Chambar – Vancouver, BC Canada

Civilized debauchery‘ is the catchphrase at Chambar, a sexy restaurant in Vancouver’s Gastown that has been going strong for the last 6 years, and for well deserved reasons.  Chef and owner Nico Schuermans and his wife Kari, who manages the front of house, have created a beautiful setting where diners can enjoy superb Belgian food and scrumptious Belgian ales.  Chef Schuermans was born in Rwanda, Africa, after which he moved back to his native Belgium with his family.  There, after graduating from culinary school, he worked at several Michelin starred restaurants like Comme Chez Soi, and subsequently moved around the world to London, Puerto Rico and Australia to further his culinary career.

It didn’t take a lot of convincing for me to put Chambar on my list of restaurants to visit on a recent trip to Vancouver, as it kept coming up on my searches with excellent reviews.  Exceptional Belgian food with hints of North African influences, a breathtaking cocktail and Belgian beer selection, superb pastries from a rising pastry chef named Eleanor Chow, an inviting dining room and bar area dimly lit by glowing red lamps, attentive service, rotating modern art to adorn the brick exposed walls and a hip Vancouver crowd jiving to sensuous jazz music couldn’t paint a more perfect picture for a Saturday night in the city.  The large L-shaped restaurant with a lounge area in the front was completely packed with the beautiful people of Vancouver dining in this seductive and gorgeous ambiance. There was no pretentiousness though, from the moment we were warmly greeted by the house staff to the attentive and courteous service that we received all throughout the evening.

Chambar is not just a pretty restaurant with good food- they are 100% committed to reducing environmental impact by supporting local suppliers in sourcing regional seasonal ingredients, using Oceanwise-certified sustainable seafood, cleaning and reusing Chambar Ale bottles, and participating in recycling programs with food waste going to community garden composts.  They strive to be a carbon neutral restaurant by using all natural environmentally friendly cleaning products, using biodegradable corn products and cardboard in lieu of plastic for takeout containers and consistently utilizing post consumer recycled paper for menus, cocktail napkins and stationary.

Chambar’s Belgian Beer menu is quite impressive, offering lagers, witbiers, blonde ales, trappistes, lambics and dark ales.  I chose Triple Karmeliet, a smooth and robust blond ale with a sweet fruity finish, that went wonderfully with a starter of grilled green asparagus with sautéed morels, black peppercorns & truffled mayonnaise and crispy parmesan tuiles.  The grilled asparagus had an amazing fresh flavor, accented by the wonderful waft of truffle aroma that enveloped the soft chunks of morel mushrooms.

All of their Les Petit Plats sounded enticing, like seared scallops with smoked Kurobuta pork cheek, a bison carpaccio with truffles and a spiced foie gras terrine with port reduction, but we opted for a plate called ‘Les Tapas’ which came with 3 dishes, each filled with delicious surf and turf offerings.

Smoked sardines with basil, sun dried tomatoes and shaved red onions were tossed in a light vinaigrette that added the perfect amount of acidity to the dish.

My favorite was the pan seared shrimp and calamari tapas with aji vinaigrette, cubed red, yellow and green peppers and caraway seeds. The squid was perfectly cooked to a tender consistency, melting under the luscious aioli as the crunchy peppers imparted a delightful juicy textural contrast.

Generous meaty chunks of king oyster mushrooms were sautéed with smokey chorizo and garlic and garnished with a heap of sunflower sprouts.

La brochette d’autruche, grilled ostrich skewers served with pearl onions pickled in sweet balsamic glaze, marinated prunes, five-herb pesto, capers, pine nuts, sunflower sprouts and crisp potato chips was fantastic.  The tender morsels of ostrich tasted like lean beef and paired superbly with the vincotto sauce and all of the condiments that added differing degrees of texture and acidity to enhance the flavors of the meat.

Les grosses pièces offerings like the BC spot prawn taster, slow roasted pork tenderloin, spice rubbed duck breast and braised lamb shank with figs and honey all sounded tasty, but we decided on the entrecôte grillée d’Argentine, a grilled AAA ribeye steak with chimichurri sauce, charred tomatoes, chorizo, baby arugula, watercress and crispy polenta.  The ribeye was grilled to a perfect medium rare, so tender that we barely needed to use our knives to cut through the fatty piece of delicious meat.  This was one good steak.

Being a Belgian restaurant, the house specialty is moules frites, and they offer 3 types of mussels- Coquotte with white wine cream, smoked bacon lardons and spring onions, Vin Blanc with white wine butter, braised celery and leeks, and the Congolaise which we ordered, with tomato coconut cream, smoked chile, lime and fresh cilantro.  A huge deep pot of mussels came to our table, piled high with juicy briny mussels that tasted amazing with the spicy coconut sauce.

Robert Stelmachuk, Chambar’s sommelier who used to work at Le Crocodile, was particularly helpful and kind to us that evening, and showed us around the restaurant, explaining its history and food with great enthusiasm.  He arranged a dessert tasting menu for us, an incredible array of artistic desserts created by its resident superstar pastry chef, Eleanor Chow.  I had already heard about her desserts from my server at Bluewater Cafe who gushed about her work.  She started our dessert course with an amazing passion fruit parfait, made with lime sponge cake, passion fruit curd, passion fruit seeds, a smooth and silky passion fruit ice cream and crispy tuile on top.  This slightly tart and refreshing dessert was the one that made me swoon with ecstasy.

A light orange vanilla sorbet reminded me of Orange Julius, a drink that I adored as a child, and the vanilla custard cream, garnished with thin pear slices, was one of the most flavorful and decadent custards that I have ever had the pleasure of devouring.  It was a straightforward custard made with simple basic ingredients, yet somehow this pastry chef managed to take it to another level.

Crispy and light mille-feuille with cherry compote and chocolate ganache mousse were excellent as well.

We were so stuffed by the end of our meal that we got the homemade chocolates brownies and white chocolate truffles to go. Needless to say, it was gone before bedtime.

As if Chambar’s amazing food, stellar service and magnificent restaurant wasn’t already enough to keep us happy, Nico Schuermans spreads his love in so many other fruitful ways for us to engage in ‘civilized debauchery’.  Chef Schuermans’ delicious Belgian fare can also be enjoyed at the casual Cafe Medina next door along with Eleanor Chow’s Belgian waffles with accompaniments of compotes, caramels and chocolate sauces that are especially popular for weekend brunch.   In addition, both chefs teach their tricks of the trade at The Dirty Apron Cooking School, another project that they are involved with in the Gastown district of Vancouver.  Here you can learn snout to tail butchering, sinful desserts that come with free panties and even an opportunity to meet your future spouse over fig compote in any of their singles cooking classes.

Chambar Restaurant

562 Beatty Street
Vancouver, BC V6B 2L3, Canada
(604) 879-7119

Cafe Medina

The Dirty Apron Cooking School

Random trivia:  Did you know that most birds do not have a copulatory organ, but the ostrich does?  In fact, the male ostrich has a retractable one that can measure up to 8 inches long.  Civilized….debauchery….?

Salt Tasting Room- Vancouver, BC Canada

A cured meats restaurant in Gastown district with a street address named Blood Alley sounds suspicious, if not a bit scary, doesn’t it?  The hunt for Salt Tasting room, a charcuterie, cheese and wine restaurant in downtown Vancouver was in fact a tad hairy.  The 19th century architecture and heritage buildings that line the cobblestone streets of Gastown have a retained historic charm and old world spirit, but one step into a back alley or a dark street corner and you can experience skid row as Vancouverites saw it during the Depression.  Salt Tasting Kitchen, which opened in the summer of 2006, is located in an unmarked alley between Water Street and Cordova Street.  At first we circled round and around the area on bicycle, asking locals if they knew of Blood Alley, only to get a confused ‘no’.  As we walked our bicycles down the alley, winding through homeless people and drug addicts, we saw the majestic grey flag with a salt shaker motif hanging over the front door.  We had finally found it- but before entering the restaurant, we had to go back out the alley to find a safer place to park our rental bikes.

This haunting street, full of haunted street residents, used to be lined with butcher shops, hence the name Blood Alley for the bloody mess that would ensue after a day of animal butchering.  In addition, Blood Alley was a location for public executions in the late 19th century.  A most interesting place to serve sliced salami, trimmed beef tongue and shaved prosciutto; yet the discretely located Salt Tasting Room successfully creates a safe haven for foodies to congregate.

Salt Tasting Room specializes in artisanal cheeses, small-batch cured meats and a vast selection of wines, sherries, ports, beers and spirits which go through a constant rotation.  They offer wines from Europe, Australia, Argentina and the US, but most of their line up celebrates local harvests from British Columbia, like Okanagan Falls and Similkameen Valley.  Any of their liquids can be enjoyed by the glass or bottle, and one can also sample a wider variety through their 2 ounce tasters and tasting flights.

The entire menu consists of cheeses, charcuterie and condiments that are written on the large chalkboard wall in the rear of the restaurant.  The decor is simple, just a few tables and chairs aside from the large communal wooden table by the entrance in a brick exposed wall space, as the emphasis is on food and wine.  Diners assemble a Tasting Plate by choosing cheeses, meats and condiments, which are supplemented by crackers and bread.  It’s a simple and straightforward way of dining, which is actually refreshing in this day and age of complex menu items that come with encyclopedic descriptions.

Many of the charcuterie items come from local producers with whom Salt Tasting Room has a close relationship, and cheeses come through select cheesemongers all over the world.  On the day that we visited, the 10 cheeses included a Red Leicester from the UK, a French Comte and a local BC cheese called Happy Days.  The cured meats ranged from a fennel salami from Moccia’s, Sec Maison from Oyama Sausage Co., and hot capicollo from JN & Z.  Needless to say, with such a wide selection of delicacies, we chose our cheese and cured meats and entrusted our server to pair them with the appropriate condiments.

Our Tyrolean speck, a salt-cured and cold smoked pork charcuterie, tasted like refined and slightly more fatty prosciutto.  I loved that it was sliced paper thin, which gave off more smokey perfumes to aerate my nasal passages.  It was paired with a nutty and sweet Spanish fig & walnut bread.

Cured beef tongue from Oyama Sausage Co. was just what the doctor ordered.  With a hint of smokiness in the background, these luscious cuts of fatty and tender tongue practically melted in my tongue, complemented with a hit of locally produced grainy Guinness mustard.

A classic and most flavorful Italian Toscano salami with fig from Moccia’s was paired with briny meaty Basque olives, a perfect companion to enjoy with my glass of Alvear’s CB brand of Fino Jerez sherry from Spain.

We wanted to try a local British Columbian cheese, and our server gushed about the Ash Camembert.  It was paired beautifully with the honey-like fruity sweetness of Spanish quince paste.

Customizing your own Tasting Platter and pairing it with wines is the general rule at Salt Tasting Kitchen, but diners who may feel incomplete without a little more grub can order salads, soups, grilled sandwiches (for lunchtime only) and desserts.  Chef Lee Humphries of The Irish Heather, a local gastropub, also provides handmade terrines and pâtés.

Salt Tasting Room has a large room in their basement called The Salt Cellar which houses a long communal table that opens to the public on Friday and Saturday nights.  Otherwise, it’s used for private functions, parties and wine tastings sponsored by local wine producers.  We got to take a quick tour of The Salt Cellar, a beautiful industrial space that also houses their meat curing room, encased by clear glass on all 4 sides to entice hungry and tipsy diners.  What a perfect space to gather friends for a dinner party, drinking wine and sampling cheeses while enjoying an unobstructed view of hanging salamis and pork legs.

Salt Tasting Room is open every day from noon till midnight, and an ideal place for quick nibbles, mid afternoon booze or late night eats.  With cheeses and charcuterie that change daily, you will never have the same plate of food here, and every experience will be a new journey into gourmet heaven.  Dare to take the adventurous and shady walk down Blood Alley to find this gorgeous restaurant where they’ll reserve your space with a name tag and a not-so-bloody piggy bank to welcome your arrival.

Salt Tasting Room

45 Blood Alley Square
Vancouver, BC V6B 0C4, Canada
(604) 633-1912

Open daily noon till midnight

Random trivia: Did you know that ancient texts and historians suggest that Eve’s fruit of temptation in the Garden of Eden may have been a quince, rather than an apple?