Vancouver's Sustainable Seafood Scene

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Ned Bell's whole grilled trout with seasonal market vegetables.

Sea Change

Vancouver’s chefs lead the way to a sustainable future for seafood.

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A custom installation by Rodney Graham graces Hawksworth's Art Room.
Yew's tasty Tackle Box.

Story by Michael Shapiro
Photography (clockwise from left) courtesy of Four Seasons Hotel Vancouver, Hawksworth Restaurant, and Yew
Originally appeared in the February/March 2016 issue of Virtuoso Traveler.

Chef Ned Bell bounds out of his Toyota Prius and onto Vancouver’s Fisherman’s Wharf, where dozens of swaying boats dock within sight of the city’s downtown skyline. It’s only 9:30 in the morning, but a couple of fishermen are already returning with their catch: fresh salmon and albacore tuna from the Pacific Ocean.
 
“I’m a little short of pinks [a type of salmon]. Can I throw in some sockeye?” asks Shaun Strobel, surveying his catch in a warehouse by the dock. “You can throw in whatever you like,” Bell replies. After years of working with Strobel, he knows that whatever the burly fisherman has caught will be fresh, tasty, and responsibly harvested.
 
The executive chef at Four Seasons Hotel Vancouver’s YEW restaurant, Bell is starting his day at the wharf to find the most flavorful fish he can put on his diners’ plates. But he doesn’t just want to do well in his restaurant – he wants to do good.
 
Bell is a leader of Canada’s sustainable seafood movement, launched in Vancouver in the early 2000s by chefs and marine advocates seeking solutions to overfishing. In 2005 their efforts helped inspire Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise program, modeled on Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, a guide to eating sustainable fish – those harvested in ways that consider their long-term survival and the seas’ overall health – and avoiding endangered or threatened species.
 
A decade later, Ocean Wise has more than 3,100 participating restaurants across Canada that follow its guidelines. But that doesn’t mean Vancouver’s seafood restaurants have sacrificed much; they may have slightly shorter menus, but whatever is featured is abundant, in season, and typically locally sourced.
 
Dean Horvath, a Vancouver-based Virtuoso travel advisor, says that with the city being surrounded on three sides by water, seafood is naturally essential to its restaurant scene. Vancouverites are concerned about their environment, he adds, and “very health conscious, so fish fit right in with that mind-set.”
 
The city’s location, just north of the U.S. border on Canada’s west coast, means it’s easily accessible to American travelers. But what makes Vancouver a haven for seafood lovers is its proximity to the Pacific.
 
“The lucky thing for us as chefs is that we have Fisherman’s Wharf right here,” Bell says. “The day boats come back with their catch and bring it right to our restaurant kitchens. The fishermen are out in the morning getting the spot prawns, and they’re on the plate that night – it just doesn’t get any better.”
 
The chefs at Vancouver’s top seafood restaurants would seem to agree. Below, Bell and four others discuss how they meet the goals of sustainability while still serving some of the hottest dishes in town.
 
Ned Bell | YEW
In YEW’s softly lit wood-paneled dining room (791 W. Georgia Street), Bell and his crew prepare their signature Tackle Box, a medley of fish that includes raw albacore tuna, poached spot prawns, raw oysters with house-made hot sauce, and steamed Dungeness crab. Entrees include salmon, sablefish, and arctic char, all plump and moist, lightly cooked to perfection.
 
“You kiss it and it’s cooked,” Bell says. He credits Vancouver’s Asian presence with influencing his “globally inspired and locally created” culinary approach. Of his eco-attitude, which is pure Vancouver, Bell adds: “I thought that if I’m going to do a seafood restaurant, it has to be 100 percent sustainable. It’s really the only seafood we should be consuming.”
 
Rob Clark | THE FISH COUNTER
A host of top chefs in Vancouver espouse sustainable seafood, but the godfather of the movement, Bell says, is Rob Clark. “It’s his shoulders I stand on.” In a recent newspaper profile, Clark is credited for “making Vancouver the strongest sustainable seafood city in Canada, setting examples for other cities.”
 
Longtime executive chef at the highly lauded, now defunct C Restaurant, Clark has helmed The Fish Counter (3825 Main Street) since 2013. Located in Vancouver’s industrial-hip Riley Park neighborhood, this local favorite is a place where you can get a plate of hot fish-and-chips (try the lingcod) or buy fresh halibut to cook at home. It’s a bit off the tourist path but worth the 15-minute cab ride from downtown for lunch. Clark’s approach is simple: “Get good food, and do as little as possible with it. All I have to do is buy great fish.”
 
Frank Pabst | BLUE WATER CAFE
“As chefs, we want to have species around for generations to come,” says Frank Pabst of Blue Water Cafe (1095 Hamilton Street), which serves only in-season fish. By paying a premium for sustainable seafood, restaurants have helped steer demand toward varieties that are abundant or less threatened, he adds, noting that sometimes the most sustainable – and flavorful – choices are responsibly farmed options.
 
A recent tasting menu at Blue Water Cafe included halibut tataki, a sashimi-style starter, followed by a crisp Dungeness crab salad with mango, jicama, and pumpkin seeds. The entrees: sable with a miso-sake glaze, paired with a chardonnay, and sturgeon in a pumpernickel crust, served with a Russian River pinot noir.
 
David Hawksworth | HAWKSWORTH RESTAURANT
Located in the historic Rosewood Hotel Georgia, Hawksworth Restaurant (801 W. Georgia Street) is the four-time winner of Vancouver magazine’s Best Upscale Restaurant award. Chef David Hawksworth works with suppliers to find out what’s sustainable and supports a First Nations (Canada’s native peoples) fish farm on nearby Vancouver Island. An avid fisherman, he often goes out on the ocean with his suppliers.
 
“We’re trying to do contemporary food that’s satisfying, not reinvent the wheel,” Hawksworth says. “It’s a business, but we try to do our part in doing the right thing. I want the food to be fresh and vibrant.”
 
His restaurant comprises several connected rooms – the Pearl Room shines with pearl banquettes and a splashy chandelier, while the Art Room features a custom installation by local artist Rodney Graham. Among the dinner highlights: yellowtail tuna sashimi and pan-roasted scallops with sunchoke puree.
 
Chris Whittaker | FORAGE
At Forage (1300 Robson Street), chef Chris Whittaker serves every usable part of the fish, such as salmon collars, which other chefs often toss. By limiting his menu, he challenges diners to try adventurous dishes that inform their palate and expand their understanding of sustainable options.
 
Like many of Vancouver’s top fish restaurants, he offers options beyond seafood, including duck, pork, and bison. But his go-to is always the bounty of the Pacific Ocean. “As for regional wild fish,” Whittaker says, “why would we eat anything else?”
 
 
More on the Menu
Virtuoso travel advisor and Vancouver native Dean Horvath shares his tips on where to go outside the dining room.
 
“A visit to Granville Island's Public Market, with its local crafts vendors, is essential. The best way to get there
is by water taxi.”
 
“Don’t miss FlyOver Canada, a flight simulation like no other. They use a huge screen and virtual technology to simulate an open-air journey above the country.”
 
“Work off extra calories on The Grouse Grind, a trail hike up Grouse Mountain. It’s challenging, but the view from the top is well worth it. (Sure, you can take the tram, but there’s no adventure in that!)”
 
 
Vancouver à la Carte
A taste of the city. 
 
STAY
From Virtuoso’s six Vancouver properties, which house some of the city’s best restaurants, here are three can’t-miss options.
 
Located downtown, the 372-room Four Seasons Hotel Vancouver offers stunning city views. And you’re just an elevator ride from YEW, one of Canada’s seafood palaces.
 
The 156-room Rosewood Hotel Georgia brings the grandeur of the Roaring Twenties to Vancouver’s downtown and houses the highly lauded Hawksworth Restaurant.
 
The Fairmont Waterfront is home to ARC, an innovative eatery that features sustainable seafood options. The 489-room hotel also sources produce and organic honey (yes, the staff keeps bees) from its rooftop garden.
 
SEE
Sample British Columbia beers and wines, Vancouver’s finest dim sum, a spicy salmon tartare matched with locally brewed sake, and more during a three-hour gourmet walking excursion with Virtuoso’s local tour operator.
 
Find a Virtuoso travel advisor here.