There was a time where Earl's was the butt of many of my jokes. I remember that once I had visited the Robson location and had a steak that was accompanied by 5, count'em 5 button mushrooms. For the money I paid, the food was decent, but hardly a good value. When Cactus Club upped the ante with the hiring of Rob Feenie as a "food concept architect", it left similar chain restaurants in the dust. Finally, Earl's has gotten with the times and hired some heavy hitters of their own with Chefs Dawn Doucette, David Wong, Hamid Salimian, Jeff McInnis and Tina Fineza helping to create new and innovative dishes. I was invited to sample their new fall menu at either the Langley or Yaletown location. I chose Langley because partly I love the burbs and also the fact Chef Hamid would be attending (the guy is a rock-star IMO).
Prior to the eats, we were able to sample all of their Craft Sodas including (left-to-right) Elderflower, Ginger Beer, Passion Fruit, Lemongrass Orange Blossom and Raspberry Lime Leaf. Since these were made in-house with locally-made syrups, the sweetness level was kept to a minimum. Hence, they were refreshing and drank more like a non-alcoholic spritzer with an added flavour. I particularly liked the Passion Fruit as it reminded me of Koala Springs (now that's going way back!). With witty taglines stenciled on top, the Clover Club No. 4 drank nicely with a combination of Smirnoff vodka, raspberry cordial, cranberry juice, egg whites and lemongrass syrup. With all the sugary ingredients, this was quite sweet with the finish of lemongrass. With a pine cone and mint on top and served in a camping cup, the Cabin Fever (Crown Royal, Taylor Fladgate Port, ginger syrup, pineapple juice and Moondog Bitters) was a lot lighter than it sounded (especially being double). Watch out, you can get easily drunk on this one...
Food-wise, we were started off with the Lobster & Prawn Roll served in a butter-toasted brioche square. Suffice to say, it was indeed buttery and appealingly crispy on the outside while soft and airy on the inside. The mix of lobster, prawn, capers, parsley and lemon aioli was not too heavy. Hence, the lobster and prawn were highlighted rather than hidden with just the right amount of acidity and salt. Next up was their take on BBQ Pork Buns that looked like a hybrid between a Taiwanese pork belly bun and a Cantonese BBQ pork bun. Inside the soft mantou, there was a mix of shredded slow-cooked pork, hoisin hot sauce, cilantro, roasted peanuts and scallions. I found the whole mixture to be a bit too sweet with only a touch of heat. Other than that, it was pretty good as the pork was super soft while the peanuts added crunch.
Arriving a long and massive plate, the Mediterranean Calamari was as anti-Earl's (the former version) as something could get. First of all, for $13.00, this was enough food to share with 4 people as an appy. Second, it was presented in a unique manner with cucumber, Spanish olives, peppers, tomatoes, radish, basil and Greek citrus yogurt rather than just plain with tzatziki. Although the squid was super tender and moist, the batter was a bit thick where it became a touch cumbersome. I liked the yogurt, but the rest of the ingredients looked nice but sorta just sat there without a whole lot of impact. Onto my favourite dish of the night, we tried the Crispy Thai Prawns served in a bowl with napa cabbage, lime, Thai basil, mint, cilantro paint, sweet + sour glaze, Serrano peppers and roasted peanuts. When mixed together, there was a veritable flavour explosion that hit me with a vengeance. There was a little of everything from the acidity of the lime, heat from the serrano peppers and sweet and sour from the glaze in addition to the herbs. The prawns themselves were cold-water crunchy with a light tempura batter.
Onto the Oven Roasted Salmon, it was accompanied by grilled corn, olive oil marinated fennel salad, baby new potatoes and jalapeno cilantro puree. With a beautiful crispy skin, the salmon itself was moist and flaky. It was only mildly seasoned with some salt where the fish itself could stand out. That meant the rest of the ingredients were not overbearing including the mild puree that only provided a light sweet heat. Presented in an avant-garde fashion (possibly plating gone wild...), the BBQ Back Ribs were melt-in-my-mouth tender with a touch of fat. The BBQ sauce was sweet and tangy that could've used a bit more smoke. I loved the crispy potatoes as opposed to the potato salad found on the regular menu offering.
Our one meatless dish was the Thai Vegetable Bowl that featured a bed of quinoa topped with snap peas, cauliflower, eggplant, gai lan, peanuts and crispy onions in a coconut and lemongrass broth. This was as aromatic as it sounded with the definite taste of coconut milk and the sharpness of lemongrass. However, I thought that a touch more salt was needed to bring the rest of the flavours alive. As for the veggies, they were still vibrant and crisp. For dessert, we were served a trio including Chocolate Hazelnut Bar, Warm Chocolate Sticky Toffee Pudding and Pumpkin Pie. I thought the bar was rich and smooth with a nice hint of bitterness at the end. The flavours were amped by both the salted caramel and maldon salt on top. As with any sticky toffee pudding, this one was sweet. However, it wasn't sickingly so. It was soft, rich and had depth of flavour with a hint of smokiness. As much as I do not prefer pumpkin pie, I liked this one as the pumpkin puree was nicely spiced and easy on the sugar. The Chantilly cream was creamy and light. As you can see, Earl's is making a concerted effort to up their game against places like Cactus Club and Milestone's. Although chain restaurant dining has never been my first choice, it is nice to see that the portion sizes, creativity and overall execution is moving in the right direction here.
*All food, drinks and gratuities were comped*
- Portion sizes are fair for the price
- Mirroring the competition, Earl's is trying to be more innovative
- Some bold new flavours
- Trying to balance innovation with pleasing the traditional customer leads to sometimes muted risk-taking