you?

What the hell happened to Voya?

The much ballyhooed restaurant with so much potential in the Loden Hotel has faded away, slowly and without much of a peep. It’s been nearly two years since it opened, and it’s a mere shadow of what it promised to be when it arrived.

Back then, I was convinced it would be rock solid for years to come. I think I even pegged it for some awards. Why? Because it was chef Marc-Andre Choquette’s first swing at the independence bat after working as Rob Feenie’s chef de cuisine for over a thousand years. His cooking had long ago revealed him to be one of the most promising chefs of his local generation, and what he was doing here was really very superb. I top-tenned it in my annual 2008 list of the best new restaurants (#7 in 2008), and gave it one of the best reviews I’d written that year…

A London-style taxi emblazoned with the Loden’s branding stood at the curb when we approached last Wednesday night. A doorman swept my wife and I inside and into a lobby decorated stunningly on a minimalist tip. Elevators down a corridor to the right rose to the hotel’s 77 rooms, including a $4000 a night penthouse (we toured it, and left feeling weak-kneed and very poor), while to the left is Voya’s lounge, which opens on to the dining room. The former is as slick as it gets, with huge cylindrical chandeliers falling on sexy (if a little rigid) chairs fronting a clean-lined bar led by Jay Jones, one of Vancouver’s best bartenders (if not the best).

And yet…

Gone is Jay (to Pourhouse, then the wilderness). Gone is his number two, Simon Ogden (kicking ass at The Veneto in Victoria). Gone is Owen Lightly (a sous chef under James Walt at Araxi). Gone are the service staff (to the diaspora, the best to Main’s new Cafeteria). Gone, too, is the cuisine that I fell for almost instantly…

The first course, an amuse of ricotta fritters, was a rather pedestrian introduction (I’d been waiting over a year for this place, damn it, and you give me cheese fritters to say hello?), but then came the frog’s legs. Arranged impeccably in a row on a rectangular, gleaming white plate and coated in a sweet Asian BBQ sauce flecked with sesame, they were supremely succulent: obviously the product of a studied hand ($15). A second amuse, a tiny, chilled Qualicum Bay scallop lit up by a salty Vietnamese-style broth of fish sauce, peanut, and citrus, washed over my palate like a cold ocean wave. Next came tiny parcels of quail fastened and fried with chili and garlic, the outer crunch and tang of which gently juxtaposed the softly-textured and delicately-flavoured meat within. Warm, perfectly cooked leeks wrapped in house-made maple bacon followed. Presented as a tightly wrought discus, its balanced earthiness and saltiness were accented with the bitterness of endive and the nuttiness of hazelnut. So far, we’d only made a dent in the list of appetisers, but we couldn’t leave without trying a main course. The kitchen was kind enough to pare down an obscene, 16 ounce piece of halibut to 8 ounces for our sparrow bellies, which dropped the price from $38 to $26. Served with lemon, capers, and a side of sweetly meaty chanterelles, it drank up its brown butter sauce like a wayward sailor. It was probably the single best piece of white fish I’d had all year (halibut is hard to screw up but equally tricky to prepare in a fashion that will blow one away). For dessert, we were wowed by a chocolate dome centered with passionfruit and topped with a sprinkle of house-made pop rocks.

That review of mine is still on their website, which now makes me ask again – what the hell happened to Voya? I walked in tonight and found it empty save for a pair of suits drinking at the end of the bar. There was a barman and a single server, both who’d require a strobe light to look busy. It was a Monday night, granted, but the air was thick with a spooky sedateness that reeked of impending implosion, of a team going through the motions to run down a clock of obligation. It felt sad, almost like a crime scene.

The once gorgeous dining room had shrunk by half, the other now taken up by a pair of walled-off private meeting rooms for the hotel’s occasional corporate bigwig. Just one of the stunning chandeliers that once dominated the elegant, open space remains. Its singularity shocked, as if I’d just discovered someone had violated a painting that I loved.

But most traumatic of all was Choquette’s new menu, which read like the sordid wish-list of a first year undergraduate student high off his ass on a cocktail of cocaine, Red Bull and peer pressure. Was this really his food? Chuck burgers with cheddar and bacon? Beef sliders? Beef dip? Spaghetti and meatballs? Caesar salad? It couldn’t be!

It wasn’t him, of course. It couldn’t be. There had to be someone, a consulting, chain-loving accountant from the seventh circle of hell perhaps, who was making him do this under some serious, tear-worthy duress in the name of making ends meet. Does he need to be saved? He’s not asking for help (as far as I know), but the man must be a hostage held against his will. I mean, he’s plating nachos, for fuck’s sake!

Really, what the hell happened to Voya? From what I hear, they’re in ‘transition’, which is a common euphemism in this business for fucked. I imagine we’ll see a press release soon saying as much, albeit in the language of PR, which is to say that they’re changing, improving, re-branding, re-imagining…whatever.

I felt like an ant as I was leaving. They were playing Sinatra on the hi-fi, drowning out a baseball game that no one cared about…

Just what makes that little ole ant
Think he’ll move that rubber tree plant?
Anyone knows an ant can’t
Move a rubber tree plant
But he’s got high hopes. He’s got high hopes.
He’s got apple pie in the sky hopes…

That stupid ant…

There are 38 comments

  1. Andrew. Excellent piece. Two things come to mind for me. The pressure to be all things a hotel/kitchen needs to be. The successful places seem to have a dining room kitchen and a casual kitchen for room service and casual dining.

    In that location they seem dependent on the empty suits for business during the day and after work. For the most part the suit with no tie crowd love Joey’s and the Cactus Club. How many seats do they have north of Georgia? If you slip below the standard they set by providing poor service or food, your fate is sealed.

    Personally I hated the room, it seemed more lounge then fine dining.

  2. I worked as a cook in Santa Monica, in Kor Hotel Groups “Viceroy” Hotel which was super swank with the most unbelievable bar and an outdoor patio to die for. Even as a cook, I got to personally serve Pam Anderson and a few of her friends one fateful day. But I digess….hey this is LA right?? Let’s face it, hotel kitchens are up against a brick wall compared to local restaurants, and this city is no exception of amazing restaurants. Other than those that are staying in the hotel to dine there for convenience, who would bother when you could go to db Bistro, or Maenam, or Boneta, or Chambar,……… I think the chef is not far from being out the door unfortunately. Bean counters rule, especially for a large hotel company like that.

  3. wow, a restaurant critic that writes a scathing review without even eating the food and trashes the place for being empty on a monday night in the business district. new low AM. where’s the community and where’s the professionalism we expect of you?

  4. Yeah, that sign says it all. Marc Andre can’t be behind menus like that. In a dead area (nightime) like Voya’s you’d better have some serious PR buzz to back the kitchen and I’ve heard nothing for months.
    …and here I sit with a $100. GC that should have been put to good use long ago…

  5. Wow indeed, you Hype the people whom you have no idea of their contrbition to Voya, if any, and leave the rest in the shit with this slander… Have some respect man… It would seem the only thing you have learned from your recent stage at l’abbatior, was to become another gossipmonger in an industry full to the brim of haters……

  6. Jay gave up bartending for twitter and an attempt to beat the Guinness World Record for the least readable food writing since Cassandra Anderton. It almost makes me want to quit drinking. Shut up and pour.

  7. Slander? Gossip monger? Look at the place, Sarah. Read the menu. There are nachos, for crissakes. Cheese puffs! Tuna melts! Are you telling me the new direction is really, truly outstanding or that the restaurant does two turns on a Saturday night? I suppose neither. Something has obviously gone terribly wrong.

    Thanks for reading.

  8. Andrew do they have Jalapeno Poppers on the menu yet?

    I have no problem with Andrew’s piece and found it insightful. I’m glad I didn’t plan a night out at Voya to find a pedestrian menu suitable for hockey viewing.

    If people are looking for some nice ballwashing then they should get their restaurant reviews from people like Caren McSherry or Terry David Mulligan. For reality and perspective I look here.

    BTW when did TDM go from whoring Bryan Adams and Bruce Allen to become the spokesman for expensive sweet fruity overblown wines? What a douche!

  9. Boutique hotels began organically. They were coughed up out of local art scenes, the result of passionate pioneers who craved to lodge the creative classes and dared to flip-off the rigid hotel ‘star’ system. In the wine world we’d call them Super-Tuscans or rule-breakers. They engaged local artisans for the art on the walls, chill tunes in the lobby, designs for the rooms and edgy fashion for the staff. Naturally; when one’s wares are on display one pumps the hell out of the place. Better local endorsement from a myriad of socio-cultural opinion leaders simply can’t be bought. The British ran an Empire for 200 years relying on ‘local knowledge’. Early boutique hotels succeeded because they were engaged elbow deep within their communities. Derivatives that followed relied on the limp logic of PR dreamers who believe they could dictate what’s cool. ‘Cool’ is like class or an anonymous donation. As soon as it’s spoken of it is no longer. It simply has to be.
    Similarly to Voya at Loden, FigMint Restaurant in The Plaza 500 Hotel is another example of a multi-million dollar investment in style over substance that’s now dead in the water. It’ll be interesting to see how the new hotel eateries fare.
    I guess i’m older than the rest of you. Everyone remembers Escoffier but does anyone remember who his maitre d’ Hotel was. None other than Cesar Ritz. It was together that they built an empire.

  10. “Jay gave up bartending for twitter and an attempt to beat the Guinness World Record for the least readable food writing since Cassandra Anderton. ”

    Funny and sad but true.

  11. Patrick. How old are you? You remember when GE was around? He died in 1935.

    A lot of what you say makes some sense but. what is the local community that the Loden can immerse itself in? There is very little culture in that “hood”.

    Maybe the example of how to deal with boutique hotel restaurants, would be the Kimpton group (not in Vancouver though). Find independent restaurantuers and have them as tennants. It works for them in Seattle and San Fransisco.

  12. “It would seem the only thing you have learned from your recent stage at l’abbatior, was to become another gossipmonger in an industry full to the brim of haters…” What does that even mean? Your logic is as stupid as the restaurant you defend. Leave Jay Jones out of this. So what if he has made some bad decisions in his career? He’s still the best bartender in Vancouver, not to mention a wicked guy in person.

  13. Jay Jones know more about bartending than you combined. Making bad decisions is human. He is human. Are you?!

  14. I think the thread is getting a little off target

    The whole concept of a Boutique Hotel as we know really started when Ian Schrager of Studio 54 fame bought a crappy NY hotel in the late 80’s called the Morgans and had a famous designer re-brand the experience. He also did this later with the Royalton and Paramount by taking underperforming properties and creating a desirability based on a strong F&B, cool design and hot looking staff. Originally the term meant a design forward hotel. Then the term also came to describe a small size hotel or an upscale hotel and now every major flag has a version of their own boutique hotel. In fact every hotel that opens calls themselves a boutique hotel, regardless of size, location or inventiveness.

    For a restaurant connected to a hotel to be successful, it really needs to appear like a “stand- alone” space. Voya was handicapped from the first day someone set pen to paper and dictated that it be buried deep within the hotel. This separation for the street unfortunately ensures that no amount of menu tweaking will have much effect. For any hotel restaurant to really be given a chance, it should appear like a restaurant accessed from the street that happens to be beside a hotel. Three hotel restaurants come to mind (at the Fairmont Pacific Rim, Four Seasons and Shangri-La) some work better than others, but the physical separation from street level is apparent. I do have high expectations for Hawksworth at the Hotel Georgia with its street location. It would be highly foolish if the restaurant entry was through the hotel.

    I wish Voya well and all the people that work there and that somehow the hotel could be “picked-up” and relocated about 6-8 blocks east and a couple south………

  15. Too funny! The bosses joke on Jay Jones’s writing skills: “a failed romance novelist with adjective tourettes” 🙂

    Re; Voya. That place was lame from the beginning. You were the only person who liked it Andrew. Nice job.

  16. LOL..ok Jay is a good budy of mine..and I know he is reading this right now!! I am going to go back to the origonal article and say that its totally fair.. Maybe a little depressing though. I remember working with Marc like 7 years ago and as a young cook I was thinking, ‘Marc is the man’ now nachos and cheese puffs. Go figure. Although I am rather curious as to how you make cheese puffs..that sounds a bit ‘gastro’ no? I cant stop laughing at how this is turned into such a ‘Jay’ slander fest. Hey Jay!! Everybody just wants you to pour them some god-danm drinks!!

  17. I would like to take this opportunity to say that I have enjoyed reading everything that Jay Jones has written,some more than others, I also like Cassandra Andertons breezy misuse of english. I mostly prefer A.M.s writing because it is such an excellent bastardized mix of the two styles. Also shouldn’t there be poutine on the menu?

  18. Andrew Morrison is like Skeletor laughing in his cave right now. He loves this bullshit! A failed server, turned “blogger”? Who gives a shite about what he thinks and as far as people slagging Jones…well…he is pouring behind wood 5 nights a week, its just that none of you are privileged enough to know where. Go sip on your Cosmos.

    Barman – Too funny! The bosses joke on Jay Jones’s writing skills: “a failed romance novelist with adjective tourettes” (could you make it anymore obvious who you are?) LOL!

  19. What the hell happened to Andrew Morrison? The standards of review that you set out in your piece in the Westender seem not to have been applied in your treatment of Voya. You have not eaten there recently, you did not talk to the chef or to any of the current staff. This review was based on hearsay, innuendo and re-cycled material from an earlier review. There is something very mean-spirited and surreptitious in the tone and intent of this piece, Perhaps it is indicative of a new approach… the drive-by shot.

  20. How was this a review, Gail? I simply asked a question. In my mind, it was a worthwhile one: what the hell happened to Voya? I did speak to the chef and staff (past and present), but they contributed nothing to my take. I made no assertions based on hearsay. Things have obviously changed at Voya, and I expect more change to come. It’s plain to see, and I accept your blame for pointing it out.

  21. To be fair, Marc has had very little room to advance the menu beyond what the hotel has dictated it should be.

  22. Economic realities being what they are, I assumed as much. You must always dance with the girl that brought you (as they say). A pity, just the same.

  23. And I suppose economic realities being what they are you must save your “reality and perspective” for the few restaurants you aren’t whoring yourself out to who pay to be scout supporters…

  24. Indeed. A cautionary tale, extremely well told. If you’re not a member of Scout, you will most definitely end up serving tuna melts.

  25. really can’t blame on the Chefs, I think that most of the Hotel corporate whether it’s small or big they don’t really care about the food’s quality nor have any knowledge of what it takes to make ( there are exceptions but in overall ) I think the successful places such as Jean George which is located on trump hotel and recent success opener in Momofuku’s Mapeche which is located on Mezzanine Chambers Hotel all those good restaurants that are opened in hotel, they operate seperate from the hotel system where they still get great customers and people come for the food not for some little snack bar, prior to open Voya there was lots of expectation of the food but really end up with some nacho’s and cheese puffs… it was just a matter of a time to have someone to write their own opinion whether people like it or not and believe me I even walk by the sign on 11pm before it just shows how lackeless they care with the restaurant… its sad they had great thing going before I was expecting little more from it…

  26. Perhaps Mac is a genius. And now, this menu and the press it’s receiving will force change to something more . . . expected?!

  27. Well done Jimmy, that was the hardest I’ve laughed since Joe pointed out that over-proof beer wrapped in rodents was nuttier than Biodynamics.

  28. Hats off to you Mr. Morrison. I haven’t laughed like this in a long time. I’m debating with my wife about which is the funniest… The article or the comments? The only thing I have to disagree with, is the part about Mr. Jones. He’s as good a bartender as Mr. Stallone is as an actor. Nuff’ said… And please travel a little more.

  29. Note to “Jay”. Try that again with “.” and “,”, and maybe a basic grammar class. Please tell me that English is NOT your first language and I will apologize for my comment.

  30. The Truth is Revealed: The hotel and restaurant are owned by AMACON who built the place… and the owner dictated what the restaurant would be to the chef after a couple of months of being opened. When it began there were all these strange share plates, and interesting entrees but the boys at Amacon would roll in and demand steak and pasta… and voila… downhill spiral. You gotta cater to your boss. Kitchen staff were told that all their toys (ingredients) were being scaled back to create cheaper dishes as costs were running high. Voya also jumped ship from the Kor group, or maybe vice versa because they wanted to do things their way. (Maybe Kor felt they were too much of a maverick in the way they operated, and it didn’t fit their brand – good for you KOR!)
    Also, the restaurant was poorly managed. When did you ever see the manager on the floor talking to guests or pouring wines etc… The in joke was staff was wondering when the GM would be fired and figured he’d be out the door in 7 months. Truth was it was probably more like 10 months. And where is he now? Some tall smiley guy… (This has been affirmed by members of the FOH and the kitchen staff… all great men and women devoted to their craft) And there you have it…. look a little deeper and quit blaming the figures who are “known” … Jay Jones and Marc Andre worked for these people, they weren’t responsible for the mess…. besides Jay was wise and got out of there before it really tanked.