I Want to Love It, But It Won’t Let Me – A Review of Water St. Café

VANCOUVER – Standing opposite the famed Gastown Steam Clock, The Water Street Cafe has an enviable location in a heritage building among the cobblestone streets of one of Vancouver’s storied neighbourhoods. No doubt, founder Dominique Sabatino saw the potential for a successful little restaurant when he founded the iconic Gastown restaurant in 1988. In his words, he envisioned “a classic neighbourhood bistro, full of life, light and great food.” With Sabatino’s retirement in 2018, the restaurant came under the ownership of Eli Brennan and Executive Chef Alan Tse. Both restaurant industry veterans with more than 15 years of experience, Brennan and Tse have sought to built on the restaurant that Sabatino started, ensuring a memorable dining experience and bringing new things to the menu.

Despite living in Vancouver, I have seldom ventured into the alleys of Gastown. Thus, I was pleasantly surprised to find this charming little restaurant on the corner, with the black awnings; a striking contrast to the white stone building. Our group was immediately welcomed by the restaurant’s staff, and ushered up a tiny, narrow staircase to the second floor. The restaurant was filled with people from all walks of life, ranging from businessmen deep in discussion, to a laid-back meal among friends. Our private dining room was bright with natural light that filled the room from the large windows. The plethora of lights and lanterns above, the relaxed music, and the variety of art in the room provided a cozy and relaxing ambience.

After deliberating over the menu, the time came to order. The staff were polite and helpful enough but not the most warm or welcoming. While I understand the difficulties of taking orders for a large group, even a little introduction or overview of the Dine Out menu might have made the experience seem much friendlier. The 3-course Dine Out lunch menu was at a very reasonable $25, considering the restaurant’s location and food prices in Vancouver. An additional salmon dish, which was not on the online menu, was also offered for an additional $10. We were also offered bread with butter, which was unremarkable.

Derek Wu
Amuse bouche: scallop with orange and fennel salad

As an Aeroplan member, I was offered a special amuse bouche as a perk. The server explained in detail the content of the dish, which was a scallop with an orange and fennel salad, accompanied by a variety of sauces. The scallop was expertly cooked, with a firm yet tender texture and good colouring on the exterior. The medley of sauces – from citrus to berry to balsamic – went unexpectedly well together, with a nice, fresh touch from the fennel salad, albeit with a quite strong orange flavour. Perhaps only a touch of orange zest was necessary.

Onwards to my appetizer, the soup of the day, which was a salmon and vegetable chowder, finished with chives. The chowder had a generous portion of salmon pieces which were cooked to a firm but not dry texture, allowing it to pair with the soup quite well. The chowder itself was not as thick as other chowders, but was served at the perfect temperature, not scalding or lukewarm. It also featured a variety of vegetables, from potatoes to celery, which was able to maintain its texture in the chowder, instead of instantly disintegrating into mush. Overall, the chowder was relatively unmemorable, but perfect for the cold January day.

Derek Wu
Appetizer: salmon chowder

The appetizer was followed by my entrée, a butternut squash ravioli with garlic prawns, accompanied by a sauce with white wine, lemon, and sage butter. Initially, I was quite stunned by the brilliant colours on the plate, with bright oranges and reds on a blue dish. I anticipated a well-executed fresh pasta, yet on the contrary, I was quite underwhelmed by the ravioli. The ravioli had a good portion of squash filling, but dough that was a bit thick for my liking. Additionally, the sauce was firmly on the sweet side, almost too sweet. The prawns, however, provided a solid ending to an otherwise underwhelming entrée, with a tender texture and a subtle garlic flavour that paired well with the sweet sauce.

Derek Wu
Entree: butternut squash ravioli, with garlic prawns

Lastly, dessert arrived to bring our meal to a satisfying end, as any good dessert should. I had opted to order the basil-infused panna cotta, topped with blueberry compote and an almond wafer. The dish was disappointing presentation-wise, as many other panna cotta dishes I had enjoyed elsewhere were beautifully presented as if they were works of art. The panna cotta was wonderfully creamy, with a perfect texture that was smooth and milky, without being too jelly-like. The basil flavour was a nice refreshing complement to the creamy flavour of the dairy, with a tart touch from the blueberry compote to contrast the sweetness. Despite some shortcomings, I felt that dessert had at least been able to end the meal on a strong note.

Derek Wu
Dessert: basil panna cotta with blueberry compote

Alas, my Dine-out experience at Water Street Cafe was an unmemorable one, despite its high points and low points. For a restaurant in the heart of Vancouver’s tourist areas, the $25 menu seemed reasonable, but the meal often left me underwhelmed and confused. It was a dining experience that wanted to ascend to the highest of highs but was always brought down back to earth. Despite a strong start and a strong end to the meal, there was never a single dish that stood out or that I would remember in the future. The highlight of the experience was likely the trip to the roof of the nearby Woodsward’s Building accompanied by one of our kind servers.

Before I went to Water Street Café, I wanted to love it for its character, history, and food. Instead, I left questioning whether I would ever return.