Mon Bella’s menu shifts from ‘sharing plates’ to Kitsilano comfort food with mixed results, mostly positive

Thursday, November 27th, 2008

Crafty chameleon changes for circumstances

Mia Stainsby

Owner Brad Roark and chef Lauren Campbell at Mon Bella. Photograph by : Jenelle Schneider, Vancouver Sun


Overall 3 1/2

Food 3 1/2

Ambience 3 1/2

Service 3 1/2

1809 West First Ave


Open for Lunch, Tuesday to Friday; Dinner, Tuesday to Sunday

Restaurant visits are conducted anonymously and interviews are done by phone. Restaurants are rated out of five stars.

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Like a chameleon, food can morph to suit circumstances. Take Mon Bella’s menu. It began in September as a “sharing plates” menu but customers, perhaps in want of comfort, wanted meals with a capital M. Or, perhaps, it was just the demographics of this Kitsilano neighbourhood — more settled folks than the downtown singles who dine out to socialize.

And so now, the restaurant bills itself as a bistoriaa wordplay on bistro and trattoria — capitalizing on a comfort, French and Italian style with wholesome meals.

As it turned out, I had meals from both chapters in the short life of this restaurant and I have to say, I actually liked my “sharing plates” meal. Jay Brault was the chef back then and he came from Tapastree where he worked with Mon Bella owner Brad Roark.

Salt cod fritters with garlic aioli were delicious. Mussels with white wine and tomato garlic broth were fresh-tasting. Steak (striploin?) with peppercorn sauce was fine, although the ravioli filled with pulled pork was tough and pretty much inedible. (Not sure if that’s his fault. The next chef was already installed when I visited.) Desserts were the usual suspects — creme brulee, tiramisu, lemon tart.

On the next visit, I walked in on the debut of the new menu, under Lauren Campbell, who was formerly the sous chef. Her c.v. includes Bekta restaurant, one of Ottawa‘s best.

I started with a nimbly constructed tartlette aux cepes (dishes are expressed in French and Italian — that’s mushroom tart in French). The puff pastry stood tall and delicate and kind of exploded into pastry shards under my fork, a good thing. Arancini all’Arrabbiata (deep-fried risotto balls stuffed with prosciutto, fontina over tomato sauce) were perfect orbs; they needed just a little more seasoning. Marmite de Fleton Provencale (halibut cheeks stewed in a tomato sauce) was a generous serving and I do love halibut cheeks. It was slightly overcooked, however. Tagliatelle alla Bolognese with poached egg and truffle oil was hearty and ahhhh, comforting. However, the noodle was bucatini (house-made I’m told but it looked more like dried noodles); the combination of poached egg and truffle oil was great, especially when the egg yolk is broken to mix into the dish. I think, though, I should have tried what the bucatini was really meant for — a pasta dish with fennel, sardines, saltanas, pine nuts, saffron and breadcrumbs — a taste of Sardinia.

Desserts have an interesting newcomer. The zuccotto, an Italian dessert that’s said to mimic the Duomo’s cupola, thus, it’s dome-shaped. It has an outside layer of cake (liquored up in Amaretto). The belly of the dome is usually filled with whipped cream mixed with chopped nuts and fruit but this one had coffee chocolate ice cream. The dome was topped with a quenelle of mascarpone cheese.

Wines are a pleasant surprise. Servers seem to know what’s what and we were very happy with recommendations from the largely French and Italian wines. Roark keeps the wine list moving and he says he owes a lot to the sommelier he worked with at Tapastree.

Roark’s girlfriend Michelle Vella is the eye behind the great photographs of France and Italy on the walls. When the TV screen at the bar isn’t trained on the Canucks, it’s a gallery of 400 of her photos.

And about the blank chalkboards at the entrance — they need some chalk; if there aren’t specials to write up, even a “hi, how you doin‘?” would be better than the “couldn’t be bothered” message of an empty slate.

© The Vancouver Sun 2008

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