Monday, March 19, 2012

Pricey Portions at Lupo Restaurant and Vinoteca

Lupo on Urbanspoon
Lupo restaurant sits somewhere in between the Vancouver Public Library main downtown branch and Yaletown's Mainland / Hamilton Street dining hubs. It looks like a quiet house on the outside, but if you poke your head in, you'll probably find it pretty busy on the inside.

It used to be Villa Del Lupo once upon a time. Ownership changed hands, and apparently the restaurant flopped. Then it was bought back by the original owners, redesigned on the inside, and had its name shortened to the trendier-sounding "Lupo" (though on your bill you will see "Lupo Restaurant and Vinoteca"). Sadly I'd passed by many a time but never did wander in until last Saturday, when I went with the Vancouver Fine Dining Meetup.

The common spaces of the restaurant are a bit claustrophobic, starting with the very small waiting area. However, the table arrangements and space in between aren't cramped at all. The stairs can make it a bit tricky if you're in a wheelchair or otherwise have difficulty managing stairs, so definitely call ahead about arrangements.

We had an 8.30pm reservation, and our group of initially eight had a very spacious four-table setup upstairs. This upstairs room had the look of a private dining/meeting room, including a very large flatscreen TV (which was not on at the time), and some interesting paintings on the walls.
The reservation was adjusted down to six later, and we moved to a large round table set up for six. A bit tight on space, I thought (when there's practically no room to put the menus, that's a bit tight), but not unexpected, and not too far off from ten-to-a-table at some dim sum places.

Instead of bread to start, we received mixed olives. Which was okay, but I think it's a tricky choice because it's not as neutral as bread. If only some people nibble on some olives, that's a lot of waste. Our table of six had two small plates totalling maybe 20 olives.
By the way, try to remember where you put your pit on your plate. I almost crunched into one later on when I scooped it up with some beans. If you're not careful it can either be just a fun surprise or a cracked tooth.

As you may know, Italian menus are divided into five sections because "that's how Italians eat" -- five course meals consisting of an appy (antipasto), a pasta (primo), a meat/fish (secondo), a salad (contorno; generally a salad to share, but restaurant choices vary here), and a dessert (dolce).
What can happen in a not-strictly-five-course culture is if only some people order both a primo and secondo, but others order only one of these, then there will be a phase in the dinner where some diners get their first of two orders, followed by everyone getting either their order (if they ordered only one) or their second order (if they ordered two).
You're not automatically informed of this, and it could be a tad awkward if only one person ordered two courses. Anyway, figure it out amongst yourselves. (^_^)

We had all sorts of orders at our table, so I'll just touch on the ones that I ordered or that really made an impression.
  • Pizzetta (Margheritta) - tomato + basil
    • We attempted to order the "Lupo Focaccia Bread", but sadly it was not available -- apparently it is so special that they were sold out at that late hour. Instead, they offered us a complimentary pizza to share.
    • "Pizzetta" translates to "small pizza", so this was an approximately 6-inch diameter pizza, in traditional Italian style. It's normally on the menu at $12, which would get you something like an 11-inch at a VPN certified pizza place such as Bibo, Campagnolo, or Nicli Antica.
      • This should set up your expectations in terms of price -- Lupo is not a place you go to if you're looking at price per pound! And you can't really expect something like a traditional-recipe pizza to have twice the quality for twice the price.
    • In any case, do NOT order any traditional Italian pizza here (or really, anywhere else) if your fellow diners stand on ceremony when it comes to sharing. Like all Italian pizza, it gets cold quickly and then it gets funny. Here, the cheese started to harden and become stringy almost immediately, which necessitated cutting again unless you didn't mind a neighboring slice clinging onto all your mozza. With this sort of pizza, eat it immediately.
  • Meat Balls - tomato, Gorgonzola + polenta - $14 for 4 meatballs
    • When I asked about the specialty of the house, this was one of the items suggested. It has a dreadfully pedestrian name and description, but believe your server when they tell you it is super-tender.
    • Each ball is about the size of a ping pong ball, and a regular order is four meatballs. They sit in a bit of polenta mush (which looked and tasted almost like mashed potatoes) and tomato sauce. Don't waste that.
  • Octopus Carpaccio - barlotti beans + limoncello vinaigrette - $15
    • Raw octopus, sliced very thinly, arranged on a wide plate with slight overlap to each slide. And sprinkled on top with boring beans that looked steamed but not over-steamed to the point of being soft and mushy.
    • Did someone forget the vinaigrette on this? It was very bland on my initial taste. Maybe the vinaigrette just wasn't well distributed. In any case, there was a wedge of lemon provided, and it was way better with the lemon. Still, I'd have to say that unless you're dying to have raw octopus, pass on this.
  • Pumpkin Tortelloni - amaretti + sage butter - $15/$20
    • This was on the "primi" section. If you're not Italian, you may not know that even though "primi" comes after "antipasti" (what we would identify as "appetizers"), it's not a "main course" per se. Look for that under "secondi", where you're fed with a good sized portion. Compounding the confusion for hapless non-Italians is that Lupo offers an "appy" sized portion for their primi choices -- hence the two prices.
    • The "appy pumpkin" version of this order was three flattish dumplings, about 3" long and 2-1/2" wide. They sit in a big plate that just exacerbates how small the order looks. Not sure if it would help if they actually curled up the dumplings into the tortelloni shape, or if that would have just made it look even smaller.
    • There's a dusting of something crunchy and salty/savory on top. Be sure to have this with every bite, or you're not getting the full experience. Also, swirl it around the plate a bit for the melted butter. Price aside, this was interesting and very tasty.
  • Our group of six ordered six desserts to share.
    • The dessert menu isn't on the website (why? WHY?), so you might want to ask for the dessert menu early to inquire about each item. I can't remember all the names exactly, sadly.
    • $10 each. You are set up with a fork and a spoon with a notch on one side (to prevent the tasty dessert from running away when you're cutting it with your spoon).
    • Bonet Piedmontese
      • This was described to me as a crème brûlée without the burnt sugar on top. I can't say this was a useful description, although in size it was approximately that of a round deep-dish crème brûlée. It's got a strong coffee flavour that definitely trumps whatever chocolate and anything else it contains. It's very soft and light, if you prefer your chocolate desserts that way.
    • Tortino
      • That's all I remember from the name and that's what showed up on the bill. This was initially described to me as "a chocolate bar without the chocolate", which turned out to be quite accurate, but until you see the dessert, it was more confusing than anything.
      • This was a crunchy-hard bar, about the size of a chocolate bar. Imagine an Oh Henry! bar, just not coated with chocolate. The tortino wasn't as chewy -- way more nuts, and hard to cut if you're sharing. Either pick it up like a chocolate bar, or if you're bent on sharing, ask for it to be cut.
      • There's a scoop of ice cream on the side. Definitely have it with some ice cream at the same time, which has a softening effect on the dessert in your mouth.
      • There was a sort of nutty torte on the dessert menu as well. Tasted almost the same, but chewier. Ice cream on the side.
    • Some kind of lemon tart was also on the menu. I like to finish dinners on a lighter, refreshing note, and this lemon tart definitely did that with a strong but not too sour lemon taste. Definitely the best of the six, given my bias.
    • Tiramisu
      • After the generous Tiramisu portions at Cosca and Nicli Antica Pizzeria, I couldn't help but be disappointed by the look of this. 25% less dessert for 25% more cost? Yoicks.
      • I'm not sure if it was because it's the end of the night and the dessert has sat in the fridge for a while, but this was by far the softest and creamiest Tiramisu I've ever had. You could clearly see the ladyfingers embedded in it, but I couldn't feel it in my mouth. It felt like it was all very light cream.
      • Taste wise, it's not the best Tiramisu compared to the two mentioned before, but it's not a bad dessert either.
  • Tea - $3.25
    • I had a pot of peppermint tea to go with my dessert, which was definitely helpful with so much cream and chocolate and gelato on the various plates. $3.25 for a satchel of two leaves and a bud Tea Company tea. Organic, caffeine free. Biodegradable tea sachet and sleeve.
    When it came to the bill, it turned out that the restaurant could handle fractions of a plate to figure out sharing plates -- such as "1/6 Octopus Carpaccio, $2.50". Pretty handy!

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