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Abigail's Party a great night out

By ALEXANDRA GILL

The Globe & Mail Friday, December 2, 2005 Page R3

Nobody died of a heart attack, the conversation was only mildly catty and there weren't any jellied salads or tuna casseroles on the menu.

Our night at Abigail's Party might not have lived up to Mike Leigh's comedy of manners after which this new wine and tapas bar is named, but I suppose that's a good thing. With its modern cuisine, friendly service and (mostly) kitsch-free décor, I can safely recommend this quirky Kitsilano restaurant
as a fun place for a quick bite, where patrons needn't worry about being terrorized by their neighbours -- so long as I'm not there the same night.

"I don't understand," Kurtis replies when I ask him to bring his new roommate along for dinner.

"Oh, my little pop-culture Philistine," I sigh, summoning up a haughty Alison Steadman imitation. Allow me to explain: Abigail's Party is the name of Mike Leigh's 1977 cult film.

Why anyone would want to name their restaurant after this comically cruel satire of suburbia and its aspirant social mores, I'm still not sure. But now that they've thrown down the gauntlet, we're going to try to re-enact the drama at dinner.

I will be Beverly, the middle-class hostess from hell, originally played with mannered aplomb by the above-mentioned Steadman. Anxious to show off the tacky riches her loveless marriage provides, Beverly invites her new neighbours over for a cocktail party, only to bully them into drunkenness, humiliation and wanton seduction.

Kurtis will play Tony, the boorish new neighbour. Monica (Kurtis's new roommate) will play Ange, Tony's simpering wife. We'll round out the cast with Allison (Kurtis's new business partner who recently went through a bad breakup) in the role of Sue, a brittle divorcée, whose teenage daughter Abigail is throwing the eponymous party next door.

"I'm not sure if this is such a good idea," Kurtis says nervously, when we arrive at the restaurant. "I kind of like the feel of this place."

"Come on, it'll be a gas," I say, barging into the room. It's all brown and wood, similar to the film's living-room set, but curiously void of geometrical-patterned wallpaper, lava lamps or cheap knick-knacks. Hmm, it's actually quite tasteful.

Cocktails? Abigail's list of "party pleasers" sound inviting. Bossy Beverly, however, is in the mood for red wine. Lucky for them, my guests are too.

I scan the menu for a flabby, overpriced merlot -- the kind Beverly might choose -- and come up empty. The wine selection is small, but tightly edited. We go for the Yalumba Y Series Shiraz ($40). At the very least, it seems a gauchely big red to start off with.

Monica arrives a few moments later, accompanied by the owner of the gallery she curates. "I'm so sorry," Kurtis whispers. "I told her not to bring anyone."

No worries. Monica is a far cry from meek little Ange and Beverly admires her moxie -- even more so when she begins critiquing the art on display. "I'm surprised they don't have any optical art," she says, sniffing at the painting behind her, an abstract image of female faces in a collage of brown feathers.

"What would you call that style of art?" I, er, Beverly baitingly asks. "Offensive," Monica opines. Kurtis shudders. I think they've reversed their roles.

To our pleasant surprise, we're all impressed with the first round of appetizers: juicy pan-seared scallops and wild mushrooms with a garlic-and-herb infused white-wine reduction ($13); sautéed green beans dressed up with a dressing of beurre noisette and pine nuts ($5); and goat
cheese pave, a creamy bundle of thin-sliced potatoes on a fragrant red-wine and hibiscus reduction ($10).

For the sake of artistic accuracy, we all go outside for a cigarette break. In the film, Beverly convinces Tony and Ange to pick up the habit again. In this case, my guests all boo when I announce that I plan to give up smoking.

This play of a play is all going horribly wrong. No one has vomited or even begun dancing.

"Another bottle and more food," I cry desperately.

The second round is even better than the first. Spaghetti ($8) is served with a lovely light sauce of butter, garlic, white wine, parmesan and chili -- so simple, yet so hard to find. Wild mushroom and tarragon risotto is complemented with a rich balsamic reduction and chewy chanterelles. At $9, it's great value.

"Don't forget the lagers, Laurence," I call out to our mystified waitress. She hasn't seen the movie and doesn't understand the humour in Beverly's slurred line.

So why did the owners curse this delightful restaurant with such a dangerously loaded name?

The waitress laughs. This isn't supposed to be the disastrous cocktail party in the film, she explains. It's Abigail's party, the fun one being thrown offstage by the teenager next door.

Ah ha! Now that's a clever concept. But I guess that means our troupe will have to come back for a ceremonial hangover brunch. Bring on the peach schnapps shooters.

Abigail's Party is located at 1685 Yew St., 604-739-4677.