09 May 2010

musings on 12B Vancouver

As I started my third week in Vancouver, I was headed to a venue that most Vancouverites had yet to experience: the underground restaurant. I had never gone to one in New York, though I know that they're out there. But a friend had arranged a meal at 12B, and had a last minute cancellation, so that when the email came, I quickly replied “I'm in.”

Adam Smith said that the smuggler was a patriot because he was rebelling against something that, by nature, ought not to be illegal, but because of the influence of the entrenched and the governments monopoly on the licit use of force, was. I doubt that Chef Todd, when he opened [is that the right word?] 12B some years ago, consulted with the ghost of Adam Smith. But nonetheless, what Chef Todd has, in 12B, is a protest of sorts. And it's illegal, in a way that inviting some friends over for dinner and asking them to pony up, isn't.

No one who dines at 12B is there by mistake. 12B is a destination that one does not stumble upon, the way you might find a hand pulled noodle shop on East Main on the Lower East Side, or a crop of marijuana growing in a random backyard. “I feel like I'm in a Speakeasy” said one of my dinner companions. [note that I've discovered that there is a minichain of “Speakeasy Bar and Grill” joints here in Vancouver … ironic in a way that a hipster from Williamsburg would appreciate ironically]. And that is, indeed, a cultivated vibe. The undisclosed location is not so much a real secret as rather a bit of fiction on which we collaborate so as to add to our enjoyment of the event. No one blindfolds you and takes you on a drive. No one says, “I'm here for the funeral. I'm one of the pallbearers.”

Is it all about the food? It's never all about the food. Don't get me wrong: the food is important, and the food was fabulous. It's about the narrative, about the story. Chef Todd is offering, for $65+gratuity+BYOB, a slightly dangerous, imminently aesthetic experience. The lure of the forbidden. I don't expect that the city of Vancouver has dedicated resources to staking out 12B, with a van ready to round up the diners. But the thought, in the back of your mind, that … maybe they do … it makes the meal much more interesting.
Chef Todd's apartment has a bohemian loft type feel to it.  The layout suits its purpose.  The kitchen is industrial, with a 6 burner gas stove and oven, stainless counters and prep surface, a huge double sink, steel wire shelving with pots and pans, stacks of dishes.  The dining room has narrow pine tables with stools for seats, corner shelves stacked with mason jars (such as Uva uses for water), and walls covered in art, for sale, I'm told.  Fine dining without the linens.
Our group was sort of an anomaly in comparison to the typical 12B night:  most of us were friends of a friend, with the common friend missing.  So the conversations were much of the getting to know you type.  12B typically is booked by a single person, who guarantees the nights take, and who then invites his own guests, up to 12 total, for a party hosted by Chef Todd.  The food is different each night, as documented by the book which we all signed alongside our menu.  Chef Todd is accommodating; one of our party was a pescatorian (no feet, no feathers) and Chef Todd prepared salmon and scallops in lieu of the bird and beast.  But the vision is a night of eating and drinking and conversation between friends, with someone else doing the cooking, doing the dishes ... but at home, not at a restaurant.

It seems like a good gig.  Work from home.  Cook great food.  Meet interesting people.  But don't be fooled; it's a job like any other job.  To me, it seems like the house guest who never leaves, except that this house guest has amnesia and asks the same questions every night:  How did you get into this, where did you work before (here, there, no names but you'd recognize them if I said them), blah blah blah.  There's no separation between home and work.  Farmers don't bring the free range Bison tenderloin to your kitchen; there's shopping and preparation to be done every day.  There's no bus boy, no prep chefs.  No one to switch shifts with.  A day off means $650 less gross that week.  But there's a liberty and freedom to it as well.  No one to answer to except your customers.  No investors to please.  No friends who "pop by" and expect a free app and glass of wine.

And there's no vertical career path, unless you sell out and return to the brick and mortar world of restaurants. [or is there?  A 12B cookbook? don't let my limited vision restrict you].  Chef Todd can only accommodate a limited number of diners in his apartment.  Chef Todd can only be at one place at a time.  Chef Todd only has 7 days in his week.  I'd be surprised if Chef Todd is doing this five years from now.  But in the present, why not?  It seems like this is a place I should have read about in "On the Road" except instead of dropping $65/head, Neal Cassady would step outside for a smoke and ditch without paying.

So the food.  I've had a few tasting menus [Craft, Eleven Madison Park, Telepan, Il Buco] and this one compared well.  We opened (after 45 minutes of wine and conversation) with a tomato saffron soup with a crab cake and claw.

We moved on to Albacore Nicoise with a goat cheese chive "Sputnik" ball.  This was the second best dish for me.

Next was stuffed leg of cornish hen with rabbit and spinach, on a bed of braised cabbage and some roasted asparagus spears.

Then we moved to duck breast with forbidden rice, et. al.  Very nice.

Finally, we hit the dish of the night:  Grilled Bison tenderloin with a fig balsamic demi, potatoes and morels.

For desert there was chocolate cherry ganache, star anise ice cream, and rhubarb compote.  I'm a savory rather than sweet guy, so a cheese platter would have been just as welcome, but this was fine.

So grab it while you can.  Put some friends together.  Buy some good wine.  And schedule a night at 12B.

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