A downtown staple with a rich history and its own ornamental taxi cab parked out from. This three dimensional billboard in yellow told you to eat at “Joe Fortes”, with letters stencilled on its sides and a custom “forte” license plate.
It never dawned on me why after all my years living in Vancouver I have yet to set foot inside. So when my guest chose this as our girl’s night out I was eager to see what the buzz was about. And given the reputation and the glowing reviews from other food bloggers, I was expecting to be wowed. I was expecting great service coupled with better food. Though instead I was disappointed with the night’s service right at the door. Not something I would not expect from a finer dining establishment. I have been to a few others deemed high end, and at each have been assisted opening the often heavy front door. Not that I expect the service and believe that all doors should be opened for me; but on a day where I am balancing bags on each arm and struggling to lift hand to handle, the additional help would have been appreciated. This was especially the case looking past the glass and meeting eyes with the four members of staff looking right back. They stood in pairs on either side of the entry isle, with arms grasped in front, unmoving. At least they were willing to pause their conversation and show an eagerness to greet me when I finally managed to get in. I had to free my hands by putting bags on the ground, keep the door propped open with my hip, and regather my possessions with an awkward struggle.
Three hostesses in black dresses and a valet in windbreaker. I directed all attention to the hostess behind the booth. Luckily my guest made reservations, this was the hub of Robson on a Saturday night. The place was alive with noise and stirring with movement. A great sophisticated setting for a fancy cocktail and some light conversation. Getting in early and having our table still in use from the party before, I was given an electronic buzzer and took a seat at the bar. After me bodies flowed in, chairs got taken and others were left waiting in the foyer. I saw even more walking out after hearing the wait time to dine. Given the cramped quarters I wish there was the offer or possibility of a coat check. I had enough I needed to carry let alone my purse and jacket. And the room could have used the breathing space that they took up.
After a walk through the atrium and past another set of doors, you are greeted by the three storey dining area. I was in immediate awe. If not for the column framed with awards and achievements, but by the sheer spectacle of the place. The live lobster tank beside the column was pretty eye catching as well.
The air changed, the lighting shifted, and the sounds of life filled the arena. Three layers of laugher, food, and fun; with a live pianist playing. His beat kept the room light, it added context to sound and broke up the noise of chatter. The piano stood enroute to the washrooms, a claimed space on the actual spiralling staircase. It and its performer played between the second and third floors; on one of two staircases of brass, banister, and carpet. I imagine what would be an awkward walk pass when a musician is performing. When his set was done a song of clashing plates, clinking glasses, low humming voices, and cackling laughs began. It filled the entire room in an overpowering force. Made even more obvious with lack of overhead music, or music at so low level it went unnoticed. It hampered the night and made conversing on either ends of a table difficult. Chairs tucked in, bodies leaned forward, and ears to mouth. I don’t particularly enjoy dining in loud settings. Especially if the fare is at a price worthy of entitled expectations. This was the case tonight, multiplied by three, for each of the there floors.
The entire open space of the restaurant was made tight with large bulky fixtures and an onslaught of stuff. Vaulted ceilings, thick load bearing columns, spinning ceiling fans, polished mirrors, golden bulb-ed chandeliers, large oil canvases, framed vintage posters, and mahogany on everything. It was an assault on the senses. Yet it all retained a certain level of cohesiveness, the feeling of a similar time and parallel warmth.
My night started in the bar. A cramped seat around a U shaped stage, with additional narrow ledges and seats a few feet away. Here three bartenders were on constant mix. Dress in white button ups under their tailored black vests. They poured for the bar and supplied libations non stop for those parties at tables as well. With no coat check or offer to take mine, a bar hook under would have helped. A way to tuck bags and jackets away and off the floor, and to free oneself for a more comfortable stay. Instead my belongs became a pile by my high stool, steps away from where rushed servers came for drinks with wet trays.
Closer to our reserved time of 8pm one server forced a bill fold my way. She demanded I pay before sitting. Her abrupt nature and immediate departure left me without a chance to ask questions. Luckily our buzzer lit up and it vibrated to acknowledge the readiness of our table, freed. When the hostess came I was able to have the drink ordered added to the table and save myself the hassle of purchasing twice. The buzzer system itself felt unorganized. How do they know where you are? Do you come? Do they go? After we got our bearings straight and got up to go, other couples that stood by lingering pounced on the now freed seats.
Moving to our actual dining table became a obstacle course. With already full hands, we now needed to bring our own drinks and napkins to our newly designated seats. Once again, not that I expect such treatment in my everyday life, but I feel this is one of those services I pay more to get and tip more when experienced. No help with parcels, it was too crowded, too loud, and too much. Staff seemed frazzled and it came across as them being rude. At the prices I was willing to pay, I was not impressed long before I looked to order.
The front of house staff were an assortment of bodies in different dress to establish rank. Those in white coats were head servers, they took orders, and communicated with both the kitchen and their patrons. A few were designated to sections to stand at ready, so should anyone require assistance. This meant help with out hesitation, from the shadow looking over your shoulder. Others wore white shirts and solid ties and others still blue button ups and a patterned tie. The amount of servers guaranteed no glass went empty and no wait for help was more than five minutes. You can stop anyone to ask for anything and not be faced with, “I’ll go find your server”. Although at one point by the bar, I did feel that there were one too many members on staff. Crowds grew, gathering hands out reached, waiting for their table’s order to come to pass. Overall each member on payroll was relatively lively. One particular in blue shirted clearly enjoyed his job. He beamed with pride mentioning last week they saw Harrison Ford visiting twice. I liked his natural conversation and enthusiastic smile. He loved his position and being here, and it showed.
Interestingly, for a fine dining establishment, I was surprised that the table was laid with a sheet of white parchment over table cloth. Was its purposely for an easy clean up on a busy day? A place for small bones and bulky shells to sit on once nibbled clean?
The menu was a tall list of fresh seafood. Shucked oysters served at their own oyster bar; appetizers separated by hot and cold; soup and salads; classics like fish and chips, halibut cheeks, and seafood linguine; and steaks and chops rounded off the protein. Along with this offering was the menu of the day. A professionally made, colour copied insert, dated to convey its timeliness. On it was a detailed list of the catch of the day. Freshly caught fish and crab, and lobster from the tank out front. Though on order to get the most out of our meal we decided to go for what they were well known for and that which they serve regularly: steak and seafood, as their subtitle suggested.
“Joe’s Signature Caesar”, absolute vodka, Clamato juice, Sambal Oelek, fresh horse radish, and a jumbo prawn. Waiting by the bar, hungry, but don’t wanting to be too tipsy; this was the best choice. I ate the prawn and the hearty juice staved off additional pangs of hunger.
Complimentary warm bread with lobster oil and balsamic vinegar. The lobster oil featured was the same bottles they packaged themselves and advertised for take home-ability on the menu. The bread was gently warmed, spongy in the middle with a crisp crust. The flavour of the oil and vinegar had me going back for more. With each revisit I sought to sop up more and more of the oils, using bread as sponge. The taste was hard to describe, a savoury and garlicky bite.
“Peppercorn ahi tuna”. Grilled rare and served in a brandied peppercorn sauce, with potato rosti and market vegetables. The fish didn’t look like much upon delivery. Though with a self made incision I got that trademark ahi tuna red flesh. I wished they had sliced into the portion before hand to give that wow factor in presentation. Based on the picture alone I would guess this to be just pan cooked tuna. Tender and light, they allowed the fish to speak for itself. A mild flavour that eventually needed dips in peppercorn to rejuvenate its taste. The hash browns out shined the fish. These were the best has browns I have had to date. I could have eaten an entree sized potion of just them. No need for cheese or ketchup, well seasoned and refined as they go. I don’t like my asparagus in such large stalks. I find the flesh tough and the fibre chewy, more trees than vegetable. The carrots were undercooked. Hard roots that required a firm bite or rigorous saw through to half.
“Bone in rib steak”, 18oz, medium rare. My guest was looking for the “fattiest” cut, and this came as the recommendation of our server. At 18oz. this was the largest cut offered and the most costly at over $55. With fatty edges and hidden nerves it gave the cut its well marbled look. The flavour was fine, the meat itself a little chewy. Given the price I expected a melt in your mouth succulent slab of meat. I have had better for less and therefore was disappointed here. The included side was bacon and horseradish mashed potatoes and market vegetable. With my guest’s dietary restrictions, our plan to share, we got our potato sans the bacon. Whipped smooth, and always the perfect pairing to red meat. We were ambitious and failed to finish a third of the steak.
Working in the service industry I appreciated the fact that our server offered us dessert menus without a beat missed. He assumed we would want something sweet or at least browse through the selections. The truth is after all that meat and vegetables we were ready to take our leftovers to go. The remainder of our meal was packaged in a box and sealed with their own branded sticker. I carried it out in a custom “Joe Forte” paper bag, made for such an occasion.
The washroom requires a bit of a trek to the third floor, but the climb on the suspended staircase gives you a wonderful overview of the place. I took the opportunity to take some real great pictures of the layout.
Would I come back? – No.
Would I line up for it? – No.
Would I recommend it? – Yes.
Would I suggest this for someone visiting from out of town? – Yes.
As one of Vancouver’s most iconic restaurants this is a must try. If not at least once when you are living in the city, then at minimum when you travel from out of town. As my first visit, I came in expecting great things. With high expectations I expected all that a fine dining establishment is known to offer: a decant setting, courteous and attentive staff, and food as delicious as it is visually satisfying. So given my actual experience and the buzz surrounding the place I was somewhat let down. Maybe it’s my mistake for expecting this much on a busy Saturday evening. Though for a $125 plus bill I should not leave wanting more. I found the service rushed, the speed in which the staff ran had them coming across as being uninventive and rude. The atmosphere was loud and chaotic, requiring over the table leaning and aggressive shouting to be heard. I didn’t feel the food was worth its absorbent price tag; I have had better else where on all counts of taste, presentation, and cost. My guests insists she has been thoroughly impressed during their lunch services, with a lighter menu to match. I may one day decide to give that a try. But for a dinner of seafood and/or steak, I have other options I rather entertain first. Don’t deny your cravings.