Name: Cask Whisky Vault
Location: 8400 West Rd., Richmond, B.C.
Cuisine: Japanese Izakaya & Robata
Prices: Appetizers, $9 to $21 ($98 for Cinco Jotas Iberico); robata skewers, $11 to $18; mains, $36 to $47; tasting menu, $59 ($108 with whisky pairings)
Additional information: Open Wednesday to Sunday from 5 p.m.; reservations recommended, no patio.
Whisky might no longer be an old person’s drink, but I guess I’m a cliché. At 51, I have only just begun learning to love and appreciate this huge, wide world of spirits, one that is just as complex as wine.
To develop my palate, I’ve recently attended a few whisky-paired dinners. And what I’ve quickly discovered is that by the time the rich short rib or other heavy main course rolls around, even the most ardent whisky aficionados start craving a big Bordeaux or palate-cleansing Chardonnay.
Though some disagree, I believe that whisky pairs brilliantly with food. A peaty Islay single malt slurped from an oyster shell is a classic complement of salinity and smoke. A sweet, nutty bourbon with salty aged cheese can be transformational.
But a multicourse meal matched with neat glasses of whisky and nary a refreshing highball in between? That’s a tall order for the taste buds.
Unless you’re dining at Cask Whisky Vault. This sexy new whisky bar and Japanese robata in Richmond’s Club Versante offers a three-course tasting menu (seven, if you count its various elements) that is not just scrumptious, but also revelatory – and an exceptional value at $108 with pairings.
Cask is the first of several upscale dining venues to open in the new Richmond International Trade Centre, an office tower adjacent to the Versante Hotel near the airport.
The entire complex, which includes a French bistro set to debut next week, was originally conceived as a private members’ club for tenants and jet-setting business clients.
The pandemic threw a wrench into those plans and the restaurants will now be open to everyone. Cask does still offer memberships (a growing trend among high-end restaurants) that provide access to the private Vault Room (without the usual minimum spend). But according to a spokesperson, the details, including fees and benefits, are currently being rethought.
Dark and sumptuous, clad in slinky leather loveseats and fine floor-to-ceiling millwork that must have cost a small fortune, Cask is the type of hideaway that makes me wish smoking cigarettes was still in vogue.
Although not yet well known, the 65-seat room gets quite busy on weekends and attracts an eclectic crowd. One gentleman was dressed in Cosplay horns and cape the night I was there. There is live music on Thursdays and Sundays.
When Cask opened in November, the former general manager, Brad Stanton, said the aim was to become one of the best whisky bars in the world.
The new general manager, Chelsea Rose Schulte, says that with its collection of 500-plus bottles – including rarities such as the 32-year-old Port Ellen at $788 an ounce and a 46-year-old Bunnahabhain (recently acquired and not yet priced) – Cask is competitive in the Vancouver market.
Unfortunately, Ms. Schulte – who is masterful at pairing and makes a really mean riff on the Penicillin cocktail with galangal for extra aromatics and a smoky Port Charlotte float – has submitted her notice of resignation and will be leaving next month.
Staff retainment is an issue for all restaurants at the moment, but this type of rapid turnover indicates something more problematic is afoot and will need to be addressed before Cask can be the best of anything and reach its lofty goals.
In the kitchen, executive chef William Lew is ably assisted by chef de cuisine Brian Hoang, who has an impressive résumé filled with high-level international experience: England’s Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, Hong Kong’s Black Sheep (which pretty much wrote the original pandemic playbook for restaurants) and, more recently, sous chef at Indochine in Dubai.
When whisky distilleries hold dinners, they often reach for heavy, traditional Western cuisine that matches that outdated perception of whisky enthusiasts as old, white, grey-haired men. I would urge them to rethink that.
Whisky and casual izakaya fare is a match made in heaven. The whole izakaya repertoire of fried, fatty, fusion snacks and grilled skewers was designed to be consumed with vast quantities of alcohol, much of it whisky-based.
And as the Cask aptly demonstrates, the snacks can be elevated to an extremely luxurious level.
Our tasting menu began with a smooth, sweet, green-grassy ounce of Arran 10-year-old. The scotch was light enough that it didn’t overpower the shima-aji sashimi, which was aged for heft, and the mineral notes played nicely with the dainty plate’s pickled beets (micro-carved into tiny flowers) and soy cream dotted with scallion oil. But the Arran’s biscuity notes also held up to a beautifully fried jumbo prawn tempura and crispy eggplant with a spicy, caramelized sanbaizu vinaigrette.
The second course was a trickier tightrope to balance. Ms. Schulte treats peat as she would tannins in wine. And the smoky power of the limited-edition Ardbeg AN OA saw eye-to-eye with a crispy truffle potato “okonomiyaki” (thinly sliced pave potatoes gussied up with Kewpie mayo, darkly fruity katsu sauce and dusting of bonito flakes). And it amplified the meatiness of charred wagyu and beef tongue skewers. But it missed the mark with gamy lamb chops marinated in Korean chili. The spice (always hard to pair with) accentuated the alcohol to a burn.
Desserts were an apple tart with miso caramel and vanilla ice cream and assorted petit fours. Kaiyo “the Single” 7-year-old, aged in bourbon barrels and Japanese oak, was the perfect tropical, honeyed finish.
The tasting menu is drawn from the regular food menu, which can be ordered à la carte. If you know your whisky and trust your palate there is lots of fun mixing and matching to be explored. But for those, like me, who are just learning, the tasting flights are an excellent, tutored way to start.
Cask is a serious whisky bar with excellent food and a great concept. It brings something new to Metro Vancouver and would be a huge success downtown. In Richmond, it’s a testament to the city’s growing culinary breadth. And for those who don’t live there, a destination worth seeking out.
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