CLASSIC FRENCH CUISINE INSPIRED BY A QUÉBÉCOIS CHILDHOOD
No one at St. Lawrence is trying to impress you. That’s not to say the service isn’t gracious, thoughtful, and even unrivaled at times; it’s to say that they know the food speaks for itself. There is no picking through the menu, carving out the gluten, meat, or dairy: dishes come as the kitchen intends them too. And for good reason. Having won multiple local and national awards in just the two years they’ve been open, the team—a combined experience of decades in Vancouver's most distinct establishments—can relax and just do what they do best: serve up French food and libations.
Stepping into the restaurant, which is perched on the Northwest corner of Powell Street and Gore Avenue, it's easy to get caught off guard. Tucked behind beige window drapes and a navy suede curtain, the room stuns the senses upon first sight. Ste. Marie—the design darling of Vancouver's culinary scene—transformed the former butcher shop into a classic, 19th-century French living room. Aged-white and burgundy hardcover books, elaborate golden candelabra, and bronze vintage picture frames pop amongst the teal and cerulean walls. Textures of paint, wood, tile, and wallpaper reiterate the homey touch. Though—at 5:30 pm—the room is already whirring with the low roar of exuberant diners, if you listen for it, you can hear musette faintly dancing from the speakers. An aroma of sweet tallow lingers in the air.
Proprietor J.C. Poirier was born in Saint-Jérôme, Quebec, and after years of developing crowd-pleasing menus (he also co-owns popular pizza and pasta joints), the chef decided to get back in touch with his childhood—a common practice among the successful looking at their next steps.
While out East, Québécois fare has been given its place on stage by the famed duo behind Joe Beef, on the West Coast, French dining all too often refers to another continent. After a short-lived attempt at fine dining with his 2009-shuttered Chow, Poirier had to do some digging to decide what direction to take this new menu in—and the city is lucky he looked to his home province. Leaving dainty behind, St. Lawrence leans to the rich and heavy. French countryside cooking became the mode d'emploi and the restaurant's catchphrase was born: “Cuisine de campagne: rustic, generous, and honest.”
I've heard my fiancé—who grew up walking-distance to la belle province—facetiously call St. Lawrence's type of Québécois cuisine "survival food." It rings true as plates come to the table. Mares of jus, gravy, and aïoli pool at the bottom of each white porcelain plate (elegantly monogrammed with the fleurs-de-lis logo that Glasfurd & Walker conceptualized for the restaurant.) Dishes are butter-heavy, braised or offal meat-focused, and generous in portion. Every meal begins with a complimentary serving of the house pain au levain with a dollop each of pork cretons (Québécois rillettes) and stone-ground mustard—a treat you get even if seated at the bar (their surprisingly ace-of-an-experience option for those pesky walk-ins).
On prior visits, ordering just three appetizers had me full (a white-sauce mushroom puff pastry, Nova Scotian lobster galantine, and a foie gras eclair wading in a pool of dark cherry juice—which etches the memory most.) On a later night with the fiancé—with eyes much larger than my stomach—I chose the bacon-wrapped asparagus with a large duck egg and sauce ravigote as well as the braised lamb shoulder with Parisian gnocchi. We shared a Sole Food salad with first press walnut oil and sharp Mimolette cheese from Quebec. A few bites of his grilled hanger steak, dripping in bone broth jus, and I was brimful. You always want to eat more than you can.
The wine list at St. Lawrence doesn't make darling of the Similkameen Valley, skin-contact fermented, low intervention-types that are so typical of our city's award-winners. Rather, it favours vins from regions in France: Burgundy (Bourgogne), Côtes du Rhône, the Loire Valley, and the Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh appellation—to name a few. For those who prefer a more artisan beverage, head bartender Yacine Sylla brings excitement to the table with his ligueurs et autres spiritueux menu.
There is always a house-made concoction—lemonade, iced tea, ginger ale—readied in Sylla’s mini silver and gold growler keg which he purchased to keep his fresh liquids on tap. Daily cocktails are ever-changing and more than often use the season's ingredients. A Japanese plum wine with house made iced tea and orgeat (almond syrup) was a recent treat. And the Paris-raised bartender doesn't turn down creating something off-menu or preference-based—so long as he's got the time. To be sure: St. Lawrence gets busy.
Selling pizza and pasta is easy. But rekindling childhood tradition and reintroducing B.C. to real Quebec? A task worth the effort. With St. Lawrence, Poirier wanted to bring back dishes he felt were fading from memory; he thought a revival of culture was much needed, not only for himself but for the people who come through his restaurant too. St. Lawrence has accomplished this feat with a deeply gratifying menu, zero pretension in the air, and a romantic French countryside feel. Though attention isn’t something they’re in need of, St. Lawrence certainly deserves all that it gets.
269 Powell Street,
Vancouver BC, V6A 1G3