Location: 425 W. Georgia St., Vancouver
Prices: Tasting menu, $135; pizza, $30 to $100; antipasti, $21 to $49; pasta and main courses, $35 to $109
Additional information: Reservations essential ($50 deposit per person through exploretock.com); bar seating available for walk-ins; winterized patio; no delivery; dress code; no cellphones or cameras.
I suppose I should apologize in advance.
The truth is, I can’t tell you much about the tasting menu I enjoyed on my first visit to Acquafarina, a swanky new Sicilian restaurant that will likely alienate as many people as it will charm. (Consider me smitten.)
The venison tartare was garnished with a purple shiso flower – a detail I vividly remember because it was the first of many Japanese influences, which I initially found odd.
Amberjack crudo was sliced thick with razor-sharp precision and nicely aged.
Champagne risotto was infused with a bright medley of truffles (Italian winter truffle in the base, white alba truffle for the acidulated butter emulsification, Umbrian summer truffle grated over top and Sardinian truffle pecorino to finish.)
Pink beet rigatoni folded in silky uni sauce was perfectly complemented by the earthy-briny complexity of an Alta Mora Etna Rosso, grown on an active volcano overlooking the Ionian Sea.
Braised veal cheeks were curiously dry and bland.
It was not the most memorable meal I’ve ever eaten. (My second visit left a deeper impression.) But the overall experience is one I will never forget.
Why? For the same blissful reason my notes are a muddled mess – Acquafarina has courageously prohibited the use of cellphones and cameras in its dining room.
It’s been nearly a decade since I’ve reviewed a full-service restaurant without these crutches and my photographic recall isn’t what it used to be.
I did bring an old micro-recorder, but hid it under the tablecloth. Our voices were muffled by a stellar sound system that envelops each table in a soft curtain of Italian tenors.
When trying to transcribe the files, all I could hear was: “Con te partiro…” (Andrea Bocelli); splash, clink, swoosh; “That wooden Pinocchio free-falling over the front door is really quite phallic!” (my friend Jessica).
I can tell you that we, and everyone else, looked fabulous. Acquafarina also has a dress code. Hats, shorts and sneakers are verboten. Hallelujah.
The main room, intricately fashioned from wood, copper and seafoam-green tile inside the soaring glass pavilion of the former BMO bank on West Georgia Street, is warmly grandiose.
Service is as polished as one would expect from a hand-recruited A-team.
I was frankly stunned by the calibre of recognizable floor talent and couldn’t immediately tell who the general manager was – because they’ve almost all been managers in top restaurants.
The prices, which include a $50 prepaid deposit for each person, are relatively (yet reasonably) expensive. The $100 pizza, in case you’re wondering, is smothered in carabinero prawns, burrata and caviar.
And in the big postpandemic picture, one that I predict will polarize the next generation of restaurants between simple, soul-nourishing cuisine and indulgent escapes, Acquafarina offers a rare dual experience: the feeling of being calmly disconnected while at the same time having arrived.
The maestro behind the scenes is a soft-spoken fellow named Fabrizio Foz. He also owns Per se Social Corner and this is his 26th restaurant (the others were mostly in Italy and the Dominican Republic).
You’ve probably never heard of him. He shuns the spotlight, hates having his photo taken and doles out tantalizing tidbits about his exceedingly accomplished life – realtor, two-time certified pizzaiolo, co-founder of Twisted Productions Inc., raced for Ducati, currently writing a book inspired by Eckhart Tolle – that makes you wonder if he was the inspiration for Bradley Cooper’s character in Limitless.
Mr. Foz had a hand in every detail of the design and says he built Acquafarina as a tribute to his Nonna, who raised him without many means.
Acquafarina was originally conceived as Water & Flour, a much more casual pizza concept. But the pandemic made him realize that he had to pivot higher in the sit-down restaurant segment to hedge against the uncertainty of office workers returning to their cubicles.
Though ostensibly open to everyone, Acquafarina has the trappings of a private club. In the main dining room, a floor-to-ceiling wall of paned-glass boxes is being sold off for undisclosed sums to members.
Members are entitled to buy (and store) bottles of liquor from the restaurant at retail prices and are given exclusive access to the private mezzanine dining room.
Of the 550 boxes, 217 have already been sold. And right now, the wall looks like a giant billboard for Louis XIII Cognac by Rémy Martin.
When other restaurant groups laid off their star front-of-house employees, Mr. Foz scooped them up and gave them salaried jobs.
He hasn’t had as much luck with chefs. There are only four cooks in the kitchen, none in an executive position, two straight out of culinary school and one sushi master – which explains the Japanese-inflected tasting menu.
Mr. Foz says he plans to bring some big names from Italy for brief stints this winter. But no matter how much the reckonings of the past few years have knocked the sails out of the ego-driven celebrity chef, a solid kitchen team requires long-lasting leadership, not the flick of a switch.
That said, the food keeps getting better.
On my second visit, when I dined there practically straight off the plane from a holiday in Sicily, I ordered from the new à la carte menu.
Carabinero prawns, albeit from Spain, had the same swampy intensity of the smaller red prawns I had just been savouring. At Acquafarina, they were served as a delicate tartare dotted with buratta, caviar and nasturtium leaves.
Pasta alla Norma was elevated from chunky eggplant ragu into stuffed paccheri, dressed tableside with a salted ricotta cream punched up with parmesan, pecorino and shavings of Middle Eastern jameed.
Mediterranean branzino was served whole, darkly charred and filled with lemons, walnuts and olives. On the side, there was a terrine of scalloped potatoes infused between every whisper-thin layer with porcini puree.
This probably isn’t food Mr. Foz’s Nonna would recognize. But it will likely sell a lot of Louis XIII.
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