Location: 1079 Mainland St., Vancouver
Cuisine: Global vegan
Prices: Dinner appetizers and sushi, $14 to $28; mains, $22 to $28
Additional information: Open daily for dinner, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.; happy hour, Wednesday to Sunday; lunch and brunch, Wednesday to Sunday. Reservations recommended. Patio. Takeout and delivery.
Chanthy Yen has been touted as one of Canada’s most promising chefs and he is certainly one of the busiest.
In addition to being the personal chef for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Ottawa, Mr. Yen recently unveiled a concession stand at the Time Out Market in Montreal, is writing a cookbook and spends most weekends in Vancouver, where he is the culinary director at Nightshade, a new vegan restaurant.
When Mr. Yen finishes his year-long contract with the Trudeaus, he says he plans to move to Vancouver full-time to open Touk, a Cambodian restaurant that launched during the pandemic as a celebrated pop-up in Montreal – where he also consulted on the opening of two restaurants in the Hampton Inn and was the executive chef at Parliament Pub & Parlour, after making his mark at the fine-dining Fieldstone, winning Montreal’s 2018 Eater Awards readers’ choice nod for chef of the year.
I am very much looking forward to the Vancouver rendition of Touk because the food at Nightshade is lacklustre and the entire operation is struggling. It doesn’t feel like a proper homecoming for this rising star or a true expression of his full potential.
But I guess that’s what happens when you burn the candles at both ends, on jet fuel from coast to coast.
Mr. Yen is actually from Windsor, Ont., where his family immigrated as refugees from war-torn Cambodia in the 1980s. (His work for the Trudeau family, he explains, is a way of giving back to Canada.)
Nightshade, which is owned by the Alberta-based Sattva Hospitality, brings Mr. Yen back to Vancouver, where he studied at the Northwest Culinary Academy and later worked with some of Canada’s best-known chefs, including Ned Bell (Yew Restaurant) and Jefferson Alvarez (Secret Location, Lift, Cacao).
The spacious Yaletown location, previously home to Glowbal and WildTale, has been lightened and brightened with white brick and floral motifs, including delicately detailed etchings on the wood tables. There is a year-round patio out front and an eighties-themed speakeasy in the back, where cocktails glow with neon ice cubes and photography is verboten.
The menu, which seeks to elevate innately vegan cuisine from around the world, offers a few decent dishes.
Jicama ceviche was thinly sliced and lightly roasted, giving it a silky texture nicely contrasted by crispy beet chips in a bright lime and ginger dressing. Crispy cassava, although undersalted, was pillowy and golden with a zesty mint purée.
An artisanal cheese plate showcased wonderful, local, cashew-based products from Blue Heron and Spread’em Kitchen, with house-made mushroom pâté, spiced nuts, pickles and other interesting nibbles.
The desserts, which were impressive and beautifully plated, included a rich parsnip cremeaux and a creamy coconut cheesecake, scented with tonka beans, topped with airy yuzu-lemon mousse and served with an intensely flavourful makrut-lime sorbet. The lavender crème brûlée, served with warm, unset custard, was an exception.
But aside from the desserts, the plating was pretty basic, the seasoning was dull, a few techniques were quite shoddy and almost everything, including the cocktails, lacked finesse.
I expected more from a chef who spent one year staging at the two-Michelin-starred Mugaritz, where he also worked under Sweden’s Magnus Nilsson for an international chef exchange, and another three months as an apprentice chef at Bullipedia, a food-research laboratory founded by Ferran Adria at the University of Barcelona – all prestigious experiences that he has done a very good job of promoting in international publications from Bon Appétit to Goop.
To be fair, Mr. Yen said he had to start from scratch with his kitchen team, teaching them basic fundamentals of cookery. His more gastronomical cuisine is reserved for special-occasion tasting menus.
But those basic fundamentals still need sharpening, especially on the pasta dishes, which were simply awful on two separate visits, including one night when Mr. Yen was in the kitchen. The tomato sauce, which is inherently vegan and doesn’t require any elevating, was incredibly bitter and likely pulsed with seeds. The turmeric agnolotti was thick and clunky. The accompaniments – overboiled carrots, big soggy chunks of undercooked squash, fibrous leeks and burnt root chips – were pitiful.
Mr. Yen, who is not lacking in ego, said in a phone interview that he is happy with the food he’s serving: “I am using all of my talent to try to elevate vegan food in Vancouver because there isn’t much to choose from. There is a lot of vegan food in Vancouver, but a lot of chefs choose not to elevate it.”
This makes me wonder if he’s done his research, because Nightshade’s lumpy sushi rolls pale in comparison to the extremely elegant and innovative vegan sushi at MILA. Its underseasoned taro rolls, which were served with messy bubbling and rips after exploding in the deep fryer, weren’t nearly as meticulous or delicious as the Vietnamese vegan cuisine served just down the street at Do Chay.
And the barely drinkable cocktails, which were unbalanced across the board and served on successive occasions long after the food had arrived, are a joke compared to the high standards set at Acorn, where the food is far more elevated than this.
The service at Nightshade was not great. On a Saturday night, when the room was packed, there seemed to be a lack of communication between the kitchen and the floor. Our server, who was extremely gracious, tried to do her best. But even on a quiet weekday, it took an awfully long time before anyone touched the table.
I’m willing to give the floor a pass because all restaurants are acutely understaffed and struggling these days.
Mr. Yen agrees that service isn’t yet up to par. But if he honestly thinks this food is good, he’s either deluding himself or perhaps suffering from a serious case of jet lag.
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