Thursday, October 27, 2011

Salty Tongue Café in Vancouver's Gastown

Gastown was born out of a whiskey barrel. It literally sprang up around a saloon. Founded by a gold prospector, saloonkeeper and riverboat captain who went by the unfortunate nickname of 'Gassy Jack,' Gastown was the nucleus of Vancouver — it’s where it all began. The roots can still be seen in the cobblestone streets, the old architecture and the antique streetlights, like a pocket of history wedged between the sleek, urban high-rise towers of downtown and the train yards along Burrard Inlet. It was the bad part of town for as long as anyone could remember, but recent revitalization and an army of cutting-edge creatives, chefs and mixologists, have turned what was once skid row into one the city’s hippest neighbourhoods. 

'Gassy Jack' - immortalized in this Broze statue in the heart of Gastown

Salty Tongue Café is one of nine restaurants owned by HHG - the Heather Hospitality Group - the brainchild of Sean Heather, a young Irishman who created a unique brand of small hole-in-the-wall restaurants and cafés in the city's funky low-rent, and now fashionable, Gastown district. Salty Tongue is just one of Heather's food empire which includes Everything Café, Salt Tasting Rooms, Judas Goat Taberna, Shebeen Whisky, Fetch Hot Dogs, The Irish Heather GastroPub and Salty Tongue.

Salty Tongue's front counter

We ran into Mike Mitchell, Beverage Director of HHG, outside of Salt Tasting Room, located on the ominous sounding Blood Alley, home to many rumours, myths and tall tales. Mitchell is a personable young guy who reflects the hip casual vibe that defines HHG. The concept is simple: hearty home-cooked meals, a cool location and a friendly casual ambiance — and all at an economical price. The formula seems to be working. Mitchell told us that HHG has two more locations in the works - Rainier Delicatessan, a large deli on a primo corner in central Gastown, due to open in early 2012, and Bitter, a new specialty beer pub, slated to open anytime soon.

HHG's Gastown food empire

Toronto-born, Heather grew up in Ireland and moved back to Canada in 1991, when the Irish economy was so depressed that he couldn’t get a job. At the age of 27, Heather got tired of toiling for someone else and decided to strike out on his own. Kitsilano seemed the obvious place to start, but the area was just too expensive. In desperation, he went to his real estate agent, and said ‘show me anything,’ and he replies, ‘well anything? Would you go to Gastown?’” It was almost within a week of opening the doors that Heather thought, ‘what have I done?’ The neighbourhood was seedier than he imagined, and he had to chase drug dealers from outside his door. 

Sean Heather, captain of the HHG empire

Fifteen years later and the area has been replaced with a new wave of eager young restauranteurs, hip bars and cool cafés. Heather's concept has proved to be an enormous success — winning a $50,000 first prize from Cadillac Fairview for achievement in a retail concept, third place in enRoute magazine’s top 10 best new restaurants in Canada, and accolades too numerous to mention. Another key to Heather’s success is that most of his businesses are a short walk from each other, which makes it easier for him to keep a closer eye on all their operations.

The kitchen at Salty Tongue does double-duty. 
It also serves The Irish Heather GastroPub, which is next door

Executive Chef Colleen McClean 

And at the culinary helm — Colleen McClean, who is executive chef of Heather's Gastown restaurants. Formerly of Lumière, Feenies and Rare, Chef McClean oversees the kitchens at the Salt Tasting Room, Shebeen Whiskey House, The Irish Heather GastroPub, and Salty Tongue Urban Deli.

The bistro-style chalkboard with ever changing dishes

Salty Tongue is a long narrow space, with a large chalkboard featuring an impressive list of gourmet sandwiches, grilled panini, mouthwatering cured meats, homemade soups and a host of comfort foods from Shepherds Pie to Steak & Guinness Pot Pie — there's something for everyone. The bread is freshly baked, the sandwiches are custom made, and all of the ingredients are made in-house, including the condiments. The focus of the room is a 40-foot communal douglas fir table which was salvaged from the building's original support beams. Food service is casual. Patrons order at the counter and the chef brings your meal to you at the long table.

The long Douglas Fir communal table 

As with so many B.C. restaurants, promoting local produce is key, and Salty Tongue is no different. One whole section of the chalkboard menu highlights 'Friends & Farmers' - like Sawmill Bay Shellfish, Sloping Hill Farms, JN&Z Deli and Moccia Salumeria. It's gratifying to know where you're food is coming from, and who the people are. Inspired by seeing Little Qualicum Cheeseworks on so many menus while I was out West, I made a point of visiting the small family-run farm on a recent visit to Vancouver Island — you can even meet the cows!

Little Qualicum Cheeseworks on Vancouver Island

You can custom create your own sandwich at Salty Tongue, or choose from the impressive list of dishes from their enormous chalkboard, with daily specials that run from a full Irish breakfast, to home made pot pies, pastas and other hearty home cooked dishes. A creamy Artichoke and Cheese Soup caught my eye, as well as the tasty Croque Madame with JN&Z Prague ham, aged Qualicum Cheeseworks cheddar, on home baked bread and topped with an organic fried egg, and a bowl of delicious frites. The crowning glory — change from $15.00 

Salty Tongue Croque Madame

Artichoke Soup with crunchy organic frites

The restaurant also runs the enormously popular Long Table Series each week, where you can share a home cooked meal for just $16 including an artisan beer or BC wine of your choice. More like a big family dinner, everyone sits together at the communal table — you might not know who you're sitting next to, but you will within about two minutes!

The ever popular Long Table Series, a home cooked meal and beer for just $16 each!