Cioppino’s Mediterranean Grill

Restaurant: Cioppino’s Mediterranean Grill
Cuisine: Italian/Mediterranean/Fine Dining
Last visited: February 17, 2011
Location: Vancouver, BC (Yaletown)
Address: 1133 Hamilton St
Price Range: $50+

1: Poor 2: OK 3: Good 4: Very good 5: Excellent 6: Tres Excellent!!

Food: 5.5 (based on this occasion)
Service: 6
Ambiance:5
Overall: 5
Additional comments:

  • Fine dining Italian-Mediterranean
  • Executive Chef Giuseppe “Pino” Posteraro
  • Award winning restaurant
  • “Cucina Naturale” cooking
  • Focus on natural ingredients
  • Seasonal/Daily specials
  • Voted “Best Italian”
  • Voted “Best Chef 2008”
  • Voted “Restaurant of the Year 2009”
  • Extensive wine list (bible, one of largest in Vancouver)
  • Zagat rated
  • Patio seating
  • Open kitchen
  • Private rooms
  • Ocean Wise (except for Dover Sole)

**Recommendations: Pacific Octopus, Pappardelle, Olive Oil dessert

It’s taken me quite a while to try one of Vancouver’s most famous, or perhaps even the most famous fine dining Italian Mediterranean restaurants, Cioppino’s Mediterranean Grill. I’ve had my read of his recipe book so it’s no doubt I was a bit star struck when I saw him wondering around the restaurant floor. As great as it was to see him in his actual restaurant, it would have been great to see him in the kitchen as well. I know. It’s Pino. Pino can do whatever he wants, but for me I just love seeing a chef hands on in the kitchen, although I definitely felt his presence when he walked into the room. Who knows, maybe he was taking a break that night, but I’d really like to come back and try something directly from Pino’s talented self.

On the occasion I was joined with good friend and fellow food blogger Mr. Food and Tell. I guess you could say it was in celebration of a joint business deal that we decided to “ritz” it out a bit. Cioppino’s is one of the finest Italian restaurants in town and it boasts itself on its extensive 62 page wine list and premium ingredients. We decided to pass on the $15,000 bottle of wine, and I hope the restaurant didn’t take offense to that… maybe next time 😉

I must say that the service here does not go unrecognized. On the other hand I don’t know if I just happened to entertain the server enough that he was extra excited to serve us. It was all very charming though, with all their European accents, and it didn’t feel as pretentious as I thought it might. I loved the open kitchen and young staff that appeared to be running it, and there was a level or respect and professionalism in the ambiance of the room.

The philosophy behind the food at Cioppino’s Mediterranean Grill is “Cucina Naturale” which emphasizes “cooking natural” or “natural cooking”. The whole theory is the classic “let the ingredients speak for themselves”. This is something I come across very often, but the thing is everyone has a different interpretation of what that means. A lot of the times I can find this to mean under seasoned, but it’s not the case here.

I find Pino inserts this philosophy in the technique of his cooking more so than in the end result. What I mean by that is that I couldn’t tell all the fine details (such as reducing amount of fats and oils) that went into preparing the dishes, and the end result didn’t taste as “natural” as the process that went into making it. I usually find this tends to happen when there’s a fusion of techniques and cultures.

In this case Cioppino combines Italian dishes with Mediterranean flavours and even some West Coast influences. Don’t get me wrong, the food is still exceptional, and Pino pretty much nails the idea of natural while still bringing something new to the table, but “natural” isn’t the first thought that comes to mind if I were to describe the food. It’s not meant to be authentic and traditional Italian cuisine and it lacks the fresh herbs of the Mediterranean, but it speaks of West Coast style, which was still excellent.

For a fine dining restaurant the menu is extensive. I think I was most shocked that the daily features was as long as their in house menu. There’s definitely a focus on fresh ingredients and I’m not joking when I say the server listed about 15 daily features before asking what type of water we’d like to start off with. Overall Cioppino’s is fit for any wine and food enthusiast, offers top notch service and a dining experience (and price tag) you’re sure to remember.

On the table:

Complimentary Bread & Hummus

  • No butter on this table, say hello to hummus! Hello hummus, I love hummus. This was quite unexpected and it definitely led me towards a Mediterranean feel.
  • The hummus was incredibly smooth, creamy, made with great olive oil and a lemon tang. There’s nothing really fancy with the recipe, but the texture was great as well as quality of ingredients.
  • The baguette was very crusty with a chewy centre and it had the flavour of sourdough.
  • The best complimentary bread at an Italian restaurant it still probably Wolfgang Puck Pizzeria & Cucina for me.

**Pacific Octopus – 6/6

  • Served as a warm mosaic with potato-tomato vinaigrette $18.95
  • This was pretty much culinary brilliance. I’ve never had anything like it.
  • I was expecting pieces of octopus, but instead what came was thin slices of octopus. It was almost like an octopus carpaccio or salami.
  • The octopus was fully cooked (yes it can be eaten raw and alive – see me trying it here).
  • At first I didn’t know where the octopus was because the plating was so unexpected. I would have never interpreted it this way and it was almost like a warm octopus salad. I absolutely love it though and it will change the way I look at any future octopus dishes I try at a fine dining restaurant.

This is a better photo. The octopus dish is featured in the back.

  • The octopus was almost interpreted like cured meat, but it’s not cured. I felt like they had compressed it in a sausage and then sliced it paper thin. It was so tender but it still had a firm bite which wasn’t chewy at all. The method of execution was almost like a scallop meets squid slice.
  • The dish had so much going on, but none of it overwhelmed the octopus and it tasted fantastic all together.
  • It was savoury, but noticeable tangy and sweet with lemon hints and every bite was something new to be explored.
  • The “toppings” to this octopus carpaccio included salty bites of Kalamata olives, juicy tomatoes, tender potatoes, cauliflower florets and then some micro greens.
  • The whole dish was very fresh, delicate and perfectly seasoned. It was very Mediterranean in style although a stronger herb might have been nicer.
  • The octopus did speak for itself and everything else just kept it juicy and interesting.
  • The play on textures with meaty vegetables and thinly sliced octopus made it so that you finished chewing everything at once. That’s why I didn’t mind that the octopus pieces I had originally expected were somewhat replaced with vegetables. Using only slices of octopus worked out perfectly with his intentions.

Canadian Diver Scallops – 4.5/6

  • Seared, roasted porcini, black truffle vinaigrette $22.95
  • This dish was definitely good, but it wasn’t  memorable for some reason… which I will obviously explain.
  • The scallops were perfectly seared on both sides with a nice crust that was well seasoned. They were nice and sweet and they almost tasted sous vide. The texture was just ultra buttery and almost too soft, but still delicious.
  • The dish was quite smoky from the mushrooms and scallops and the vinaigrette added a tang that made the dish come alive.
  • The black truffle oil wasn’t as obvious, but I could still smell it although it wasn’t as powerful as some of the other black truffle dishes I’ve had.
  • Together the dish was quite silky from the ingredients, but I think it needed perhaps one more ingredient to make it shine. I think a dollop of truffle aioli or the use of some dried mushrooms would have elevated the flavour. Or even better a truffle tapenade might have been nice!
  • I’m actually not sure what the foam was and it was hard to dissect since the cloud disappeared as the server plated it for us.
  • The dish was just quite literal in translation and I just think I wanted to be more blown away by it.
  • The most memorable scallop dishes I’ve had were from Redd and Hart House Restaurant.

Porcini and Chestnut Soup – 3.5/6

  • Low fat vanilla Chantilly (Gold Medal Winner) $14.95
  • This is probably the dish I knew I had to try from the start, and I have to say it was the most overrated. I was just expecting so much more from their “Gold Medal Winner”.
  • Essentially it was a soup served in what seemed like a podium, but I didn’t think it deserved its gold medal.
  • I was hoping to re-experience the best soup I’ve had that was similar in style, which is the Roasted Chestnut and Apple Soup at Redd in Napa Valley.
  • I was expecting a creamy rich velvety velouté, but I shouldn’t have since it did say “low fat”.
  • I really think it has to do with the low fat vanilla Chantilly. This soup really needs fat, because the flavour was somewhat thin and the flavour fell flat. The low fat thing just jeopardized the potential it had. I mean even if it’s “low fat” it doesn’t have to taste like it.
  • It didn’t taste bad or anything, but it was also a “when’s the next course?” kind of soup.
  • It was the texture of a frothy cappuccino with the flavour of a low-fat mushroom gravy soup.
  • It was creamy, but not thick and I know Pino tries to use less cream, but the alternative of using chestnuts as the thickener wasn’t taken all the way. I can’t say the chestnut was obvious and I would say it was stronger in mushroom flavour.
  • The mushroom flavour was very apparent and almost made it one dimensional. I could taste a slight tanginess from what seemed like creme fraiche which probably replaced the heavy cream.
  • I really couldn’t get the hints of vanilla and actually totally forgot that the vanilla flavour was supposed to be in there. I do expect sweetness if vanilla Chantilly (common for desserts) is being used and I really think it could have made a bigger impact if it was stronger… and full fat.
  • The end notes are actually quite tangy rather than sweet, and I would have appreciated more depth in the soup.
  • It was topped with these intense salty Parmesan croutons that were very dry in texture but ultra pungent with very aged Parmesan flavour.

**Pappardelle – 6/6

  • 4 hour-braised veal cheeks and porcini mushrooms $25.00
  • For what it was, it’s pretty much perfect. The portion is shareable as an appetizer for 2.
  • This was probably one of the more authentic Italian dishes offered and I thought it was fabulous.
  • It’s a Pappardelle that definitely requires a good amount of Parmesan cheese, which they will kindly offer, recommend and grate at your table as well. It just adds the creaminess of the dish while contributing a nice salty and nutty flavour.
  • It’s not heavily sauce but so full of flavour that you don’t want it to end. The sauce was also gelatinous enough to hold onto the house made pappardelle noodles that were perfectly cooked to al dente with a firm bite.
  • 4 hour-braised veal cheeks. How can you go wrong? There’s no word in that description that doesn’t scream TENDER!
  • As if the cheek wasn’t tender enough, but it was also VEAL, and BRAISED… for FOUR hours! That’s pretty much trying to reach the highest level of “tender” and they sure achieved their goal.
  • The meat literally melted in your mouth. It was nice and stringy and incredibly well sauced in its own natural juices. It was still meaty in texture but just buttery in flavour and each shred of meat was packed with flavour.
  • It was a meaty pasta with a natural creaminess, but I actually don’t recall the porcini mushrooms playing a significant role in the dish.
  • If this is what Elvis meant by “Love me tender”… I could sure agree. As a foodie, THIS was my Pappardelle King of Tender.

Duck…Duck… – 5/6

  • Spit-roasted breast, its leg confit, savoury orange sauce $40.00
  • It was a delicious main that I laid eyes on from the start. It was also highly recommended and our server’s favourite.
  • C’mon “duck confit” is pretty much a sure sell at any table I’m sitting at.
  • The dish seemed more French than Italian to me, and the portion is quite decent.
  • It’s a very rich and indulgent dish although at times the sauce can get a bit salty if you don’t find the right balance in your bites.
  • The duck breast was actually sliced up which was unexpected. The texture and quality of it reminded me of ham before it did duck. It had a very pork like quality and ham like texture. The duck fat almost seemed like a pork rind especially in the way in which was prepared, which was spit-roast, common method for pork.
  • The indulgent juicy and firm duck fat layer or “rind” on the breast was incredibly caramelized and sweet with a crispy charcoal smoky crust. It wasn’t quite melt in your mouth fat, but the gelatinous quality wasn’t distracting either. I’m not one for chewy gelatinous fat, but this skin was almost like a new kind of meat in texture. It was juicy yet firm, not chewy and similar to an ultra meaty sweet smoky bacon.
  • The duck confit leg on the other hand was 100% melt in your mouth tender and moist with the skin and all. It was a combination of crispy skin and the rest was buttery, creamy and melted skin that was impossible to separate from the duck meat itself. As a unit they were heavenly.
  • The vegetables in the dish was almost like a ratatouille. It was sweet and tangy with zucchini, eggplant, carrots, peas and onions. It was noticeably tangy from maybe tomato and actually quite peppery as well.
  • I’m so pleased that the duck had an orange sauce that was perhaps reduced with some red wine and vegetable stock. As rich as it was I don’t think he used a demi glace for the sauce. It wasn’t really oily as much as it was syrupy and the sweetness from the fruit, vegetables and wine was a natural technique I can only praise (especially if that’s what he really did).
  • The sauce was very well reduced, but not necessarily meaty in flavour. I could definitely tell there was orange in it even if I didn’t know the menu description. It was sharp, sweet, savoury and tangy and the orange flavour added a zing to the whole dish.
  • The duck was topped with a grapefruit champagne foam that actually did its job to brighten everything up. There wasn’t really enough of it, but the little bit it had was much appreciated it. The scent it brought to the sweet duck and tangy vegetables almost lightened up the richness of the fatty meat and enhanced the orange flavour.

Desserts

*Rub eyes*. Is that a two page dessert menu I see? Yes it is! Any restaurant with a TWO PAGE dessert menu deserves to have its photograph taken. So I’m doing the honours. All the recipes are Pino’s, but it would still be nice to see pastry chefs showcasing their talents.

I have to say that when it comes to desserts at a fine dining Italian restaurant in Vancouver, Cin Cin takes the win. Next to chocolatier Thomas Haas, my favourite pastry chef in Vancouver has to be Chef Thierry Busset at Cin Cin – see my post for his desserts here and his chocolates here. If I’m going to be paying top dollars for dessert I would glad do that at Cin Cin, whereas I felt it was a bit of a pinch at Cioppino’s. The dessert variety is fantastic at Cioppino’s but the portions are very small, even smaller than expected. I can only judge from the two I had, but from that I would prefer Cin Cin. More approachable and still gourmet are the Italian desserts at Quattro (Q4) that are actually very good – see here.

**Olive Oil – 5.5/6

  • Warm tender cake with dried fruit, white chocolate-olive oil custard, Laudemio ice-cream $12
  • I could have eaten 3 plates of this. The portion was pretty tiny in the first place, but the flavour of each component was larger than life… or the portion at least.
  • I loved the interpretation and would expect nothing less. It’s definitely one of the best desserts I’ve had in Vancouver to date.
  • The olive oil cake was delicious! It was warm and soft, but slightly under baked so I could taste a a bit of the flour batter still, which was the only fault.
  • The cake was incredibly moist and creamy and I think made with some ground almonds or marzipan as well. It was nutty and fruity with a very crispy exterior.
  • I could definitely taste the olive oil in the cake and it was a very young olive so it wasn’t salty at all and very light and fruity. There were some pieces of apricot in the cake and that just brought the sweetness out in the olives. It wasn’t too sweet and eaten with the olive oil ice cream I was in foodie heaven.
  • The Laudemio ice cream was insane. It’s a potent and premium extra virgin olive oil that’s very perfume like. Similar to truffle oil, it’s used only for finishing.
  • It was so aromatic, creamy, fruity and almost grassy in flavour. It was the richest in olive flavour of the three components and it almost tasted soapy, but in the most delicious way possible. I think there was white chocolate in the ice cream as well to bring out the sweetness. This ice cream was so full of flavour and perfectly executed and well balanced.
  • The olive oil cannoli-like dessert in the centre was also delicious. However it was almost like a Chinese egg roll made out of phyllo pastry.
  • It was light and crispy and the inside was filled with an ultra creamy velvety smooth white chocolate olive oil custard.
  • The initial notes were quite sweet from the white chocolate, but the end notes were actually quite salty. It’s quite eggy in flavour overall, but it was still very enjoyable and it worked well with the other componants.

Dark Chocolate Tanzanie 75% – 4/6

  • Layers of compressed cocoa, orange crisp, light mousse and raspberries $15
  • Probably not the best choice for dessert, however if I didn’t order it I would have missed out on a major foodgasm. Hello shiny chocolate gelato on the side that wasn’t even mentioned in the menu description… you are beautiful.
  • The compressed cocoa was totally unexpected and I found it very hard to appreciate. It was my least favourite component and reminded me of a dry bitter sweet powdery jello or pudding. It was compressed, but not what most people’s idea of “layered” would be.
  • Essentially it probably was a jello or gelatin made out of cocoa powder and that’s also what it tasted like. I think it was an Italian chocolate pudding called budino. It had a very dry texture and flavour and it’s the opposite of a silky jello or pudding.
  • With 75% chocolate it’s going to be quite bitter, but for me the darker the better. On the other hand the fresh caramel sauce added the sweetness that the compressed cocoa really needed.
  • Within the caramel sauce there was also little white tapioca pearls that tasted like they were infused with rose water. It was aromatic and unexpected, but the tapioca eaten with the compressed cocoa didn’t really work in terms of texture. It was just dry cocoa gelatin with chewy sweet aromatic tapioca and it just felt really bitty all together.
  • The orange crisp was filled with a very light mousse that wasn’t too sweet at all. It was still creamy but it tasted light and had a beautiful earthy dark chocolate flavour.
  • I’m usually not a huge fan of mousse because I find it too much of one texture, but in this case it was wrapped around a caramelized orange crisp which was delicious.
  • Even the idea of chocolate and orange isn’t too appealing to me, but this was done so well with caramel notes that anyone could be convinced to like the combination.
  • The cone was crunchy and creamy, but you needed the right balance of chocolate and cone to get the orange flavour. The orange was there but it was easily overpowered by the mousse at times.
  • The best component was by far the mound of chocolate gelato served on the side. It was bittersweet dark chocolate, extremely creamy, stick to your throat thickness, ultra rich and simply perfect!
  • It was almost stringy and definitely comparable to Bella Gelateria (except Bella is half the price). It was incredibly fresh and almost chewy. One of the best, if not the best I’ve had.
  • I seriously want to lick my screen and if I wasn’t fine dining I would have used my finger to squeegee the plate…. or did I actually do that? No, I’m classier than that! Well actually the dessert spoons are designed to have a flat edge so you can really squeegee the plate down. I almost stole one! It’s the perfect Follow Me Foodie tool.

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