Conclusion: Land & Sea fails the acid test, leaving customers chewing on under-seasoned fat
Name: Land & Sea
Location: 1874 West 57th Avenue, Vancouver
Kitchen: west coast japanese
Prices: Appetizers, $15 to $31; mains, $30 to $46 ($110 for Snake River Farms Wagyu)
Further information: Open Tuesday to Saturday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., terrace, no take-out, reservation strongly recommended
Towards the end of my second visit to Kerrisdale’s Land & Sea, I was tempted to go for a lemon wedge at the bar. I wanted to squeeze its tangy juice over a plate of unagi risotto to liven up and lift all the sugary starch, fattened with mentuyu butter and the rich yolk of a 63-degree egg.
On its own, this full-bodied dish could have been delicious. But it was the fifth in a succession of great, creamy, cloying flavors (the food on the first visit was equally sweet in every way) and my palate was in desperate need of some tangy relief.
Thinking the lemon move might be rude, I asked if there was black vinegar in the kitchen, which is a common ingredient in Taiwanese cuisine (chef-owner Kevin Lin is Taiwanese-Japanese) and is often served as a table condiment in Chinese restaurants.
Rice vinegar? Red vinegar? Plain old white vinegar?
The kitchen had none of the above. At this point, I should have asked for ponzu or yuzu, since Land & Sea is a Japanese fusion restaurant. But after I was offered a reduced balsamic glaze, I pretty much gave up. I actually asked for salt, which was a dumb idea that only amplified the caramelized sugar on the eel.
“Kevin has an aversion to acid,” said his partner and the restaurant’s maitre d, Stephanie Wan.
Mr. Lin’s preference would fit perfectly if he cooked at home for himself. But in a professional setting?
Acid is an essential component of flavor. It’s the sharpness that cuts through the fat, the sour that balances the sweetness, the flavor that adds swirls of dimension, the pucker that literally makes us salivate. I paraphrase Samin Nosrat, whose bestselling cookbook and excellent television series, Salt, fat, acid, heat explains the alchemy of seasoning in much more detail. But any culinary instructor will tell you the same thing.
Of course, acid can be overwhelming if not used wisely. And these days, many chefs are out of control with their funky fermented flavors. But I’m a firm believer that it’s impossible to make delicious food without embracing the much-needed sparkle of acid.
Maybe I’m in the minority because Land & Sea has been packed since Mr. Lin and Mrs. Wan opened their new restaurant in September. For months it was nearly impossible to get a reservation without booking two weeks in advance.
The sustained popularity can’t be attributed to Kerrisdale being a desert of barren restaurants in a neighborhood brimming with wealth, though that’s probably a factor.
Nor is the design of the dark-wood, open-kitchen Italian trattoria, which is cozy but basically unchanged from its days as Coco Pazzo and Senova, the main draw.
Ms. Wan is a talented food blogger who works full-time as a UX/UI designer (you can see her working every time you pull out the iOS PayByPhone app). But I don’t believe for a second that a social media influencer or digital marketer can make a restaurant any more than a newspaper critic can break one.
What Land & Sea offers, unequivocally, is attentive service, beautiful plating, the sumptuous use of luxury ingredients and an abundance of creativity.
The shiso wrap is a prime example of its showy potential. The $15 bite – more amuse-bouche than appetizer – is an extravagant gem neatly stacked with Satsuma A5 Wagyu, Hokkaido uni and ikura. It’s beefy, smoky, brackish, creamy, salty, and poppy – laid on a green shiso leaf, which has a crisp, minty, lemony flavor that brings it all together. The shiso is essential and not just as a container to hold the package in the air as it is transported from the plate to the mouth. Without that delicate layer of fresh astringency, the rest of the ingredients would crumble into a puddle of excess.
Mr. Lin, a self-taught chef who studied hotel management (in Switzerland and Canada), served as a fine-dining restaurant manager at the Mandarin Oriental in Singapore and Hong Kong, and recently worked for the Glowbal Restaurant Group, can cook very well with acid. When he opened Uncle’s Snack Shop in Richmond last summer, his Pomelo Salad with Spicy Tamarind Dressing was one of the best meals I’ve had all year.
But I couldn’t taste a lick of that pungent burst in his Gindara sablefish floating in a sweet pool of tomato dashi. The tomato was sour, but not sour enough to balance out the miso glaze and tofu.
Or his Ora King salmon tartare (an incredibly rich fish on its own) larded with sweet mango and creamy avocado.
Or his chilli crab ravioli in sweet tomato sauce (which also suffered from oil-soaked crab tempura, probably from an insufficiently hot fryer).
His Vongole XO was actually very well spiced, with enough heat to balance the creaminess, and the handmade chitarra pasta had a good bite. I might point out that an XO sauce made without dried shrimp, dried scallops or Jinhua ham is not really an XO sauce. This one is made with fresh clams.
But Mr. Lin isn’t the only chef experimenting with the classic Cantonese condiment these days.
The biggest problem is that almost all the dishes, although full of promise, were sweet and lacking in acidity. None of it except the shiso wrap tasted balanced.
I’ll give Mr. Lin credit for being consistent as there isn’t even much acidity in the wine list, which includes lots of oaky chardonnays and prune reds.
And oddly enough, her dark sesame chocolate brownie is tastier than most main dishes.
I agree with Mr. Lin who states on his website that “cooking is often too complicated” and that cooks “shouldn’t be confined by rules”. Go ahead, express yourself. Push cultural boundaries. Throw away the chains.
But some elements of cooking transcend tradition and are common to all cultures. And when a chef has an aversion to acid, it’s his customers who chew the insufficiently seasoned fat.
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