A SENSE OF PLACE THROUGH SOURCING AND SERVICE
Speaking with co-founders Miki Ellis and Stephen Whiteside about their new restaurant, Dachi, feels more like a chat with new neighbours proudly moving into their home down the block than it does an interview with two business owners. The family analogy may be wrought with cliché and overuse, but there are some cases when nothing else could be more fitting.
On my second visit to the Hasting-Sunrise restaurant, I arrive shortly after their staff meeting. Everyone is convened around a wooden, family-sized table, stationed behind large, Southeast facing windows. "When the sun sets, you get that incredible orange glow in the room that epitomizes the hour in East Van," Dachi's sous-chef Daniel Thomas Williams explains emphatically; he's also a film photographer who knows how to capture a moment. Miki Ellis is taking her first night off, which I don't realize until later because she remains late into the evening to chat with her co-founder Stephen Whiteside and myself. We’re about to discuss sake, service, sourcing, and storytelling.
Our conversation starts off with tongue-in-cheek comparisons of restaurants being like children: they can be so much work but bring so much joy! But as the duo spoke, it became apparent that the same level of care for the room we sat in was not far off. "My grandmother was just visiting from Japan and wanted to help with something," Ellis casually recounts as we sit over a cocktail. "Of course I didn't want to put her to work but after she insisted, I let her do a few folds." Later her mother told her about an endearing tête-à-tête: In Japan, grandmothers look after their grandchild's baby and it's very common to do the linen care. “My Mom told me that night that my grandmother had said to her, 'And that was like me doing it for Miki's baby'."
It was a playful, offhand insight—but also a telling one.
The room has an engaged, affectionate feel; there's no sense of panic or frenzy that some restaurants can evince the moment you step in. There's an overall sense of welcome and promise as you take in the menu and sit amidst the elegant, intimate decor. Due to budget restraints and, arguably, a stand-alone pool of internal talent, no design firm was hired. The team agreed on aesthetic from the get-go, "right down to the colour palette." They enlisted friends and family to help renovate the outdated room that previously housed Campagnolo Roma, and the result was remarkable. Bar stools were bought from Structube and pink flamingo wallpaper adds a fun pop of colour to inconspicuous places.
Whiteside and Ellis had previously worked together heading up the beverage program at Aburi Group (Miku and Minami) with Ellis leading a revered sake program and Whiteside purveying fine wines. They noticed their business compatibility while living together in the same quarters for several months when they were helping to open the new Miku in Toronto. After they returned to B.C., an idea they had both been casually discussing over the years started to gain more traction. "You have chats about how you would do things or what your own dream would be," Ellis describes about the hours during those earlier years. "We were sitting in a park one day and realized, 'Wow, this is the exact same idea.' We both wanted to do the same thing."
That same idea eventually became the decree behind Dachi: a strong focus on locality, both in sourcing and in terms of place. Their commitment lies in large part to the community they've moved into. The word ‘dachi’ is a Japanese colloquialism for buddy or pal derived from the word Tomodachi meaning friend. Thus, Dachi is meant to be a place for neighbours; they strive to be a local haunt where one could stop by regularly to learn about the ever-evolving menu, unique selection of natural wines, and distinct sake program. "The whole concept here is being able to share stories with our guests, whether from the farms or from the wineries or sake producers. So we're very keen on service and the idea of what hospitality is," Ellis explains.
This desire to adhere to a community responsibility is seen in the pair's reluctance to participate in too much media. They don't employ a PR team or pay for marketing and they were hesitant to do too many interviews with buzz blogs and zines. "We don't want people just coming in for the hype machine of it all. We're very much more about human ties," Ellis says. Instead, a strong focus remains on developing and nurturing relationships with guests while trying to truly understand how they fit into the Nanaimo-Hastings area they now call home; a place historically worried by the city's creeping gentrification and condo expansion.
"The more I think about community, the more I realize how easy it is for people to say, 'we're about community.' So I think our understanding of it is going to evolve as we continue to plant roots here." Ellis says. "I'm excited about that part: to see how we build it and what the community looks like for us." The restauranteurs hope to learn equally as much from the area's inhabitants as they intend to serve them.
Having come from a much more fast-paced, corporate environment, certain terminology gives Ellis and Whiteside pause. While there are no button-up vests or white table cloths, Dachi is still a high-end restaurant because of the quality of food coming out of the kitchen and bar program, but they resist labelling themselves fine dining. "We're not the furthest thing from fine dining, but we're not using tweezers or putting art before [fulfillment],” Whiteside notes. “We do serve comfort food." Although, he jokes, that's another phrase that may signal something else: to be sure, they're not the place for a quick serving of mac 'n cheese.
Open at 5:00 pm from Tuesday to Sunday, Dachi has an enticing yet straightforward dinner menu consisting of appetizers, entrees, and two dessert options. This menu can change every few weeks as the team brings in fresh produce, discovers new items, or experiments with new techniques. They don't deploy labels or categorize their food. "Yes we have burrata, but that doesn't mean we're Italian," Ellis says. "Yes our name is Japanese but that doesn't mean we're a Japanese restaurant." Rather, the focus is on locally-grown, freshly-picked fruits and veggies grown in small-scale, artisan, family farms.
Chef Tyson Viteychuk was brought on after a few others were interviewed for the position. He had also gained experience in a more fast-paced, larger-volume kitchen—at Coquille in the tourist-heavy Gastown. When he came in to talk cuisine, he and the owners instantaneously clicked.
Vitechuk and Thomas Williams had worked with Ellis' sister at Chill Winston (another Gastown behemoth) and was one of the more progressive chefs they'd spoken to. His ideas were directly in line with the co-founders’ goals. "Let's keep it comfortable and familiar but also a little bit interesting with change and with certain elements in each dish that aren’t too common," Ellis remembers them deciding.
"People might attribute [our constant change] to seasonality, which is certainly a big part of it,” Whiteside adds. “But I think one of the larger reasons for ever-changing is for educational purposes.”
The Belfast-raised certified somm and spirit expert brings creative notes of his native Northern Ireland to the Dachi drink list. The Strong ‘N Ale features both blended scotch whisky and peated whisky, while a remake of the retro Blue Hawaiian facetiously called the Don’t Let Go recreates a scene from the Titanic (which went down 107 years ago this month: April 15th) with blue curaçao and coconut foam.
But these, too, will rotate as the team gets excited by new ideas. “Cocktails change every three weeks, wines and sake change with every case, beers after every keg,” he says. “The reason we're doing that is education, learning, and self-growth which translates easily into excitement and inspiration."
Static menus can often evoke a motor-memory-like recital from servers, which is not what Dachi strives for. "I would much rather have myself, or any of us, stutter at the table describing something to you because we're excited about it,” Whiteside adds. The evolution keeps things refreshing.
The whole team values knowing that money spent on produce makes its way back to the very people who grow their food—not bureaucratic companies farming with synthetic fertilizers on large monoculture crops. "It's not only about protecting the environment, it's also about having a community that surrounds you,” Whiteside explains. “We're selling wines from winemakers who are a husband and wife team on a small farm, producing only two thousand cases a year."
Should anyone from Dachi travel to France for example, they could easily call up their partnering vineyards for a visit. "They would take care of us and show us around. Likewise, if they come to [Vancouver], they’d be treated like family. That's something you don't get from larger productions or larger corporations; you don't have that sense of togetherness," Whiteside conveys. The team also firmly disagrees with negotiating on rates because the price that their farms and winemakers come in with is the price they're able to sustain thoughtful, ecologically-minded, or artisan practices with. While certainly great for the relationship, this also directly translates to continued great flavour.
"When it comes to sake and grape varietals, we're always looking for different varieties," Whiteside explains, "not because we want to be the cool, trendy place, but because we're curious about what that grape variety should taste like." The excitement of learning and being able to carry that enthusiasm over to the table is why both Ellis and Whiteside love the constant evolution. The level of innovation and the number of creators in production allow space for chefs, sommeliers, and bartenders to constantly reinvent their menus. "We're responsible for driving this industry to new knowledge," Whiteside says.
"We want you to be surrounded by comfort and, to me, that means great food and great service. The same goes for the drinks. Sure, there are some ingredients that people might not be familiar with, but we're happy to explain those. We aim to be informative but in a super relaxed and casual room," he adds.
While I sat at the communal table savouring every bite of my meal, Ellis continued to stay and chat as Whiteside graciously tended to guests and the bar. We wound up prattling about sake; she's one of only eight certified sake sommeliers in Canada. At age 19 she moved to Japan to study the fermentation process amid an industry dominated by older men. "They must have been looking at me wondering what on earth this young girl from Canada was doing here," she laughs.
Underneath her lighthearted presence, Ellis occupies a deep intellect and a formidable wealth of knowledge: I asked for a sake recommendation and she eagerly ushered over a bottle explaining how a natural sake could be considered similar to natural wine. Her choice, the Shata ‘Tengumai’ junmai yamahai, was fermented in an open tank with no charcoal used in the filtering process; something more recently adopted by those who value higher quality and a less commercial process. The resulting goldenrod colour also indicates a more earthy, yet still smooth and syrupy taste.
Ellis elucidated the significance of family-run, craft-style sake producing; one steeped in tradition that she says results in a very clean alcohol. Her recommendation was a perfect pairing for the mushroom and toasted seed perogies I’d ordered, which sat in a celeriac root puree with a perfectly seared king oyster mushroom on top. As these items inevitably rotate off the menu, it'll be a tough good-bye, but I'm confident the replacing dishes will be equally as gratifying.
As the sun set and that pink-orange luminance emanated through the windows, the room filled with an intimate tenor while laughter and conversation hummed between the walls. Ellis, sitting beside me, looked on the scene with pride—and I noticed a slight internal struggle to convince herself to finally take her night off. From what I could see, she and Whiteside had created exactly what they set out to build and that was sinking in. Here, was a room of great food and great comfort; a place that was now clearly accepted—perhaps even celebrated—as part of the community.
2297 E Hastings Street