Tastiness Factor: 9/10
Locavore Approved? YES- Chef Michael Robbins' vision when opening Anna Lena was to have a French bistro with a Canadian flair, including largely Canadian ingredients. His current small plates menu is all about late-winter/spring ingredients (kale, spinach, cauliflower, potatoes, fennel) prepared comfort-style. I am excited to see what he comes up with for the summer with new batch of ingredients more suited for lighter dishes. Fingers crossed, it will be just as good!
Anna Lena is a welcome new addition to the Vancouver food scene and a big win for Kitsilano. So many of the new Vancouver gems are popping up on the East side or in Gastown/Chinatown, so it is a pleasant surprise for Hubby and I when a promising new restaurant takes root closer to home.
Anna Lena, named after Chef Robbins' two grandmothers which made me love the place even more, is a located near Kits Beach on West 1st. The facade is a large window which looks like it can be opened up in the summer (something to go back and check out when it warms up!). The small entrance opens up to a cozy little space, packed to the rafters on the night of our visit. It is a very welcoming space, with white walls that act as a nice contrast to the comfy black leather booths. At the back corner is a very nice bar next to a sizeable open kitchen.
I give these guys major kudos for their service, especially considering the fact that they had opened just weeks before our visit. There is not a hint of prevention here, just down-to-earth, friendly waitstaff who treat you like friends. This happened to work out well for us, since we lost track of time and arrived almost 30 minutes late for our reservation. Instead of giving us the cold shoulder, they promised us the next table, and invited us to order drinks and have a chat near the door while we waited. Although it was clearly our fault for arriving late, the front-of-house staff were repeatedly apologetic for our wait and we had who I guessed to be a manager come over to speak with us about menu suggestions when he saw us perusing the menu as we waited. When we finally got our booth, the good service continued, with very friendly servers who explained the elements of every dish in detail when they were brought to our table. Our water glasses very regularly filled and the many dishes on our table were regularly cleared. The friendly setting that Robbins had been reportedly striving for in his Canadian-style French bistro definitely came through in the service.
The menu is based around sharing plates of various sizes that range from $3:50-$32. There is a good selection of dishes with a nice mix of vegetarian, fish and meat dishes so there is bound to be something to suit everyone. In terms of beverages, there is a fairly extensive list of house cocktails as well as a complete beer and wine menu with local options. Although they are currently only open for dinner, they do plan to unveil a brunch menu soon.
As we waited for our table, we decided to imbibe in a few cocktails which ended up being well worth it. My cocktail,"The Absolutely Darling", was a very well-balanced cocktail, with gin, cardamom, and lemon, topped with egg white. Not too sweet, just the way I like it. "The Brainstorm", a drink that Hubby was told about at the bar that was not even on the menu was a big hit with the gentlemen in our party who enjoyed several each over the course of the evening. For those who are looking for a non-alcoholic option, there is a section of the menu devoted exactly to this with drinks that were equally as thoughtful and creative (a rare find!).
After we were finally seated, we chose the following small plates to share which ended up being the perfect amount for the 4 of us (***=stand-out dishes).
Oysters, shaved foie gras, compressed apple, jalapeño mignonette- This little starting bite was quite exceptional in its creativity. The foie gras lightly shaved over the top actually worked and somehow did not overshadow the much lighter oyster.
***Kale salad, mushooms, ginger tahini dressing, sunchoke chips- This was one of my favourites of the evening which is not surprise since it had several of my favourite veggies including tender kale, several varieties of mushrooms and sea asparagus which is way under-utilized in my opinion. Even if you do not like kale, the ginger-tahini dressing gave this salad a richness that you just had to love.
***Roasted cauliflower salad- I loved this dish, and am sad to see it is no longer on the menu:( The roasted cauliflower had a lovely brown exterior that tasted almost deep fried and it was nicely seasoned. I loved it combined with the cashews for added crunch. Even Hubby, generally a cauliflower-hater, liked this preparation!
***Cured Tuna, papaya salad, lime coconut broth, cilantro oil, puffed wild rice- I just adored the coconut milk sauce served beneath the tuna, and the julienne papaya soaked it up nicely. Thank goodness they brought spoons as this sauce was too good to waste a drop!
Bison tartar, egg yolk two ways, watercress puree, potato crumb, sweet onion loaf- This was one of the least favorite of the night because of its odd texture, but having said that, the men kept on going back for more as the flavors were yummy. The hefty buns served on the side were an unusual accompaniment with the thinly shaved bison, and some thin crisp toasts would have been preferred.
***Spinach and asiago ravioli, sweet tomato compote, pangrattato, baby arugula- Thank goodness they have left this one on the menu, as everyone who visits AnnaLena must experience this dish! The very thin pasta was chock full of spinach and served with a delicious sweet tomato compote. Unlike some pasta dishes that can be too heavy when ordered as part of a shared-plates menu, this dish was very light and refreshing. A great "welcome to spring" dish!
***Seared trout, roasted carrots, pickled cabbage puree, charred onion, chive butter- Yes another hit! Server said this was her favorite dish and I can see why. The perfectly cooked fish had a nice crispy skin, and was served with a dill butter sauce (gotta love dill with fish!), charred onion and roasted carrot (perhaps a bit overcooked and mushy). As if that wasn’t all tasted enough, the pickled cabbage puree added a lovely layer of sweetness to complete this great dish.
Lamb roulade, house-made ricotta, olive-brined spinach, parisenne gnocchi, lamb jus- I hate to end with a low note, but this was the last dish served and sadly the only miss of the night. We expected the lamb to have a bit of fat for flavor, but this lamb was SO fatty, we could not find any meat to eat. The house made ricotta and the gnocchi were quite good but nothing could make up for that fatty meat that was inedible.
By this point, we were too full for dessert but were very grateful for a little sweet bite for the road, courtesy of the house!
I expected good things at AnnaLena, but I can honestly say that our whole experience fully surpassed my preconceived expectations. They totally pull off their concept of French bistro meets Canadian flair and the result is a friendly neighbourhood gem that will definitely have me coming back for more!