Echoes of Yotam Ottolenghi (who was recently in Vancouver). He thrilled London and then the world with his vibrant, rustic, colourful Middle Eastern dishes and with his three runaway best selling cookbooks. Fans also note that Ottolenghi is Jewish and his business partner, Sami Tamimi is Palestinian — an inspiring backstory.
While Medina Cafe isn’t quite the global sensation, it’s a superstar in the Vancouver breakfast, brunch and lunch scene. Witness the patient people in waiting over an hour for a seat on the weekends. I suggest you go in, put your name down, ask how long the wait is, run some errands or go for a walk. (You’ll be ‘next up’ if you missed your turn in line.) Another thing, if you’re meeting people, you won’t get seated until you’re all there — seats are too precious to keep warm for late arrivals.)
Like Ottolenghi’s delis and restaurants, Medina embraces Middle Eastern flavours and owner Robbie Kane is Jewish and his wife is Lebanese. Her name is Medina, like the café, a coincidence that began their romance. She went into the Medina on Beatty St. (before it moved to Richards St. in August) because of the name. “She said she’d never run across anything with her name on it,” says Kane. “ She came back the next week on my day off and I was in the café because my barista didn’t show up; I came in to fire him.” They hit it off and seven years later, they’re ever grateful that the name Medina was chosen over Revel or Gypsy or Cul Sec (or ‘dry bum’, a French tavern term, meaning ‘bottoms up’) which were also considered. And the missing-in-action barista should be thanked, too.
Medina was previously co-owned by Kane and the owners of Chambar. When Chambar relocated two doors away, Kane took over the business and moved to Richards St.; the new location is much bigger but the lineups are longer in the busy downtown spot. When the food is unique and bold and rustic, served in clay pottery and cast iron pans, it’s worth the wait. Inside, the place seems to rock from morning to closing in late afternoon. If Kane is on the floor, it will be literal. “When I’m there, I change the music to classic rock. When it’s rocking, you can tell I’m there.” ‘Medina’ is spelled out in distressed lettering on one wall and antique pieces give the impression this room has been around a long time. (It’s a relatively new building.)
Kane has hired executive chef Jonathan Chovancek (Bittered Sling Extracts, Kale & Nori Culinary Arts, former chef at King Pacific Lodge and Culinary Capers) who tweaked and added to the menu started by the Chambar’s Nico Schuermans. The tagine with two poached eggs, spiced chicken, Merguez lamb sausage, chickpeas, veg stew, olives, preserved lemon is still on the menu but about half the menu is Chovancek’s.
His fricassee champignon (fried eggs, sherry roasted mushrooms, roasted potatoes, caramelized onions, greens, apple wood smoked cheddar, grilled focaccia) is the top seller and anyone with a hearty appetite can appreciate why.
The paella ($14) isn’t a rice dish. It’s done with orzo, the grain-like pasta. A poached egg, chorizo, veg, Grana Padano and avocado and tomato salad made for a yummy lunch; it’s because of popular demand for orzo but I prefer rice. Harissa pain plat has layers of grilled pita, beef, Manchego cheese, tomato salsa with a fried egg, spiced hummus and greens.
La Sante ($13) isn’t as sensual as many of the braised, stewed, roasted dishes — one soft boiled egg, a tomato salad, avocado and big blasts of flavour from olive tapenade and Oyama charcuteri
The Liege waffles with the caramelized pearl sugar ($3.15 and $1 for one of the nine sweet and savoury toppings) are still on the menu; the yeast dough isn’t made in house because they couldn’t keep up. The waffle maker is a 100-pound job, heavy enough to hold down rising yeasted dough.
If you order Le Peameal, an in-house bacon and egg sandwich with caramelized lemon aioli, mustard vinaigrette and greens on grilled ciabatta, a dollar of the $12 price goes to Mealshare, an organization which helps feed people in need. It adds up to about $600 a month.
You can also do side orders like mascarpone and black pepper honey, lamb sausage, baba ganoush and quinoa tabbouleh.
For dessert, there’s Earnest ice cream (cardamom) and waffles with toppings like peach and bourbon, salted caramel, and blueberry sumac juniper preserve.
CAFE MEDINA. 780 Richards St., 604-879-3114.
Open 8 to 3 weekdays; 9 to 3 weekends and holidays.