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Seats and Stars: What’s Going On at AnnaLena?

“As long as we retain our star today, we’re going to start working toward a second star tomorrow.” That’s what Chef Mike Robbins told me at the Michelin Guide Awards in Vancouver this past October before stepping onto the stage.

He deliberately said it out loud to put it on the record, with intention: two stars – no backtracking. Immediately after the ceremony that night, with AnnaLena’s one-star status intact, the wheels in Chef Robbins’ head were already visibly turning; he was already gaming out a plan…

The first part of the plan rolled out over the succeeding three months. However, if you dined at AnnaLena during October, November and/or December of last year, chances are you wouldn’t have noticed much difference; but, now that the Kitsilano restaurant is in phase two of their plan, the changes are obvious: to begin with, there are fewer places to sit. Robbins and his business partner, Jeff Parr, made the decision to remove ten seats from their dining room, bringing down the total number of possible covers per night from 80 to 64. In today’s economy, the idea of fewer paying customers would make many nervous, but this is a calculated move with a different payoff in mind.

“It’s about seeing how far we can push this tiny restaurant,” Parr explains. “Year after year, new obstacles and opportunities have presented themselves and helped us to evolve. We have a strong team of really talented people; they are people who also want to push limits and grow. Losing those seats gives us the space to do an even better job.” As Robbins says: “Less, but better.”

Makes sense: when you are hustling through a fully booked service every night (as AnnaLena has been lucky enough to do), it’s difficult to feel comfortable flexing your creative muscles by introducing more intricate dishes into an already high-pressure situation. But if the jump from one Michelin star to two comes down to making sure that the “personality and talent of the chef is evident in their expertly crafted dishes; [and that] their food is refined and inspired” (according to the judges), some loosening of the shackles on that pressure is required.

So they 86’d ten seats.

The breathing room that provides will allow for less pressure and more creative plating in the kitchen, it will also give Robbins the ability to introduce multi-component dishes, previously too complicated or time-consuming to execute during service in a jam-packed room. Finally, the drop in covers will also give the kitchen the freedom to deliver their dishes directly to diners.

AnnaLena | Photos 1 + 3 by the talented Alison Kuhl

While service isn’t an explicitly stated factor for Michelin, it is very much a factor for AnnaLena – so finding and maintaining a good balance is key. On the floor, fewer seats will allow for extra time to connect with guests and more opportunities to explore wine suggestions and/or talk about the food. Ideally, it will also afford each server a few moments to stand back and reflect on their interactions so that they can move forward with the purpose of improving service at every opportunity.

“Every positive change you make has the potential to shift something negatively. By removing seats to allow for all of these improvements, we also run the risk of changing the ‘buzz’ in the room. We don’t want the energy to change, so we have to anticipate these subtle shifts and backfill them with solutions that help us manipulate them into positives. Slowing down, talking to guests a little more, having the kitchen bring dishes to the table: all of that interaction brings the buzz back to a nice level and creates a richer experience for the diners.”

“We really just want the space to be able to do what we do, but do it a little louder.” That’s what the current (second) stage is all about: turning up the AnnaLena ‘volume’ and making sure that the complete experience is as tight as they can make it. Beginning this week, the set menu will grow to include snacks (and other surprises); the newly re-hauled cocktail program from Bar Manager Nicole Cote will bring a fresh line-up of drinks into play; and sommelier Reverie Bealls’ wine list, which is always comprised of interesting and thoughtfully chosen pours, will be stacked and ready to shine. These guys are going all in, and they are stoked about it.

Jeff Parr and Chef Michael Robbins at AnnaLena

There’s a staggering abundance of talent on the global culinary landscape. It’s easy for chefs and restaurants to draw inspiration from other chefs and restaurants – hell, it’s hard not to. What I appreciate most about Robbins and the extended AnnaLena team is their originality. While they clearly respect and appreciate what’s happening in establishments outside of their bubble, their own direction comes from within. In my experience, this is true of most award-winning restaurants.

AnnaLena’s identity and vision drive them to push limits. This starts with Robbins and filters through to every aspect of the restaurant. From the food they cook and the way they plate it to their unexpected/unique wine selection, super specific art and decor, playlists and menu design, they are, in my opinion (as Michelin would put it): “worth a detour”… But all of this referencing of ‘Michelin’ is somewhat misleading; as Robbins himself explains: “I’m someone who needs goals. We have a star. If I didn’t aim to surpass that, I don’t know what my day-to-day would look like. So, moving from what got us one star to what we think could earn us two is logical. I don’t know if we’ll get it. Maybe not. The star isn’t the important thing. The goal is.”

AnnaLena returns to service tonight (Friday, January 12th). Dinner is set at $144 per person, prepaid. Wine pairings are also available (and encouraged). Hours are Tuesday to Sunday, beginning at 5pm. Details here.

Neighbourhood: Kitsilano
1809 West 1st Ave.

There is 1 comment

  1. The service is already great so can’t imagine what more might look like. This place spoiled eating pasta for me forever. And the toasted brioche guts with a creamy mussel sauce is heaven.

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