Wildebeest Restaurant (Vancouver)

Restaurant: Wildebeest
Cuisine: Pacific Northwest/West Coast/Eclectic
Last visited: March 31, 2013
Location: Vancouver, BC (Gastown)
Address: 120 W Hastings Street
Phone: (604) 687-6880
Transit: EB w Hastings St NS Abbott St
Price Range: $30-50+ ($10-17 small plates)

1Poor 2OK 3Good 4Very good 5Excellent 6FMF Must Try!

Food: 4
Service: 4 (varies)
Ambiance: 3.5
Value: 3
Overall: 4
Additional comments:

  • Since August 2012
  • Executive Chef  Wesley Young
  • Meat-centric
  • Adventurous/some off cuts
  • Farm to table
  • Sustainable/local ingredients
  • Seasonal/weekly menus
  • Daily features
  • Small/share plates
  • Good for sharing/groups
  • Omakase option
  • Good for drinks
  • Cocktail/wine program
  • Tues-Sun 5pm to midnight
  • Sat-Sun brunch 10am to 2pm
  • Twitter: @wildebeestyvr

**Recommendations: Smoked Castelvetrano Olives, Crispy pork & polenta croquettes, Octopus, Smoked wings with salted caramel sauce

Wildebeest (1)It took me a while to get here, but I finally made it. The original “draw” to Wildebeest was Chef David Gunawan, but I missed the boat on that one. The restaurant built itself on the chef’s name as well as the concept which was rather new and exciting to Vancouver. It was the new “cool kid” on the Gastown block that seemed worthy of much talk and hype – most of it positive. It started with mostly industry support and infatuation, but it has quickly became a local favourite for the neighbourhood.

It was mid-January this year when they announced Gunawan would be parting Wildebeest, leaving his Executive Chef position to his Sous-Chef Wesley Young. It was quite unexpected and unfortunately I didn’t have the opportunity to try it when Gunawan was still there. Nonetheless, I made it in for Chef Young’s cooking which means I have nothing to compare to. I’m taking it for what it is now and not what it once was.

About half the menu is still Gunawan’s creations which are considered mainstays due to their popularity, but the rest is new. The menu is now Young’s and it changes every 4-6 weeks with daily and weekly features. (Updated June 15)

Wildebeest (26)The concept is all in the name. Wildebeest. It’s protein heavy or “meat-centric” and prides itself on sustainable and local whole-animal cookery. As much as “nose to tail” dining might be “last year”, it’s never been fully embraced by Vancouver. Most of the nose to tail dining happens at one off event dinners and attracts a niche market. The style of dining is not exactly representable of typical Vancouver tastes, although there are people who appreciate it. I am one of them. I am a meat-eater, but not necessarily a carnivore although some might argue otherwise. Regardless, if you’re coming to Wildebeest be prepared for a meat feast.

I consider myself a rather adventurous eater. Being Asian, nose to nail is not really anything new and it is what I grew up with. The whole animal gets used and nothing is wasted. Therefore I didn’t even really consider this “whole-animal cookery”. For me it was still safe for nose to tail dining (eg. no brains, snouts, limited offal, tomalley etc.), but it was adventurous for Vancouver standards. It is not as extreme as Chris Consentino or Joe Beef and it was slightly reminiscent of Black Hoof in Follow Me Foodie to Toronto or Longman & Eagle in Follow Me Foodie to Chicago.

There isn’t any Pacific Northwest restaurant offering this style of dining as their regular menu in Vancouver, so Wildebeest succeeds in filling a void. It’s risky, but it has a niche market and they opened in the right part of town. I definitely appreciate it for pushing boundaries in Vancouver’s culinary scene and they do it right by promoting sustainable meats and seafood.

My dinner started off fantastic and then it kind of got iffy during the second half, but there was nothing I didn’t like. I had favourites, and then a few things I could appreciate in thought more so than flavour. I suggest selective ordering and sometimes I felt like there were two chefs in the kitchen.

Some things were presented elegantly while others very home style. It jumped back and fourth between family style and small plates, so it made ordering tricky. There were dishes with creative details I’ve never seen done before, and then dishes which seemed quite ordinary and simple. There was a meat theme, but the approaches inconsistent. They are certainly capable of more and some dishes really stood out, but others lacked the passion of a polished dish.

I also wished they offered some veggies and starches as sides rather than plates. A few plates were just chunks of meat and it felt a bit incomplete. There were a few veggie options, but the starches were limited and I wish they were included in some meat dishes. The style of dining is best suited with a group of 3-4, otherwise the chunk of meat can be a bit uninspiring. It was nice to see the off cuts as is and not disguised, but there are ways to be creative with exotic meats without “dumbing it down”. Not every plate reached its full potential without help from another dish, but the bulk of the plate was there – seasoning, doneness and quality.

At times the smoking technique got a bit repetitive and things came off as a bit “trendy” (see Top 10 Food Trends in 2013), but the food had flavour and the meats were almost guaranteed moist and tender since most were prepared sous vide. I was there on a rather slow night so things may have gotten more attention, but based on this experience I was satisfied.

The satisfaction in value varied with every dish, but generally I was pleased. I don’t mind paying for quality and proper execution of inexpensive cuts of meat, and it was expected for the type of establishment. It has a casual and cool vibe that matches the food. It isn’t necessarily food I could enjoy everyday, but come protein hungry with neutral expectations and an open mind and it is pleasurable.

On the table:

Wildebeest (4)Photo from Ariella

**Smoked Castelvetrano Olives 5/6 (Excellent) 

  • $5
  • I showed up late before I could get a photo of the olives, so these are not my olives, but it comes with about 10-12 olives.
  • People rave about these olives and I agree they make great bar snacks.
  • Castelvetrano olives were very trendy a few years ago in California and they are suited with cocktails.
  • The Castelvetrano Olive is only lightly cured so it is not very salty, but it has a meaty bite which was enhanced by a robust smokiness.
  • They are not strong in olive flavour, but the smokiness didn’t mask it either.
  • The olives really absorbed the smoky aroma and it wasn’t liquid smoke. I could breath and taste it.
  • The olives kind of set the tone for the whole menu and there was a smoky theme in most of the dishes.
  • I think they should offer one olive per guest as an amuse bouche and chances are people would order it too.

Wildebeest (5)**Octopus5.5/6 (Excellent!)

  • Charred broccoli, salmon caviar, olive oil hollandaise $13
  • This was my “vegetable” dish of the night. They have a couple vegetarian options, but if I’m coming to a place called “Wildebeest” – more meat please.
  • I only ordered a couple seafood dishes and it is more farm to table than sea to table.
  • I’m a fan of octopus and they did a superb job with this. It would make a Korean or Portuguese happy.
  • The octopus was likely sous vide and they were as tender as egg whites with so little chew.
  • They were salty, but not overly so and they were very lightly grilled and slightly smoky.
  • There was contrasting texture with super crunchy croutons which would have been great as crackling, but I had enough meat coming.
  • The olive oil hollandaise was aerated and decently thick.
  • It could have used more structure, but it was “molecular gastronomy” used with purpose and I liked that.
  • The foam was emulsified and not bubbly or watery, so it wasn’t poorly made foam. It was so light and the texture of whipped cream.
  • It was maybe made with buttermilk and it tasted like crème fraîche.
  • I liked it more than a butter based hollandaise in this context because it was served with seafood.
  • It was a fruity and lemony foam and it brightened up the smoky flavours of the dish, but the texture gave it a creamy richness.
  • The salmon caviar made for great bursts of salt and it enhanced the seafood flavours of the dish.
  • The broccoli was tender and surprisingly an underused vegetable in sophisticated dining nowadays.
  • The dish had the perfect ratio of components and I could taste some of everything in every bite and there was nothing left over.
  • The flavours were simple, but they had depth and it was a refined dish I would reorder.
  • It reminded me of the Blue Water Cafe Octopus dish from their Unsung Heroes Festival menu, but I liked this one even more.

Wildebeest (6)Elk Tartare3/6 (Good)

  • Blackberry vinegar, confit egg yolk, game spice mayonnaise, wild herbs, elk “bonito”, pickles $15
  • This is an appetizer that’s been on the menu for a while.
  • It is apparently a favourite, but I found it quite standard besides it being elk instead of beef.
  • Elk is a game meat, but it’s not gamey in flavour. I’m sensitive to very gamey and this wasn’t gamey.
  • It’s a very lean meat, but it is very rich and creamy.
  • The texture of it is meatier and thicker than beef tartar and sweeter than it too.
  • The knife could have used some sharpening for the cutting of the tartare.
  • Nicely cut tartare would help with the texture, but I always appreciate knife skills regardless.
  • It was served with cold soft sourdough (?) bread which was a bit chewy and tough.
  • They were very generous with the bread, but I would have preferred crunchy crostini and there was more bread than tartare.
  • The first time I tried elk tartare was at La Traite – see L’Inattendu in Follow Me Foodie to Quebec City, and the second time was my favourite.
  • The second time I tried elk tartare really set the benchmark and it was at Alta Bistro in Follow Me Foodie to Whistler – see their Alberta Elk Tartar & Duck Liver Parfait.

Wildebeest (7)

  • I mixed everything up before trying it, but the confit egg yolk was a bit too cooked so it wasn’t mixing very well.
  • The confit egg yolk congeals to somewhat of a blob, but the skin was a bit too thick although naturally it will have a skin when cooked confit.
  • The egg yolk was thick and gel like so it intensified the creamy richness of the elk and also gave it some fat since it is a lean meat.
  • The pickles were pickled onions and mushrooms and not just standard dill pickles which was a nice change.
  • However there were only a couple pieces of pickled cipollini onions and it was the only thing giving needed texture to the plate.
  • The pickled mushrooms I found a bit too pickled and sour, but they didn’t add much texture.
  • After I mixed everything together the tartare was just very creamy and a bit mushy or gluey, so I wanted some texture but the bread was soft as well.
  • I could taste a slight tang from the blackberry vinegar, but I would never guess it was blackberry vinegar after it was mixed in.
  • I coudn’t taste the game spice mayo either, but there was a hint of something herby or reminiscent of fir.
  • There were also some shreds of hard, salty, and dry elk jerky which didn’t taste great mixed into the tartar or eaten alone. I found those a bit random.
  • I would have liked it perhaps served on the side, but regardless it was still hard and on the dry side.
  • The tartare was a bit one dimensional in flavour for me with the occasional sour mushroom and it had more potential.
  • The most interesting component of the dish was the elk “bonito” which I found infatuating.
  • It was elk bone which was cured for 3 months and grated over the tartare.
  • It tasted like a smoky dry rub seasoning spice with paprika and salt.
  • I don’t know if that was the “game spice”, or if it was actually mixed into the mayo, but I tasted it more trying it alone.
  • The nice plating kind of ended after the octopus and this elk tartare dish.

Wildebeest (8)**Crispy Pork & Polenta Croquettes – 6/6 (FMF Must Try!)

  • Tomato jam $6
  • Alkj;o8yq20h;!!! Omg. I loved this appetizer or bar snack. It was so rich and right up my ally. It was comfort food.
  • I love croquetas and it is one of my favourite Spanish tapas.
  • In Spain they are often frozen and locals recommend you to never order them at a restaurant.
  • It’s one of those dishes where everyone thinks their mom makes “best” and it’s hard to find non-frozen ones.
  • These were not meant to be authentic Spanish croquettes, but I would come back just for these any day.
  • The key to good croquetas is a crunchy outside and a creamy soft inside and these nailed the formula.
  • My friend made pig’s head nuggets before and these reminded me of them.
  • It was three giant sticks of croquettes and it was such a deal for $6.
  • I could eat 3, but they’re so rich and quite filling that 1-2 are probably enough for most.

Wildebeest (9)

  • No thank you, mozzarella sticks… I want these. Apples and oranges, but I pick these.
  • I want to cry just looking at the photo again. I loved them!
  • It was a crunchy and crispy panko crusted croquette deep fried until golden brown and they weren’t greasy.
  • It was basically deep fried pulled pork, but it was ultra creamy because the pork was mixed with polenta.
  • The addition of polenta was almost a “cheat”, but it was a great cheat and there was still a lot of pork in it.
  • It actually seemed like all pork to me and it wasn’t quite cheesy, but the creamy sauce was a bechamel which is one of my favourite sauces.
  • It was very moist and peppery with whole green peppercorns and maybe some garlic, thyme and herbs.
  • They were wonderfully savoury, buttery, moist and melt in your mouth creamy.
  • They were well seasoned on the exterior too with salt in the panko breading.
  • They were served with a rich and chunky tomato jam which was a bit like marinara.
  • It was a sweet and tangy sauce with green peppercorns and the acid level was perfect with the richer croquettes.
  • It wasn’t a spicy jam, but it had some heat to it.
  • I could enjoy the croquettes with or without the jam.
  • I do like salty, sweet, and tangy in one bite so the jam did help deliver that flavour combination though.
  • There are so many versions of house made Ketchup and tomato jam nowadays and I haven’t found my favourite yet, but this was good.

Wildebeest (10)**Smoked Wings (Daily special) – 6/6 (FMF Must Try!)

  • With salted caramel sauce $12
  • This is a daily special and it should be a permanent feature.
  • They tasted pretty much exactly like Pok Pok Chicken Wings in Portland.
  • Pok Pok Wings are notorious for being “the best chicken wings” on the West Coast rivalling Phnom Penh’s chicken wings in Vancouver.
  • These were Asian style chicken wings, but they are not ones you would typically make at home. They had a lot of effort.
  • The chicken wings were smoked and sous vide, but I actually couldn’t taste the smokiness. The Castelvetrano olives had a stronger smoky flavour.
  • I didn’t care they didn’t taste smoky because they were still amazing.
  • They were falling apart tender and the meat was melting off the bone. Some might not like this, but I did.
  • It was more savoury than sweet and the sauce had intense umami thanks to the fish sauce.
  • They were generously sauced in a glaze which tasted like a salty sweet terriyaki soy based sauce.
  • They were semi-crispy and they could be crispier, but the skin just melted and was not chewy or gelatinous at all.
  • The skin was indistinguishable from the meat thanks to the sous vide cooking method.
  • These were bursting with flavour and it’s not actually a caramel sauce, but the sugar melted into the fish sauce and caramelizes as it gets reduced.
  • Again, I love sweet and savoury and Pok Pok Chicken Wings, so these did it for me. Must try these. Do it. Now.

Wildebeest (11)Charred Cod Collar & Clams (Daily special) 3/6 (Good)

  • Clam vinaigrette $10
  • I was really proud how impressed the waitress was with how well we cleaned this cod collar. There was nothing left, but being Asian this is how we do.
  • Asian cultures tend to believe the people that actually know how to eat and appreciate fish are the ones that go for the head and tail first.
  • In Asian cuisine the fish collars are often served as stews in sizzling cast iron pots, or simply pan fried with garlic, onions, shallots and chives – see Fish with Ginger and Onion or Braised Fish Head.
  • I didn’t eat the head and tail as a kid (with exception of the cheeks), but now I can do it. It’s a bit of a learning process.
  • There wasn’t much they could do with presentation, but the foraged flowers were cute and they tried.
  • Cod collars are very rich, fatty and meaty and full of omegas, so they’re healthy in right amounts.
  • The cod collar was brined and marinated overnight, but it absorbed too much salt and it was too salty. I also have a high tolerance for salt.
  • The fish was smoked and a bit undercooked and gelatinous, but it was safe to eat and it had a smoky aroma I could immediately smell.
  • The fins got a bit burnt and overly charred, so it was not as pleasant to eat, but the rest was pretty good.
  • It is a big bone, but there is a lot of meat on it and no small bones to pick around.
  • Naturally it will be a bit gelatinous, so just expect that if you’ve never tried cod collar.
  • The clam vinaigrette was less salty than the fish and I actually really liked it, but it was sandy from the clams.
  • I would have preferred the few clams served in their shells, but they too were sandy.
  • It was a sweet, salty and tangy clam vinaigrette, but the acid was not heavy and it was more like a warm seafood broth.
  • It was a garlicky broth that was mostly savoury and it tasted quite natural without the obvious clam nectar. I could drink it as soup.
  • I think there was some mirin in the sauce and it had a bit of Asian flavours, but I could have used a squeeze of lemon to contrast the smoky fish a bit more.
  • Overall the dish had Asian inspiration, but the style was still very Westernized and approachable for being cod collar.
  • It was nice to see some love for off cut seafood outside of an Asian restaurant. Collar is one thing, head is another… baby steps.

Wildebeest (13)Roasted (Veal) Sweetbreads 4.5/6 (Very good-Excellent)

  • Caramelized buttermilk, wild mushrooms, porcini vinaigrette $15
  • This is one of their most highly raved about dishes so I think many would give it a “6/6”, but I didn’t love it.
  • It was very good and quite a rich dish, but the plating was slightly messy although I won’t pick on that.
  • I just thought it was a sweetbread dish catered for those who don’t like sweetbreads more so than for those who love them.
  • I really like sweetbreads and if you’ve never had them this would be a great introduction, but not necessarily representable of their true nature.
  • Sweetbreads are very mild in flavour and quite creamy and almost milky. It’s a bit meaty, but not gamey.
  • The sweetbreads were brined overnight (likely in buttermilk) and sous vide so they melted in my mouth. I could barely even tell they were sweetbreads.
  • Sweetbreads are hard to overcook so they weren’t overcooked, but the texture was different than normal.
  • They tasted like white meat chicken nuggets and they were lightly dusted in flour (?) before being pan seared for a crispy exterior.
  • I liked the individual pieces of sweetbread, but then there were clumps of it too.
  • Stringy sweetbreads with membranes really turn me off, so I wish they were properly cleaned with membranes removed.
  • The caramelized buttermilk was new for me and I really appreciated the concept, but I was on the fence with the final result.
  • The buttermilk was extremely reduced (takes them I think half a day?) so it was almost like a saucy purée. It had the texture of cream cheese.
  • It was definitely cheese like being reduced buttermilk.
  • It had a powdery or floury texture which would naturally happen from the reduction process.
  • It was still tangy and it tasted a bit like mushrooms with a savoury umami. It was the gravy on the plate.
  • It was a very creamy and rich sauce that was slightly gluey and I loved the flavour more so than the texture.
  • The wild mushrooms were delicious and coated in a syrupy sweet and tangy braising liquid which was nice and salty.
  • It was a very flavourful dish, but I’m just not sure about the texture of everything, and I still wish the membranes were removed.
  • People debate these sweetbreads or the sweetbreads at L’Abattoir which I really love – see their Pan Fried Veal Sweetbreads on Toast.

Wildebeest (15)Slow-Cooked Natural Angus Beef Short Rib – 2.5/6 (Okay-Good)

  • Smoked salt, hay jus $17
  • This was definitely a shareable main course and I was hoping for more creativity, but it was just a big piece of short rib on a plate.
  • It was very homestyle and it had to accompany something.
  • I love short rib and almost always order it if it’s on the menu, but this one lacked some love and was a bit ordinary.
  • Short rib is so forgiving because it’s so fatty. It is hard to go wrong with it, but this one was kind of uninspired.
  • It was a good quality Angus Beef Short Rib which was sous vide for 48 hours and then charred to finish.
  • It had a thick fat cap being a winter beef and it was served on the bone which is always ideal. The bits on the bone are the best parts.
  • The beef had good flavour (thanks fat cap) and since it was cooked sous vide it was rarer than what most people would be used to.
  • The chunks were cut properly off the bone so it was easier to eat, but the marbling wasn’t the greatest.
  • It was expectedly fatty and rich, moist and tender, but not particularly juicy and it needed more sauce.
  • It was quite gelatinous in texture and it was more like steak. It was a bit undercooked even for being sous vide.
  • I prefer short rib braised and shreddable more so than executed this way.
  • The sauce was a hay jus which was hay infused in a meat stock and siphoned to clarify.
  • It was a syrupy, sweet and tangy well reduced sauce, but the hay aspect was undetectable.
  • The hay felt a bit like a novelty and I could appreciate the effort for creativity, but it didn’t impact the dish.
  • I really love short rib almost 99% of the time if it isn’t dry, but this one just didn’t do it for me.

Wildebeest (18)Natural Angus Beef Cheek – 3.5/6 (Good-Very good)

  • Vanilla roasted rutabaga, shallot crumb, carrot jus $16
  • It wasn’t really necessary to order the short rib and the beef cheek, but this one was a bit more creative.
  • The homestyle plating wasn’t as sexy as some of the other earlier dishes which tried, so I wish there was more consistency in plating.
  • This had mild Indian or Middle Eastern flavours, but it needed more carrot jus which was almost like a broth.
  • It was a sweet and slightly tangy broth with perhaps some lemon and it tasted like it was thickened with a beurre blanc.
  • The sauce was rich and not quite a curry, but there were hints of cardamom, cumin and coriander, but no spicy heat.
  • There was also a drizzle of mint oil (?), but it wasn’t obvious unless I had it alone.
  • The vanilla roasted rutabaga (Swedish turnip) was not obvious with vanilla and I think it was just the extract because I couldn’t see any seeds.
  • They were naturally sweet and caramelized from the roasting process and they were tender and very good, but also didn’t live up to the vanilla part of the description.

Wildebeest (19)

  • The Angus beef cheek was good quality and it was moist and tender with nice flavour.
  • It was expectedly rich and very fatty, but it cut easily and was likely sous vide again and seared to finish.
  • It was sprinkled with shallot crumbs for texture, but there wasn’t enough and it seemed like a last minute thought.
  • The chunk of beef cheek got a bit repetitive and it needed more of the carrot jus for flavour and inspiration.
  • Overall it was still a bit flat and there was more potential for the dish, so I didn’t love it even though I love beef cheek.

Wildebeest (22)“Bone M’aero” Caramel2/6 (Okay)

  • Salted walnuts, rutabaga ice cream, sea buckthorn syrup $9
  • This looked amazing and it jumped out to me on the menu. The name was smart and I love that sort of play on words.
  • I had to try it and I’m glad I did, but it didn’t deliver to expectations. It was still in the experimental stages.
  • Vegetables used in desserts I mentioned as a Top 10 Food Trend this year, and this was very current in theory.
  • The bone was just for presentation and it was filled with rutabaga (Swedish turnip) ice cream which was creamy and soft and more like gelato.
  • It tasted like creamy sweet potato and maple ice cream.
  • I could taste the starchy rutabaga, but it wasn’t too much and obvious either.
  • I would have liked some vanilla bean seeds in it, but that was missing from the vanilla roasted rutabaga in the beef cheek dish as well.
  • It was drizzled with sea buckthorn syrup which didn’t play much of a role, but the ice cream was my favourite part.
  • It was topped with aerated bone marrow cream and it was smoky and bitter and it tasted like fat with an oily after taste.
  • Being bone marrow I expected it to taste fatty, but it was a bit overpowering and not savoury or sweet enough.
  • It was just aggressively smoky and it needed either more salt or more sugar, or both.
  • The aerated execution was done well and it had shape and structure, but the flavour was not there and I found myself avoiding it.
  • The salted walnuts were just toasted and salted and not candied or anything. It was pretty plain, but good for texture.
  • There was also some brown butter hazelnut powder, but this also tasted fatty and powdery and I had to ask what it was because it was almost flavourless.
  • I wouldn’t give up on this dessert and there is potential for it, but the seasoning and balance needed some work.
  • The ice cream was the saving grace, but even that could be better.
  • It wasn’t satisfying as a dessert, but it was very interesting and I could appreciate the thought, effort and advanced techniques.
  • The waitress was nice enough to take this off the bill after some honest feedback, and that was unexpected and not requested, but appreciated. She was awesome.
  • Examples of meaty desserts I have liked are Beef Tendon Cannolis, Asian Pear Strudel with Chocolate Blood Pudding Ice Cream, Foie Gras Ice Cream Sandwiches, Foie Gras Panna Cotta, Foie Gras Marshmallows and Foie Gras Brûlée at Jean-Georges.

Wildebeest (24)Keeping up with the meat theme.

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