Q&A with Andrew Braithwaite on Canada’s Best New Restaurants


San Francisco-based food writer Andrew Braithwaite spent a month eating his way from Vancouver Island to Fogo Island  at thirty-five of Canada’s newest and hottest restaurants for Air Canada’s enRoute magazine. In our interview with Andrew he reveals what it was like eating six dishes at each restaurant and what he found out along the way.

(The top 10 are revealed at the end of the interview.)

 – Top Photo courtesy of Pidgin. 350 Carrall St, Vancouver BC, 604.620.9400


EAT: For many of our readers, travelling the county from coast to coast, trying the best new restaurants would be their dream job. What were the best things about your experience and what were some of the worst?


Andrew Braithwaite (AB): Gosh, I guess it is a pretty dreamy job, isn’t it? I think the best part of the experience was getting to experience this whirlwind tour of Canada, and to encounter different cultures and regional approaches to dining out, day after day after day. You really get a great sense of what it means to dine out in Canada when you’re doing it every night for a month, from coast to coast – I made my first ever visits to Edmonton, and Quebec City, and Newfoundland. It was a really fun month. I don’t know what I did to deserve this job, but whatever it was, it was worth it.

As far as the worst part of the job, I can honestly say that I spent far too much time feeling uncomfortably full. I never dine alone at a restaurant, and the goal is to test out the cocktail program, the wine/beer program, and to eat the equivalent of three courses each, so that I can test out a kitchen as best as I can. So I’m tasting at least six dishes, often more, and drinking a lot. I have a pretty high metabolism but boy, sometimes all that food catches up with you.


EAT: Going into your trip what preconceived ideas did you have that were changed after eating at the nominated restaurants?


AB: I guess I expected it would be easier to pick out the Top 10 restaurants from the rest, but it was more difficult than I expected to choose what was truly great – when you’re talking about a list of restaurants selected by the knowledgeable panel that enRoute puts together, every meal was pretty darn enjoyable. Making cuts was harder than I’d expected.


EAT: Was there a particular thread or something unique that set the top ten winners apart from the all the rest this year?


AB: I’m an analytical guy, and I had this complex spreadsheet of weighted category rankings, but at the end of the day I think the winners just feel different. Having a nice meal is one thing, but the 10 restaurants on my list really made me feel like I’d experienced something new, something exciting, something special. A lot of times that comes down to small touches – details in the service, or the feel of the room, or a host or a sommelier that really gets what it means to make a meal more than a meal. The winners were places that I walked out of thinking, “I can’t wait to tell my friends about this place.” But having said all that, the gulf between the Top 10 and the others is truly not as wide as you’d think.


EAT: Was there one meal (whether it was a winning meal or not) that stood out for you?


AB: Eating chef Murray McDonald’s food in the dining room at the Fogo Island Inn in Newfoundland, watching the sun set on the water. For sure, that meal stood out. I mean, that’s an experience that I’ll never forget. It took me two days to get out there, just to eat one meal. And it was totally worth it. I felt really lucky to be there.


EAT: BC had two wins this year, Pidgin #5 and The Acorn #9. Which restaurants didn’t make the list but still deserve a mention (and why)?


AB: Well, Pidgin and the Acorn certainly earned their places in the Top 10. Overall it was a great year for BC. I grew up in the province but left when I was 17, and I certainly don’t remember eating anything in Vancouver back then the way people eat in the city now. When I say that places in the Top 10 make me want to send my friends there, that’s not just lip service – I convinced my dad to take my mom to Pidgin to celebrate her birthday. And they live on Vancouver Island, so it’s not like the place is just around the corner.

One of the hard parts of my job is cutting the list off at ten, and then were two BC restaurants that it was very difficult to leave out. One was Burdock & Co, Andrea Carson’s place in Vancouver. I had a delightful meal there with my wife. Andrea’s approach to vegetables just feels so right-now for Vancouver, and Lauren Mote’s cocktail program is terrific. I had a rhubarb-gin popsicle for dessert that kind of blew my mind.

The other BC place that deserves a mention is Hudson’s on First, in Duncan. Dan Hudson was on Top Chef Canada’s most recent season, and you can see why – he’s just a young guy but his cooking is the real deal. Flavours, textures, presentation and plating. And getting to visit a restaurant in my little hometown of Duncan, which has a growing foodie reputation, but still … it felt pretty special to witness such a talented chef plying his trade in downtown Duncan, in an old house where a local minister used to live, if I recall correctly. Dan’s fresh madeleines would make Proust happy, I truly believe that.


EAT: Tell us about three chefs or restaurateurs you think are doing amazing things and why.


AB: The aforementioned Andrea Carson and Dan Hudson, and Makoto Ono at Pidgin and Brian Skinner at The Acorn: BC’s got it’s share of real up-and-comers on the national scene. And that’s not even mentioning Neil Taylor at Espana or Fauna Martin at Ca Va Bistro Moderne. If and when Vikram Vij ever decides to hang up his chef’s whites – and I hope he never does – it’s clear that the province’s culinary future is clearly in good hands.


EAT: Vegetable forward menus are a growing trend. What other emerging food or restaurant trends did you see during your trip?


AB: Vegetables, yes. Far-flung cuisines reinvented in a Canadian context, for sure – I’m thinking of a place like Bouchon du Pied Bleu in Quebec, where the homegrown chefs are reinventing the idea of the Lyonnais Bouchon. Or Electric Mud BBQ in Toronto, a bizarre and delightfully out-of-context remaking of the Louisiana roadhouse. Or Murray McDonald’s cuisine at Fogo Island Inn, where he’s taking the foraged minimalism of the New Nordic cuisine and placing it in the new context of the traditional ingredients and recipes of Newfoundland.

In many ways, this is what Vikram Vij has been doing for two decades, and continues to do with his Vij’s Railway Express: staying loyal to the flavours and techniques of India, but applying a Vancouver twist with his ingredients and presentation. It’s not “fusion” cooking anymore. It’s something more than that. A translation, maybe? Pidgin had it right when they named their restaurant – it’s a mutually intelligible culinary language, something that you recognize, but it’s also not strictly vernacular. A pidgin cuisine, if you will.


EAT: Each year one ingredient seems to pop-up in restaurants everywhere. Recently Brussels sprouts seemed to be on every menu. Was there one ingredient or technique that you kept seeing repeatedly on your trip?


AB: I don’t know if I had that moment this year when one ingredient kept popping up. I guess I ate a lot more lamb belly than I’d ever eaten before, that was one thing that seemed trendy. I’m not a huge trend guy, in general – if one restaurant has a good idea and two others copy it, does that really matter? I’m more interested in people who are pursuing novel new ways of eating and drinking.


EAT: Canada is a country of regions. Could you briefly describe your favourite regions for eating and why?


AB: This is going to sound like a cop-out, but I love them all equally! They’re like my children! But if you want to know which child I love the most, I’ll say this: I lived in Paris for three years and so the typical way of eating and drinking in Montreal and Quebec will always feel somehow more correcte to me. But my preferences and biases truly change from one meal to the next.


EAT: You live in the states. What is the biggest difference you see between eating in the US and Canada?


AB: Here restaurants have zip codes, and in Canada they have postal codes? Ok, here’s a non-flippant answer, something I really noticed: Canada is way ahead of the US in terms of credit card terminals at restaurants. Being able to punch in an exact percentage for the tip on the hand-held POS terminal? That’s not universal down here, even in San Francisco. I don’t know why American’s feel the need to continue making people do math, especially after they’ve had a couple drinks.


EAT: Overall, how would you rate the service you received in the restaurants you visited? What could be improved?


AB: I think we’re starting to find a happy middle ground between the polished, white-tablecloth service that we moved away from a half-decade ago, and the super-informal movement that replaced it. The good restaurants are now wise enough to hire cool young kids with tattoos and personalities, but also to train these people properly, so that they really understand the menu and how to communicate the chef’s intentions and how to execute proper order of service. I think service in Canada is getting better, in general, and will continue to get better.


EAT: At the end of your month-long trip what was the first thing that you wanted to do (eating-wise)?


AB: I’ve never been happier to cook simple, familiar dishes in my own tiny kitchen than I was the day I returned home! It sounds weird, but I had a great time getting reacquainted with my temperamental dishwasher. I ate a lot of soups, and salads. And I stopped drinking three glasses of wine every night … for a week at least.


EAT: You grew up in British Columbia and are now living in San Francisco. Tell us a bit about yourself and why you were picked to take on this marathon eating job?


AB: I grew up in Duncan, and attended Cowichan Secondary (where I won the school’s award for highest achievement in the Food & Nutrition class – past glory!). My family still mostly lives on the Island, so it was nice to take my brother, who’s an Olympian rower training with the national team out at Elk Lake, out for a nice meal at Ca Va Bistro Moderne in Victoria.

I don’t know what I did to deserve getting this great job, but I have been writing for enRoute since 2009, often about food. Before I started writing about food, I worked on the floor for Wolfgang Puck’s catering operations in Chicago, and for three years I was the weekend omelette chef at Patisserie La Cigogne, a terrific bakery and restaurant in Toronto’s Leaside neighbourhood. I learned a lot about wine when I lived in Paris for three years, and have reached Certified-level distinction as a sommelier from the Court of Master Sommeliers.

Mostly, though, I love to eat, and to drink, and to write about it afterwards, in the sober light of morning – so this job is a pretty good fit for me.

Two more important details: I always say “bon appetit” to begin a meal, and I always look people in the eye when toasting with wine. The little things, right?


 www.andrewbraithwaite.com @agbraithwaite



The Top 10 restaurants in order are:

1. Bar Isabel, Toronto: “looks, feels and tastes vaguely Castilian but does far more than ape a menu straight out of Madrid.”

2. Shoto, Toronto: “a storybook of a tasting menu, with all the typical annoying bits – the repetition of ingredients, the showy caprice, the monotonous pacing – smartly edited out.”

3. Fogo Island Inn, Joe Batt’s Arm, Nfld. and Labrador: “There’s a terrific survivalist spirit bursting out of Chef McDonald’s kitchen, where most everything is made from scratch.”

4. Supply and Demand, Ottawa: “ It’s not supposed to be this easy for a first-timer … you notice all the little things that rookies Steve and Jennifer Wall are getting so right.”

5. Pidgin, Vancouver:  “The cuisine of Winnipeg-born Chef Ono, who ran restaurants in Beijing and Hong Kong, draws from multiple languages.”

6. Carino Japanese Bistro, Calgary: “a Japanese-Italian wine bar that defies logic in the most wonderful ways.”

7. Maison Publique, Montreal: “A mere 250 years after the Treaty of Paris, cooking Anglo food in Montreal is cool again.”

8. Le Bouchon du Pied Bleu, Quebec City: “one of the most convivial, playful, unabashedly fun dining experiences I’ve had anywhere in North America.”

9. The Acorn, Vancouver: “That the food is meatless is almost beside the point unless you’re a foodie vegetarian who’s long hankered for a compromise-free night on the town.”

10. Electric Mud, Toronto: “Electric Mud is a twisted hymn to the American South.”

Visit  enRoute magazine’s website to see all the winners and to reads Andrew’s enlightening story.






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