From the 1920s to 2000, ironworkers at Vancouver’s Opsal Steel, steel manufacturers for the logging industry, called themselves “steel toads” — I trust it was about steel-toed boots, not warty amphibians.
Six months ago, the Steel Toad Brewpub arose from the memory of the red Opsal Steel building on East 2nd Ave. Not much was salvageable, only the sturdy beams and single-pane windows from the old building were transplanted into the brew pub like phantom limbs, a nod to the street heritage. Steel Toad sits half a block west of where the original building was located.
But was it smart to open a third gymnasium-sized beer-forward establishment in the Olympic Village neighbourhood? (Tap & Barrel and Craft were first in). Well, it’s not exactly a third wheel. Steel Toad stands apart. It has a very good team with serious restaurant experience at the front and back of the house. They make their own beer (the other two don’t). The food is not typical pub fuel food. Servers are genuinely nice. And best of all, yelling and screaming are not necessary for conversation. The speakers aren’t cranked up idiotically high, and there is live music on Wednesday to Saturday evenings. If things do get boisterous, the mezzanine level is much quieter.
Chef Robbie Robinson has worked at West, Bacchus, Chow, Smoking Dog, Vancouver Club and Gordon Ramsay’s Claridge’s in London. Mike Thomson (general manager at the late, great Chow when Robinson worked there) looks after front of house and Neil Clement (who worked with Robinson at Smoking Dog and Vancouver Club) is a snappy floor manager.
I visited twice, and I’m wondering if it was Robinson’s day off on my first visit as there was a noticeable difference between my two experiences. On the first visit, the starters were good — zucchini beignets (more like fritters) with dill and lemon crème fraîche avoided greasiness; a perfectly executed “crispy hen’s egg” was served with duck bacon (lots of it) over frisée salad.
Pizza, which I’d heard was good, was a “meh” with a sludgey burnt topping (duck confit with barbecue sauce) and lifeless crust. I was happy to see Kuterra salmon on the menu (it’s sustainably raised at an inland farm on Vancouver Island) because I’d wanted to try it. It’s fantastic! Warm potato salad and legumes were good, but sloppily presented with dots of what tasted like lemon curd. Dessert on that first visit was a deconstructed lemon pie, a spread of lemon curd, meringue, and buttery, flaky pie crust. Lesley Stowe would have approved.
On a second visit, I just had to give the pizza another chance: The crust was much improved with a nice cornicione (edge) and a fresher, brighter looking topping (Margherita). The food was handled better consistently, from the pizza to a truffled artichoke dip (quite truffle forward), to a lamb done two ways (a sous vide rump, seared à la minute and a braised shoulder crepinette) and a straight-ahead but delicious burger with meaty kennebec fries. For dessert, banana fried in phyllo with vanilla ice cream was lovely, although a challenge to eat with a spoon. The fix is as easy as cutting it into manageable slices in the kitchen.
As for the beers, brewer Chris Charron is always changing up the offerings except for two high-demand ones — Saison Sauvignon (which has a Sauvignon Blanc finish) and the bolder, rounder West Coast IPA. “The Saison is very delicate,” says Charron. “It tends to like fish like our sturgeon or mussels dish or vegetarian food that’s not too rich. The IPA is the beer to go with a burger and if we were doing Mexican, it would be a brilliant combo with the spices.”
Best to order the flight with six tasters that will see you through a light appetizer and a gutsy burger or pizza. Although sportscasts don’t overwhelm the room, there are some silent screens at the bar and a gargantuan 19-foot projection screen that descends for cliffhanger sports moments. They did turn up the sound at the bar for one NHL playoff game in a pitched over-time battle.
Steel Toad Brewpub and Dining Hall
97 East Second Ave., 604-709-8623. steeltoad.ca. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
For a quick taste of Steel Toad, Happy Hour, from 3 to 5 p.m., is the way to go. $11 gets you any pizza and any brewery pint.
Overall: 3.5/5 stars
Food: 3.5/5 stars
Ambience: 3.5/5 stars
Service: 4/5 stars
Restaurant visits are conducted anonymously and interviews are done by phone. Reviews are rated out of five stars.
$: Less than $80 for two with glass of wine, before tip and tax
$$: $80 to $120
$$$: more than $120
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