Restaurant: Blue Water Cafe + Raw Bar – Unsung Heroes (Seafood) Festival
Cuisine: Pacific Northwest/Seafood/Fine Dining
Last visited: January 22, 2014
Location: Vancouver, BC (Yaletown)
Phone: (604) 688-8078
Address: 1095 Hamilton Street
Transit: Yaletown-Roundhouse Stn Northbound
Price Range: $50+ (Mains $30-50)
1: Poor 2: OK 3: Good 4: Very good 5: Excellent 6: FMF Must Try!
Food: 4.5–5 (for the Unsung Heroes Menu)
Value: 5 (for the Unsung Heroes Menu)
- Top Table Group Restaurant
- Since 2001
- Executive Chef Frank Pabst
- Pacific Northwest/West Coast cuisine
- Casual fine dining
- Specializes in seafood
- Authentic Japanese raw bar
- Award winning
- Local favourite/busy
- Mostly local ingredients
- Excellent cocktail program
- Excellent wine program
- Vegetarian friendly
- Ocean Wise
- Private rooms
- Reservations recommended
- Valet service
- Dinner Mon-Sun 5pm-11pm
- Bar Mon-Sun 5pm-1am
**Recommendations: Anchovy, Jellyfish, Sea Urchin, Mackerel, Octopus
An Unsung Heroes Menu featuring unsung heroes by an unsung hero. Well, Executive Chef Frank Pabst is barely an unsung hero in Vancouver, but this menu is one of his finest and most underrated in the city. Despite this menu being on its 10th year anniversary at Blue Water Cafe, it still doesn’t get the love it deserves. The restaurant is busy every day of the week and this menu is successful, but to a niche market. How unfortunate.
I first tried the Unsung Heroes menu last year, and I instantly fell in love with it. It featured seafood I normally don’t see outside of Asian restaurants and maybe some Mediterranean. In Vancouver it is considered a very rare menu featuring exotic and/or under appreciated seafood.
About half the menu was new and the other half was Unsung Hero favourites from the previous years. I liked the menu from last year a bit more, but I’d still recommend this year’s in a heartbeat. The menu offers shared small plates ideal for 3-4 people. The value is incredible with each dish averaging $10, and this is at an award winning fine dining restaurant. As an added bonus 10% of proceeds from this menu is donated to the Vancouver Aquarium Ocean Wise sustainable seafood program. It’s a win for all parties.
In Vancouver’s West Coast restaurants, chefs and diners tend to play it safe, sticking to familiar and mild fish choices like cod, halibut and sablefish. The “strong fish” is arctic char and salmon and then it almost stops there. The menus at every restaurant start to look the same and chefs cater to palates of their clientele. It is understandable, after all it is a business, but I’m an advocate for pushing boundaries and introducing people to new ingredients and flavours; and this is partially what Blue Water Cafe’s Unsung Heroes Menu is all about.
One of the reasons fishes like cod, halibut and sablefish are featured is also because they are ocean-friendly and sustainable. Great! Good for you, Vancouver! You want to support Oceanwise choices and help the environment like you always do, but if you really want to make an “ocean-wise” decision and make a statement – try the sardine, herring, anchovy and more. These are some of the most sustainable fish are also some of the lowest in mercury, and not enough people are eating them or using them on menus. There is so much more sustainable seafood options than the usual suspects.
For many North Americans the thought of whole sardine, herring, anchovy, and mackerel isn’t appetizing. For the most part these fish are saved for cat food, and anchovies are preferred pureed in Cesar salad dressing. What a waste! That hurts. Yes, they are fishy tasting fish and very aggressive and pungent in flavour, but that’s when the chef comes in. Chef Pabst creates a genius menu showcasing under-utilized seafood and it’s one of my favourite menus all year. The only “wrong” is that it is only available for the month of February.
On the table:
UNSUNG HEROES 2014
Recommended as sharing plates for the table
- I’ve been to all the Top Table Group Restaurants and they offer slight variations of similar rolls at each one.
- Again, I always mention the complimentary house made bread and butter and I think it can say a lot about a restaurant.
- Complimentary bread is not offered at many restaurants in Vancouver so it is appreciated here.
- The bread rolls were served warm with a harder outside and softer inside, but it wasn’t baguette like. It was more a levain style of bun.
- The butter was seaweed butter which was very representable of the restaurant’s focus on seafood.
- I do prefer the seaweed bread at C Restaurant or YEW Restaurant, but this was a quick way to replicate a similar idea.
- The hummus (not served on this occasion) I always love and they did this at their sister restaurant Araxi in Whistler too.
- For me, Blue Water Cafe + Raw Bar is the “Araxi” of Vancouver and vise versa up at Whistler. Solid restaurants with steady traffic.
- Herring taramosalata with grilled flat bread $9.50
- I don’t know why, but I liked this last year more than this year.
- The recipe likely hasn’t changed, but I couldn’t get as much herring flavour as I wanted and it was more mayo-heavy.
- This is a traditional Greek dip made from fish roe (carp or cod), lemon, olive oil and maybe onions and vinegar.
- I’ve only had the pink kind at Greek restaurants in Vancouver which I love, but it can also be beige in colour.
- This one was made from herring roe instead of carp or cod roe.
- It was very thick and creamy and it tasted like acidic tangy mayo as it normally does.
- Herring roe is a delicacy and I’ve only found it once as sashimi at a Japanese restaurant in Surrey, BC.
- The herring roe is whipped into the mayo like spread so you get tiny pops of crunchy herring roe with every bite.
- It is similar to tobiko and a bit salty and fishy tasting, but not in a bad way and I have always liked herring roe and taramosalata.
- I could have used even more herring roe, but there was enough that I could see and taste it in the spread.
- The taramasalata at most Greek restaurants is stronger than this one.
- The grilled flat bread was served warm and quite standard and of course best hot.
- I’m glad it was flatbread instead of traditional pita bread which may have been too substantial.
- Chilled sea snails with aioli $9.50 (Standard portion comes with less)
- Pairing: Venturi Schulze Brut Natural, Vancouver Island $15.50 gls
- I’m a fan of whelk and I don’t see it often even at Asian restaurants. I actually buy the frozen ones and eat them at home.
- These were very simple, cooked well, and as is.
- There was nothing wrong with them, but nothing special about them besides the fact they were whelk.
- I can appreciate this as a purist and the fact of wanting to really showcase the whelk alone, but it was slightly forgettable.
- Even if served this way, at a restaurant I would like maybe 2-3 more condiments.
- For raw oysters I don’t need condiments, but whelk needs a little help to shine or it’s a bit bland.
- White anchovy bruschetta with marinated red peppers, mozzarella and arugula $9.50
- This was almost the same last year, if not exactly the same. I still found it excellent.
- I felt like I was in Spain ordering tapas and I ate this with my hands. It was elegant yet rustic.
- I love seeing whole white anchovy presented like this. I don’t mind seeing the heads too, but I didn’t expect it here.
- This made me happy enough because not many restaurants will serve it whole like this. Anchovy is often pureed into some sauce like Caesar salad.
- The anchovies were not very salty and actually quite mild and they were generous with it so I could taste it in every bite.
- The bread was grilled crunchy and it was topped with peppery arugula, a slice of fresh mozzarella and sweet roasted red peppers.
- It was nice to have salt from the anchovy rather than from the cheese.
- It was a bit oily from the fish and the roasted peppers, but it was a good oily from flavours and not grease.
- I could taste each layer of ingredient and it was naturally salty, tangy and sweet.
- This is something you could make at home, but it would not prevent me from ordering it again here.
- If you like anchovies I also recommend the Duck Liver & Anchovy Pâté and Endive and White Anchovy from Espana.
Herring – 3.5/6 (Good-Very good)
- Herring “tartar” with ginger, shiso and green onion, ponzu sauce $10.50
- It’s apples and oranges, but I preferred last year’s herring dish to this years. Last year’s was incredible!
- This was very Japanese in style and if I didn’t know, I would have thought the chef was Japanese.
- Being herring, it was super fishy in flavour, which I don’t mind.
- It was all chopped up in thin strips so it was able to absorb lots of the marinade.
- It was almost like a herring ceviche salad with strong acidity from citrusy ponzu.
- There was some fresh shiso leaf and ginger in the marinade to help take the fishy edge off and balance out the aggressive fishiness.
- The giant shiso leaf I ate at the end as a palate cleanser which I think was the intention.
- Seaweed salad with cucumber, red onion, shichimi togarashi, ginger, sesame, tamari $9.50
- Pairing: Alvear Amontillado, Sherry $7/gls or Synchromesh Riesling Storm Heaven Vineyard 2012, Okanagan valley $72/bt
- This was good, but I preferred the version from last year with avocado – see here.
- It was various types of fresh seaweed tossed in an Asian inspired vinaigrette.
- Fresh seaweed is crunchy and a bit slimy so the texture is acquired and you either like it or do not care for it.
- It was a bit one dimensional, but a nice light salad.
- Same as last year, but for the price I could have used some shrimp or scallops, but those are not “unsung heroes”.
- I would not want to take away from the fresh seaweed which is usually only found at Japanese restaurants.
- The aromatic, sweet, savoury and acidic tamari-sesame dressing was a light vinaigrette with a bit of spice.
- The cucumber added a freshness and the whole salad tossed together was very simple, fresh, and healthy.
**Jellyfish – 5.5/6 (Excellent!)
- Stir fried jellyfish with pork belly, wood ear mushrooms, snow peas cabbage, hoisin sauce $12.50
- I loved this dish and would order it again for sure, but it was much more pork belly focused than jellyfish focused.
- The jellyfish was secondary so I lost the heart of the dish given it was supposed to be the primary ingredient.
- Pork belly is easy to please, but I’ve had it screwed up a lot (surprisingly).
- If it’s undercooked it’s chewy and gelatinous and if it’s too fatty it’s just too much, so the selection of belly and fat ratio is important.
- It came with 4 pieces of crispy caramelized pork skins on top which were a bit juicy from the little bit of fat underneath, but there were only 3 pieces of pork belly.
- The pork belly was very tender and moist and I didn’t need a knife.
- It was sitting in a Chinese inspired sauce which tasted like soy sauce and a bit of hoisin sauce thinned out. It was sweet and savoury, but not watery.
- The stir fried veggies it was topped with included snow peas, bean sprouts, wood ear mushrooms, onions, cabbage and jellyfish.
- I would have preferred shiitake mushrooms since they are juicier with more flavour, but the wood ear mushrooms were a nice change.
- Wood ear mushrooms are crunchier, but they don’t absorb sauces and are not juicy.
- The jellyfish was a bit random to me and there wasn’t much of it.
- I actually didn’t like eating the jellyfish together with the pork belly because the crunchy-gelatinous quality of the jellyfish made me think the pork fat was not tender.
- The two are typically served together on a traditional Chinese cold cut appetizer platter, but they are not eaten together at once.
- I loved everything about this besides the combination of the jellyfish and pork. If I had a bowl of rice it could have been dinner.
**Sea Urchin – 6/6 (FMF Must Try!)
- Sea urchin mousse in a crispy shell with ponzu jelly and avocado sauce $12.50
- If there is one menu item you can’t leave without trying – it’s this one.
- It’s a signature on the Unsung Heroes menu and on my Top 24 Favourite Savoury Dishes of 2013.
- The standard order comes with 3 and no shell… and I recommend one order per person. I could eat 10.
- Last year when I tried this I loved it so much I almost cried looking at the photo.
- This year was just as good, but now the excitement is in anticipation since the surprise element is gone.
- This was actually a slight variation of chef Pabst’s award winning Gold dish from the Gold Medal Plates 2008 culinary competition he won.
- I love “sea urchin” sashimi straight from the shell, but this showed chef’s creative side.
- Each piece was still topped with a little piece of red sea urchin too which is the least I wanted if not the whole thing.
- If you’ve never had sea urchin think of it as the seafood version of foie gras.
- It’s rich and buttery and strong in seafood flavour, but good quality and fresh sea urchin will have a clean aftertaste.
- Sea urchin from different waters taste different and my favourite sea urchin so far are from Japan and the Philippines.
- The little muddy dark green nests were actually made from squid ink dyed phyllo shreds which I thought was very creative.
- It didn’t have much flavour and it wasn’t necessarily pretty, but it was made to look like the sea urchin shell and it was original.
- The phyllo reminded me of kadaifi used in Greek desserts which is similar to shredded wheat and it had the same light and crispy texture.
- It was topped with a super rich and creamy sea urchin mousse that used to be mixed with scallop mousse, but I think this was all sea urchin.
- The mousse was still mild in sea urchin flavour for me although I could taste seafood and a mild umami in it.
- It was fluffy, whipped, creamy, indulgent and savoury mousse so the crispy shell was a great contrast.
- The bite of citrus ponzu jelly was great for acidity and to cut the richer mousse.
- The “glue” was the avocado sauce which was a purée and it was very bright with lots of lime juice flavour.
- I was almost sure there was crème fraîche in it, but it was just olive oil, avocado and lime juice.
- It was so smooth and buttery and the fragrant lime infused avocado puree played right into the savoury sea urchin mousse.
- I could have eaten 10 of these easily and it was rich in flavour, but light in texture and the uni was not out shined.
- Squid ink fettucini, serrano pepper, saffron broth $10.50
- Pairing: Laroche La Chantrerie 1er Cru 2011, Chablis $17.50/gls $71/bt
- Pairing: CedarCreek Platinum Viognier 2012, Okanagan Valley $58/bt
- This was the only dish I wasn’t keen on.
- It didn’t taste bad and I like sea cucumber, but it just seemed too deconstructed and the flavours never found each other.
- Chef Pabst uses the inside of the sea cucumber, the fillet, as opposed to the gelatinous black exterior which is typical in Chinese cooking.
- It’s considered a delicacy, but the texture of the exterior is very acquired and appealing to Asian palates.
- The sea cucumber fillet is the orange-y white pile and that alone I enjoyed.
- It’s a bit chewy and comparable to a clam (think geoduck or razor clam species) meets squid.
- It sat on top of squid ink fettucini which I never found tasted much like squid ink.
- I also prefer fettucini with a heavier creamier sauce, but this was cooked al dente which was good.
- The medium spicy serrano and saffron (seafood?) infused broth tasted quite literal, but I didn’t see where it all fit.
- I could taste the saffron and got some gradual heat, but it didn’t really enhance the noodles.
- I guess it gave flavour to the sea cucumber, but there was so much sea cucumber I felt like it needed more character or components.
- The noodles came across as a bit filler rather than serving a purpose, and it wasn’t the most well thought out, although I saw the Mediterranean/Spanish inspiration.
- I preferred last year’s Sea Cucumber soup better, but I appreciate sea cucumber even being on the menu and the effort to showcase it.
- Smoked mackerel, celeriac, apples, watercress, pickled mustard seed sauce $10.50
- It was one of my favourite dishes from last year (see here), and it’s almost the same this year.
- The mackerel this year seemed a bit smaller and it’s gone up $.50. Not a big deal and I’d still order it, but for some reason I liked the recipe more last year… unless I’m just holding onto a memory.
- I love Mackerel and not many people do because it is a very fishy tasting fish. I often only get it grilled at Japanese restaurants.
- I was happy to see the skin and it was glossy and pan fried until crisp.
- This year I could tell it was smoked whereas last year it wasn’t so smoky and more delicate. I liked the smokiness.
- It was a very meaty boneless mackerel and it was incredibly tender, flaky and moist. It actually flaked like cod and it was wonderfully oily.
- The well seasoned mackerel was treated simply and it was very natural in flavour which was ideal because the other components were strong.
- The very rich and indulgent pickled mustard seed sauce was likely made with egg yolk, whole grain mustard and olive oil or butter.
- It was very forward with mustard, lemon and/or vinegar and there were crunchy pops of whole mustard seeds throughout.
- It was a thick and creamy smooth Béarnaise like sauce and there was a good amount of vinegar, shallots, dill pickles, chervil, and tarragon (?).
- Many people would marinate the fish in a mustard sauce before cooking it, but I liked how it was separate here.
- I wanted to taste the Mackerel’s pure flavour and it was steak-like, so the Béarnaise style sauce worked well.
- The salty and pickled sauce really seasoned the simply pan seared mackerel which has a naturally strong flavour.
- The chilled celeriac and apple slaw was only lightly pickled and I wouldn’t have minded more apples.
- The sauce was the most pickled and strongest flavour on the plate and it was intended to take some of the fishy edge off the mackerel.
**Octopus – 5.5/6 (Excellent!)
- Charred octopus, morcilla sausage, picquillo peppers, arugula, white bean puree, chorizo oil $12.50
- The octopus this year was stronger than the one from last year – see last year’s octopus.
- I listed octopus in my “Top 10 Food Trend for 2014” and I can’t wait to see more of it.
- This was fantastic and I think I would have appreciated it even more if it came earlier.
- It was a very Spanish interpretation for octopus and I loved it. This with the anchovy dish and a glass of wine – heaven.
- I think this was chef Pabst’s take on a Fabada – a traditional Spanish rich bean strew with morcilla sausage and Asturian Bean.
- The octopus was tender with a slight char and cooked properly.
- The white bean puree was creamy and not gummy and octopus and beans are a very Tuscan combination, but usually it would not be pureed.
- I enjoyed the puree as a hummus-like dip for the octopus.
- I liked having a creamy starch to absorb the heaty chorizo oil and to accompany the morcilla sausage with too.
- The morcilla sausage (blood sausage) was a highlight, but the octopus was still excellent.
- The sausage could have been polenta in texture and at first I thought it was olive tapenade, but it was meaty in flavour with lots of umami.
- It was very smoky, complex, savoury and beautiful eaten with the octopus.
- I could have this as a spread with crostini and be a happy camper.
- If you like octopus I recommend the ones from L’Abattoir, Bambudda, Reflections at Rosewood Hotel Georgia, and Farmer’s Apprentice as well.
- If you like morcilla sausage I also recommend the one from Espana.
Sardine – 4.5/6 (Very good-Excellent)
- Stuffed with pine nut gremolata and wrapped “in a blanket”, shaved fennel salad, meyer lemon, black garlic $11.50
- Pairing: Beronia Reserva Tempranillo 2008, Rioja $65/bt
- Pairing: Kettle Valley Reserve Pinot Noir 2010, Okanagan Valley $68/bt
- I love sardines and they are so rare to find fresh and whole in Vancouver. I even like sardines from a can… meow!
- This was a slight variation on the one last year, but again I liked the one last year a bit more – see last year’s.
- I’d still recommend this one and it was still very good, although I wish the sardine was served hotter and it was only warm.
- The sardine was generously stuffed with pine nut gremolata and I could taste whole pine nuts and a good amount of lemon zest.
- I was actually incredibly impressed with the effort to make this because sardines are a b**** to fillet and debone. Chef Pabst is patient and very skilled.
- My favourite part was the textural contrast with the stuffed sardine and the Melba-like toast/crisp wrapped around it.
- It was thin and crisp more so than crunchy.
- The meyer lemon puree was cold and quite bitter, so I had to use it sparingly with the sardine.
- It was a good accompaniment to take the fishiness away from the sardine, but sardines are supposed to taste fishy so I don’t mind.
- The puree was a nice match with the gremolata, but then the black garlic seemed out of place.
- The shaved fennel salad played into the lemony aspects of the plate, and it was a fresh component to balance the sardine.
- Personally I would have liked a savoury sauce with this and I liked the meyer lemon puree as a secondary condiment more than a primary sauce.
- The last sardine I had that I loved was at Rich Table in San Francisco. Their Sardine Chips are fantastic!
- Chocolate hazelnut wafer with cream cheese icing, fresh berries + candied lemon zest
- Miniture carrot cake with mango salsa
- Coffee macaron
- Chocolate hazelnut wafer with cream cheese icing, mandarin compote and Valrhona chocolate