The best neighbourhood restaurants do more than just feed the community, they simultaneously embody and compliment their neighbourhood, sharing its attitudes and ethics and reflecting those philosophies in the food they serve.
Refuel, located in the heart of Kitsilano’s W 4th Avenue shopping district, just south of Kits Beach, is one of Vancouver’s best neighbourhood restaurants for exactly that reason. Like Kits itself, Refuel is relaxed yet hip, able to cater to everyone—romantic couples, groups of friends, families—and brings a truly green-living sensibility to the table: Refuel’s casual Northwest cuisine is all about the organic and seasonal, using locally-sourced ingredients wherever possible and employing a “nose to tail” philosophy that makes creative use of as much of their proteins as they can.
Formerly the fine-dining Fuel, co-owners Chef Robert Belcham and Tom Doughty relaunched the restaurant as Refuel in 2009. Today’s Refuel is a success, and not just because of their delicious cuisine; Refuel is constantly experimenting with new dining experiences, like its annual, communal-dining Spot Prawn Boil and (starting June 19) to-go boxes of its famous fried chicken, served cold and ready for a Kits Beach picnic.
Although I ate at Refuel during this year’s Dine Out Vancouver, I hadn’t been back since Chef Jane Cornborough took over as the new Chef de Cuisine. To remedy that, my partner and I had dinner at Refuel last Friday night.
We sat at the bar—where diners watch food preparation and can interact with the chefs—and tried a five-course, “Chef’s choice” sampling menu.
For starters, we had the Warm Octopus & Chicory Salad and the feature-of-the-day Spot Prawn Salad. I loved both these dishes. Chef Cornborough’s octopus has to be the most tender, least-chewy octopus I’ve ever had; she cooks it sous-vide in its own juices for five hours (!), and the result is a dish that would convert even a die-hard octopus skeptic.
For our next course, we had the Chacuterie Plate (pictured at top), a combination of artisinal charcuterie handmade by Chef Beltram at the Cure. The plate features dry cured chorizo (my partner loved this), saucisson sec, fennel pollen salami, 18-month aged ham, and coppa.
We followed the Charcuterie Plate with a bowl of Ramp Top Risotto with Albacore tuna tartare—a $10.50 dish that’s listed as a “starter” on their menu but that is so rich and filling—and huge!—that it’s hard for me to imagine it as anything but a main course—and one of my favourite dishes of the night, the Crispy Pork Cheek Terrine.
Chef Cornborough’s Cristy Pork Cheek Terrine exemplifies Refuel’s mandate: it marries tradition and innovation, makes great use of the kitchen’s on-hand pork (that “nose to tail” philosophy in action), and demonstrates the restaurant’s seasonality and versatility. It also tastes really, really good: the saltiness of the pork combined with salsa verde, fresh asparagus and the fried egg make the perfect bite!
For our last main course, we had two more outstanding dishes: the Ricotta Gnudi & Duck Confit and the Buttermilk Fried Chicken. That Refuel can confidently serve dishes so seemingly disparate from one and other is exactly what makes this restaurant so successful. You don’t have to choose between high-concept cuisine and comfort-food satisfaction—you can have both in one place.
I really can’t praise Refuel’s fried chicken enough. My mother is from Atlanta, Georgia, so I grew up on southern cooking, and I’ve had my fair share of fried chicken. Not only is Refuel’s chicken authentically-flavoured (trust me, you will want to eat the skin), its juicy and tender without being the least bit greasy. And the coleslaw and gravy that come with it are just as divine.
Of course, no dinner is complete without at least one cocktail (or so I believe). Nearly half of Refuel’s cocktail menu are original creations from Bar Manager Rob Scope. We tried his popular Bacon Refashioned—a play on an Old Fashioned that uses bacon-infused rye and orange bitters—and the light, refreshing Rhubarb Blush, a combination of Granville Island sake, lemon, lime, and rhubarb syrup that Rob made himself from Refuel’s seasonal rhubarb supply.
Refuel’s mix of comfort food and high-concept cuisine makes it a destination restaurant, no matter where you are in Vancouver. Personally, the next time I head to Kits Beach, I’m getting that to-go box of fried chicken!
Have you experienced Refuel for yourself? Please comment—we’d love to hear from you!