Where: 900 Seymour Street, 604-602-9570
When: Open for breakfast, lunch dinner daily
No guts, no glory, they say. I think Curtis Luk gets that. Why else would he sign up to compete in Top Chef Canada twice? It takes a fierce spirit to go through that wringer.
I’ve come across Luk’s cooking at The Parker (where he cooked remarkable vegetarian food in a Lilliputian kitchen) and at Mission where he was chef and co-owner. Despite positive reviews, the latter closed about a year ago.
“In the end, it was a financial decision,” Luk says.
For the past eight months, Luk has been the executive chef at Moda Hotel where Cibo Trattoria restaurant and Uva Wine and Cocktail Bar reside. I hadn’t been to Cibo since the first chef, Neil Taylor, left some eight years ago although I’ve sipped a cocktail or two or three at Uva.
I recently attended a media event at Cibo, a tasting of new lunch dishes and found myself doing a happy dance around the pastas — the tagliatelle with spiced duck ragu, spaghetti vongole, tagliatelle with spiced duck ragu, all rustic and elegant. I appreciate good pasta dishes because like sushi, it’s everywhere and often uninspiring. The common crimes are over-saucing, overcooking, toppings that don’t sing or all of that.
At the lunch, prosciutto and pressed melon was yummy as was a burrata and grilled sourdough salad. Another wintry salad was dominated by delicious smoked salmon. And the desserts were gorgeous; a panna cotta and tiramisu were picture perfect and light enough to follow a big meal.
So how could I not be interested in the dinner menu? I noticed conflicting reviews online about the food and service but I found the service to be warm and attentive, especially the woman who looked like Kaylie Cuoco (you know, Penny in The Big Bang Theory) who looked after us confidently and charmingly.
The room hadn’t changed much — the portrait painting by Bruce Pashak (love it) is still there and on the opposite wall, a collection of plates with images of turn-of-the-century Italian opera singer Lina Cavalieri.
Lunch had been on a bright sunny day and dishes looked bright and tempting. On our evening visit, the room was lit low in the way of higher end restaurants. I know it’s atmospheric but I gotta say, there’s something to ‘eating with the eyes’ but my taste buds struggle. It’s different than closing eyes and concentrating. And it’s hell on photos should someone need to shoot sneak photos for a column she’s going to write.
We ordered a six-ounce 30-day dry-aged rib-eye ($38) which came with wilted kale salad and sunchokes and a duck breast in dolce forte ($27). The rib-eye (from Two Rivers) was tender and pumped with flavour. The duck, too, was lovely, served with braised half cipollini onions (too many), golden raisins and pine nuts. I liked the Tuscan sauce with chocolate, raisins, vinegar, candied fruit but I can’t say it was forte (strong). A side dish of polenta topped with mushrooms ($11) was soft, airy and delicious.
Dessert wasn’t the beauty as the lunchtime panna cotta and tiramisu I’d gushed over. We shared a chocolate raisin cake with Chantilly cream, caramel sauce and candied pecans — a nice enough ending as the cake and sauce were light and not too sweet.
The food, Luk says, showcases the regions of Italy while balancing accessibility, creativity and obscure dishes.
“I like to take iconic dishes and turn them on their head. The Ligurian farinata dish, for example, is normally a chickpea flour pancake. I put a twist on it, serving it with braised octopus, cured meat, tomato, olives,” he says. (Which seems more of a cartwheel than a twist.)
Carta di musica is a riff on the traditional Sardinian dish; it’s a crisp flatbread with eggplant, white bean purée and roasted chili peppers.
“I do a lot of dishes with less meat, emphasizing vegetables,” Luk says.
B.C. wines are highlighted with strong backup from Italian regions. There are about 20 by the glass and three flights (bubbles, whites and Italian). Cocktails come from Uva the bar in the next room with Wyeth Maiers at the helm.