From Haute Cuisine to Haute Poutine
by Kate Zimmerman for the Weekend Post

VANCOUVER — It’s eight o’clock on a rainy Thursday night in Vancouver’s trendy Kitsilano neighbourhood, and chef Rob Feenie’s mini empire is hopping.

His elegant, pale, high-end restaurant, Lumiere, coddles a healthy contingent of well-dressed gourmets relishing their eight-to-14 course $90-$130 prix fixe meals. They’re tucking into something on the order of Smoked Sablefish with celeriac and parsnip puree or Squash and Mascarpone Ravioli with black truffle beurre blanc. Each table is probably celebrating, too — dinner at Lumiere is an event, not a routine.

Meanwhile, in Lumiere’s adjacent tasting bar with its glowing citron bar-top, the peckish can sample a quartet of smallish treats from the dining room for $36-$48 while sipping a classic cocktail like a Sazerac.

And then, one door down, there’s Feenie’s — the brassiest unit in the Lumiere triptych — which at this hour is absolutely packed.

“We’re at the five-month stage now and it’s going really well,” says chef Feenie, squeezing in an interview before a business trip to Paris. “I think we’re all really happy about how it’s done.”

Feenie’s has a separate entrance from that of Lumiere and its tasting bar but is very much a part of the Feenie package. Its bright and lively décor is a combination of Chinese red and aqua. Its cuisine has been dubbed “modern Canadian bistro” by local media.

Certainly, its kitchen proves that 37-year-old Feenie, despite being lauded and decorated through this continent and Europe for his sophisticated concoctions, is no snob. While the chef’s Lumiere menu features haute cuisine, his Feenie’s menu features haute poutine. It’s an $8 version of the dish that doesn’t depart from the Quebec classic of french fries, cheese curds and gravy, but is nevertheless somehow irresistible.

The youngish types who have flocked to Feenie’s on this particular night look eager to have a few laughs over a glass of New World wine and that selfsame poutine, or, possibly, a $12 hamburger. What makes Feenie’s different from other informal restaurants is that for $25, you can opt to top your burger with pan-seared foie gras.

So clearly, you can take the boy out of the four-star restaurant but you can’t scoop those stars out of the boy. Feenie’s is a place where Shepherd’s Pie with duck confit, mushroom duxelle, corn and truffled mashed potatoes ($14) and a hot dog named Feenie’s Weenie ($8) coexist not just harmoniously, but complement each other by appealing to different factions of the Vancouver crowd.

Food-loving grown-ups, for instance, bring their kids to Feenie’s, while it’s hard to imagine any tyke but the Christ Child at Lumiere.

But is it a wise idea to have casual Feenie’s snuggled up to tony Lumiere as cosily as a social climber to a gossipy duchess? Does the same customer wolfing down an Alsatian pizza and a beer while watching the game on TV at Feenie’s ever hightail it next door to Lumiere for a 14-course dinner and its attendant “flight” of wines?

It seems that way, says the chef.

“Obviously, we took a very big risk doing a restaurant right next to Lumiere. But for us, so far, knock on wood, they’ve helped each other out — so much so that I think it’s done very nicely.”

Thursday’s traffic supports his point. As a lineup develops at Feenie’s, the overflow starts to crowd into the Lumiere tasting bar.

Chef Feenie was driven to expand Lumiere’s scope after he realized that the restaurant was starting to be seen as exclusive, something for people with hours (and money) to burn. He thought the tasting bar would function as a holding area for dining patrons but would also give people with less time and cash the chance to sit at the bar, have a glass of wine, and sample what Lumiere had to offer.

He believes the move made his cuisine more accessible. “The irony is, the success of the tasting bar let us open Feenie’s.”

Now, while Feenie’s spillover moves into the slightly pricier bar, the bar in turn boosts the numbers in the dining room on slow nights. “So it’s really benefited all three places ….”

Upscale, downmarket — it’s all good, in Feenie’s view. He’s seen this kind of situation work before, if not always on the same premises. In Toronto, the people who own the more formal Canoe also own the casual Jump and other restaurants, he points out. Wolfgang Puck’s star turn at L.A.’s Spago spun off into numerous cheaper eateries. Daniel Bouloud operates Daniel, Café Bouloud and DB Bistro in the same Manhattan market.

“A lot of chefs in Europe have that,” says Feenie. “They have their three-star and then they have their small bistros where people can go and enjoy their food and relax in a much more affordable fashion.

“It just gives people different avenues of trying your food in different lights, casual or fine or relaxed.”

Another plus for Feenie’s prospects: in Canada, affordable restaurants with some panache, like the Vancouver-based chain Earl’s, have had huge success in recent years. “Especially with the economy the way it is at this point in the game, it’s nice— especially in a city like Vancouver where you have a lot of young couples with a very limited disposable income — to be able to offer them something at a very reasonable price on a regular basis.”

The approach is working. Feenie’s was recently named Best New Restaurant (as selected by the media) by the B.C. Restaurant Service Association, a distinction Lumiere garnered back when it opened in 1995. Meanwhile, Lumiere has gone on to one-up all its competitors both locally and nationally, by earning itself not one, but two exclusive European designations — Relais Gourmand and Les Grandes Tables du Monde - Traditions et Qualité.

The French honours are hard-won. To be a member of Relais Gourmands, the restaurant branch of Relais & Chateaux, you have to be nominated by another Relais establishment; have anonymous persnickety diners from Relais drop into your restaurant to rate everything from décor to service; show Relais your “financials” to prove your restaurant is viable; and agree to renovation suggestions like, in Lumiere’s case, putting carpeting over the hardwood for a more luxurious feeling.

To Feenie, the effort was worth it.

“What it means to us, and to me personally, is that a European body has stamped us as being one of the best at what we do in North America,” he explains. The honour also draws attention to the city where Feenie was raised, of which he is extremely proud.

The endorsement of Traditions et Qualité is an even bigger plum than Relais, because it is awarded by chefs from Europe.  Lumiere is the first restaurant in Canada to get the Traditions et Qualité  designation, which puts it on a par with such notable North American establishments as Charlie Trotter’s eponymous eatery in Chicago, and Napa Valley’s The French Laundry.

As with the Relais honour, the tangible reward for Traditions certification is simply an official-looking plaque to post outside Lumiere’s door. But Feenie also now gets to hobnob with his toque-topped heroes, like France’s Alain Ducasse and Chicago’s Trotter, at Relais and Traditions events. He says that’s like a rabid hockey fan getting to hang out with Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier. And for Lumiere, he says, “It’s the closest thing we can get to being recognized in Europe as the best restaurant in the country.”

He hasn’t got time to bask in pride, however. Feenie, whose Food Network TV show New Classics with Chef Rob Feenie has been renewed for a fourth season, also just came out with his second cookbook, Lumiere Light: Recipes from the Tasting Bar (Douglas & McIntyre, $35 paper). He’ll be in Toronto promoting it this week.

Next up for the ambitious chef is another couple of restaurants — a Feenie’s in Burnaby and something unspecified downtown. 

“Fortunately — and yet unfortunately — in the high end of this business you can’t rest on your laurels,” says Feenie. “It just doesn’t work that way.”

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