It turns out that not all celebrity chefs act like Gordon Ramsay. Partly due to the success of Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen, however, celebrity chefs have earned a reputation as incendiary, dictatorial and ego-crazed.
But Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who runs the three-Michelin-starred Jean Georges in Manhattan, the Vong franchise and a host of other acclaimed restaurants, is none of those things. In person, he is demure, self-effacing and polite almost to a fault. He also happens to be among the planet’s preeminent living chefs, less pop-culture icon – all bark and no bite – than true culinary powerhouse.
I had a chance to eat recently at Market, one of Jean-Georges’ newest ventures in Vancouver. Located on the second floor of Vancouver’s brand new Shangri-La Vancouver hotel, Market straddles a difficult line between minimalist chic and traditional elegance. The gracious service, the crisp white tablecloths and the sumptuous chairs all reflect an Old World charm. But mix in the chill music playing ever so softly in the background and the gentle cosmopolitan hum of Vancouver banter – an exotic mélange of Chinese, Farsi, English, et al – and you get something decidedly more contemporary and original.
I’m staying upstairs, in a corner suite on the twelfth floor. The Shangri-La’s Asian brand of hospitality is, of course, legendary (Case in point: the staff to guest ratio is rumored to hover right around one to one). What many first-time visitors fail to anticipate, however, is how truly distinct this hospitality is. At the Shangri-La, there’s little of the ostentatious fawning and fuss of other top-market hotels. Emphasis is on understatement and quietly efficient service delivered with impeccable grace.
This approach extends to the decor as well. The dark wood paneling inside the foyer of my suite gives way to a simple sitting room with floor to ceiling windows. A spacious balcony offers views of the Vancouver skyline and distant mountains, while rice paper-esque doors lead to the bedroom and a stark bathroom, white granite and stone from floor to ceiling. This modesty, however, belies a deeper luxury. Toiletries are L’Occitane. Artifacts in the rooms, polished wooden boxes, textiles and prints, are chosen with an unusually astute eye. On the wall hangs a classic Chinese landscape, craggy mountains shrouded in mist, a roaring river, soaring pines – a scene that feels right at home in Vancouver.
My dinner at Market lives up to its billing. The menu is West Coast and, in classic Vancouver fashion, eclectic. Fresh, local ingredients – seafood, meats and produce – form the foundation. Overlaid is an Asian spicing and sensibility, a nod to the hotel’s roots and to Vancouver’s sizable immigrant population. Spicy crab fritters, fried but still delicate, are complemented with Asian pear and endive. My sablefish, a Vancouver favorite, is unforgettable, served in a sweet and sour broth and crusted with a blend of exotic nuts.
After dinner, I put Vancouver’s repute as a nighttime “no-fun zone” to the test and head to the nearby Yaletown neighborhood. Once a warehouse district, Yaletown has been revisioned as an edgy urban playground, packed with clubs, restaurants and boutiques. It’s all very new and still feels a bit off-the-rack to me, but Yaletown is certainly the place to go if seeking a good time after dark.
I end up at Society: part bar, part dining lounge, part conspiratorial den for illicit rendezvous and late-night misdeeds. Inside, the atmosphere is sensual, scandalous and more than a bit tongue in cheek. A glowing pink chandelier drips from the ceiling. Drinks include cocktails garnished with cotton candy and R-rated milkshakes spiked with Jim Beam. No Vancouver glitterati here tonight (Vince Vaughn and Bono have imbibed here in recent months). But the drinks, the DJs and the crush of finely dressed bodies conspire to make for a late night out in Vancouver.
No complaints here, though. It’s nothing a long soak in suite 1202’s Jacuzzi tub – much, much later the next morning – can’t fix.
Remy Scalza is a travel and food writer whose work appears in The Washington Post, Wine Spectator, National Geographic Traveler and other outlets. He blogs about his experiences at www.remyscalza.com.