In the not too distant past-around the demise of Lumiere-the Hired Belly confidently declared the tasting menu, once all the rage, in decline. We hadn't reckoned on the likes of Diva at the Met's Hamid Salimian and neighbour David Hawksworth to bring things back with a bang.
Salimian, who returned last year as executive chef to run Diva's open kitchen, a decade after he first started there as sous-chef, employs a unique sensibility in his approach to the often over-exposed regional-seasonal theme.
The chef's enthusiasm is palpable as he and his team work their way though a series of small "snacks"-a warm-up for the main event, he says. Not molecular, nor fusion, it's a style he describes as "modernist."
You could dine at one of Diva's wellspaced tables, but a stool at the kitchen's "pass-through" grants a front row perch to Salimian and his team's deft, detail-driven preparations.
The starter tastes are small but exquisite. Sunshine Coast Northern Divine Caviar arrives on a fluffy brioche with creme fraiche. A simple twist of crackled pork skin is transformed by an orange bauble of spicy mayo. Puffy Quebec foiegras cozies up to fig molasses and green strawberry. The ingredients are precise in their simplicity and presentations artistic, though never contrived.
Sometimes the tastes amount to tonguein-cheek indulgence, such as baked russet potato crisps made from a potato "tea," thickened and deep fried and served with chives and Perigord truffle shavings.
"Junk food," winks the chef.
Occasionally the snacks aren't scripted. "We do like to play a little bit every night," Salimian says. "It's really the only way to go. If it doesn't work out the first time, we make a staff meal out of it. It's really not that much different from, say, photography."
Having grown up on the Caspian Sea, Salimian has a penchant for marine ingredients, often crafted with Persian influence. Ling cod, for example, wows in a winter-warmer of eggplant and tomato stew, inspired by Persian Mirzaghasemi, while spiced Yarrow Meadows duck, with pomegranate, walnut and orange, is reminiscent of classic Fesenjoon.
Albacore tuna and Dungeness crab are combined in a sausage-like canelloni, served with yuzu crisp and avocado foam. The complex plate marches perfectly in time with sommelier Corey Bauldry's choice of citrus, stone-fruit and slightly honeyed Blasted Church Hatfield's Fuse 2010. Bauldry's thoughtful pairings take the well-crafted tasting menus-five or seven courses-to the next level.
Some plates seem more like art pieces: a perfect tableau of wafer-thin Sunshine Coast sturgeon overlays a sidestriped prawn and salmon roe, teased with slices of dill ash-cured scallop and garnished with micro greens.
One thing's apparent: everyone here is having fun. There's a spirit of adventure at play, as in bone marrow and veal tongue, presented within a vivid canvas of pickled winter vegetables on a dark slate plate.
And fun, says the chef, is definitely on the menu. "We enjoy it so much. When you order the tasting menu, you're hopefully there for the whole show-and we love to share."
Diva at the Met, Howe at Dunsmuir, tel: 604-602-7788. Five-course tasting menu $55, seven courses $75, wines extra.
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