Last year, Chef Dale MacKay took the title of Top Chef Canada, made Vancouver’s “Worthy 30” (a list of the city’s most accomplished and unhitched), and opened Ensemble Restaurant and Ensemble Tap. This type of energy is remarkable; Mackay’s successes even more so, considering the tough time restaurants face in this overtaxed environment. The newer of these restaurants, Tap, hasn’t even been open three months and is already creating a buzz.
In MacKay’s own words, Ensemble Tap is “Canadian comfort food. On my days off, this is my style and my food.” While he won the top chef competition with fine dining — and sister location, Ensemble Restaurant, is certainly all about this experience — Tap indeed offers more casual fare, done well.
This is modernized pub food; the term Gastropub could easily apply. The classics are all here: fish and chips, sirloin burgers, steak frites and pulled pork — but they’ve all been crafted with quality ingredients and classic techniques. In addition, MacKay has added a few twists and turns to the menu: steam buns with seared albacore tuna, bangers and spaetzle (as opposed to mashed spuds), and far more flavour in the everyday items, such as chicken wings with a Thai spin.
Ensemble Tap has the advantage of being under the Scotiabank Theatre on Smithe, near Burrard. Its reasonable prices attract the movie-goer crowd while also drawing in a range of clientele from hipsters to businessmen. The room is vast, accommodating almost 150 people in the 18-seat bar, 60-seat main dining room and 60-seat mezzanine. There are some communal tables, but also corners to escape to for more privacy. Music is maintained at a level where conversation is still possible; big screens are visible but not intrusive; and there’s an upbeat vibe in the air.
For drinks, beer rules supreme here, with 45 options: 15 on tap and 30 by bottle. Mostly craft brews on this list, you’ll find beers such as local heroes Howe Sound, Driftwood and Tree Brewing, and worldly Brooklyn Lager, Deschutes Mirror Pond and Duvel. The base for the majority of the cocktails on the list is bourbon, and there are a few wines available by the glass for those not devoted to beer-worshiping.
Ensemble has impressed us on both occasions we’ve visited. The first night, with the pulled pork sandwich and crispy chicken burger with avocado and bacon, the second with a more upscale menu tailored for a beer pairing dinner that included pork belly, sablefish and an onion veloute. So, comfort food? Sure — but with substance. There’s nothing bland about these plates and with a diverse menu that includes pulled pork nachos and clam linguine, and numerous vegetarian items, you’ll be hard pressed to say you’ve tried it all.
Watch the website for specials, such as Monday’s sausage platter and Le Chouffe Beer pairing for $24, or Wednesday’s Mussels and Duvel for $24; note that these specials change seasonally. Ensemble Tap also hosts beer dinners, generally priced around $50 price for all food and beer pairings, and including a chat from the chef and brewmaster with each course. 990 Smithe St. 604-566-9770
Image courtesy of Ensemble Tap.