Philip Aguirre keeps his French roots while serving a loyal clientele
AT A GLANCE
Old Surrey Restaurant
Where: 13483 72 Avenue, Surrey 604-596-2313
Hours: Closed for lunch, Dinner: Tuesday to Sunday from 5 p.m. Closed Mondays
Food: 3 1/2 out of 5
Ambience: 3 out of 5
Service: 4 out of 5
Overall: 3 1/2 out of 5
Tucked away in a surprising spot in semi-suburban Surrey, Old Surrey Restaurant has been quietly going about its business for 36 years, an almost mythical length of time in the restaurant business.
Built in 1919, the former private residence was opened as a restaurant in 1974 by classically trained French chef Valentine Aguirre. The historic building offers an interesting, intimate venue for dining, with traditional decor including some fascinating photographs of old Surrey on the walls, hardwood floors and five separate dining rooms on two floors.
Valentine’s son, Philip Aguirre, has been running the show at Old Surrey, as well as the kitchen, since 2007. Keeping things fresh is a balancing act between being true to his French roots and catering to an increasingly sophisticated dining clientele.
“Our reputation was built on French traditional cooking,” Philip Aguirre tells me in a telephone interview. “But our customers also want change and innovation; I think we have been pretty successful doing that.”
He’s certainly doing something right because business was pretty good when I was there. The restaurant has noticed the impact of the harmonized sales tax “not at all,” Aguirre informs me when I ask. Old Surrey specializes in “special occasion” dining and has a strong base of returning customers, he says.
“We are not just a second-generation restaurant, we have third-generation customers,” he says proudly. “The grandchildren of original customers come here for their first wedding anniversary. People celebrate family occasions here, we become part of their family after a while.”
Old Surrey’s menu is heavy on old-school French cooking with more than a casual nod to the 100-mile diet trend — much of the menu is sourced from the family farm in Chilliwack, the change and innovation Aguirre refers to.
The farm supplies the kitchen with organic veal, lamb and pork, and Aguirre makes use of the entire animal. The farm also produces various vegetables throughout the year, with every effort made to buy local otherwise.
Seasonal specials rotate every two months and Aguirre offers a number of special-event menus centred on celebrations like Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day. But it is the summertime Chateaubriand special that is most popular.
Offered every year from July to September, this menu centres around an Old Surrey specialty, table service complete with something else almost mythical on the restaurant scene these days — flambe carts. At a very reasonable $45 per person (minimum of two) for four substantial courses, this is a bargain — and it’s not just dinner, it’s dinner and a show.
The warm-up act is Prawns Provencal (half a dozen, fresh and lightly cooked with garlic, onion and fresh tomato) but it is the followup of Caesar salad that is the star of the show; Aguirre informs me it’s also the most requested item on his menu (even when it’s not on his menu).
In some sort of sleight-of-hand trick that an alchemist would be proud of, your experienced waiter (Spiro Saites, who has been tossing Caesar dressing here for 22 years, is the longest serving of a loyal, efficient service staff) deftly whips up a rich, frothy dressing and tosses it with crunchy greens (fresh), croutons (freshly baked) and Parmesan (you guessed it, fresh), presenting you with an enormous fragrant, garlicky mountain; Caesar salad doesn’t get much better than this.
The theatrics continue with large (eight-ounce) AAA Canadian tenderloins spectacularly flamed in cognac, accompanied by healthy servings of simply prepared vegetables — roasted potatoes, organic green beans and carrots, again from the family farm.
More hypnotized than hungry by this stage, we were relieved to see the Cherries Jubilee (fat, tasty fresh Okanagan cherries, which get the flambe treatment with a double whammy of kirsch and cherry brandy before being ladled over vanilla ice cream) were a more manageable size.
On a subsequent visit we decided, while nibbling on our amuse bouche — divine homemade pita crackers with fresh fig and prosciutto — to try to exercise restraint with the a la carte menu by starting simply with soup; a shrimp bisque that was deeply flavoured and redolent of cognac, but a little on the cool side.
The Aguirre family farm produced both our main courses (again, huge servings). A delicious rack of lamb ($29) was perfectly caramelized on the outside while being juicy and the requested medium within and served with the very traditional and perfect foil of a mint demi-glace; while the free-range veal scaloppini was more flavoursome than tender, with its hollandaise a little on the cool side again — something we put down to being a late reservation on what had obviously been a very busy evening. Despite bulging waistlines, we tried for dessert but the menu had been decimated by the time we got around to it, with two of the three selections sold out. A substitution was available but there was only a single serving of that, too. Pity, the Espresso Creme Brulee sounded great.
Old Surrey’s wine list is 90 per cent B.C. (Burrowing Owl, Blue Mountain, Kettle Valley, Lang and Road 13 all make an appearance) and several wines are available by the glass.
The Chateaubriand special ends Sept. 4, but tableside service of Caesar (for a minimum of two people only, $12 per person), Chateaubriand (again for two, only $37.50 per person) and Cherries Jubilee (also for two, $18 per person) is available year-round on the a la carte menu. Other special menus are listed on the restaurant’s website. Reservations are recommended — especially if you want dessert.
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