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"I loved Abigail's Party... Kitsilano's new casual dining gem"

By ANDREW MORRISON

The Westender - March 30, 2006

I had just sat down for the first of my two meals at Abigail's Party when my server said, “I know you”. Busted.

An hour earlier, my Westfalia had been broken into downtown, in broad daylight, and I‘d just finished screaming obscenities at seagulls on Kits Beach. I was fresh with anger. Who the hell breaks into an old van with two baby seats in order to steal teething crackers?

“What do you do?” she probed. I told her a half-truth, that I was a writer.

“Ahh,” she said, smiling. We'd met before, not so long ago, when she'd been a manager at False Creek's award-winning C restaurant.

“What are you doing here?” I asked, a little incredulous at the change of venue.

“It's just much more my speed,” she replied. Together, we turned and looked around the neat little room. It's a very cozy, woody spot, with just 35 seats. Jack Johnson was playing softly on the hi-fi, a handful of customers appeared happy with their tapas plates and cocktails, and the Canucks were soundly beating the Oilers on the unobtrusive flat-screen. Despite its hard clean lines, the design of Abigail's Party had me relaxed immediately, and I saw my server's point. Less “staff uniform”, more come as you are,” the difference between her past and present employers is the sun and the moon rather than night and day. Though quiet during my two visits, when the spring arrives it'll be as cool a ticket as it once was, when the space belonged to Tangerine. I remember its little patio, a swell place from which to sup late into the night (then until 1 a.m., now 2 a.m.).

I sat at the five-seat bar, nursing a sleeve of Stella ($5.50), and my server left me alone to eat. I began with the pulled beef tacos ($12). Savory and laced with Guinness cheddar and roasted onions, made manageable by molded Parmesan crisps that didn't crumble, these were a phenomenal little intro. Further buttressed by a straightforward salad of mesclun greens. I'd started with a bang. Very pleased, the recent violation to my vehicle was now completely forgotten.

The next plate, however, was an interesting, if doomed, experiment. Pork and squid is not a common combination of ingredients (though sometimes it's seen in Malaysian cooking). There's a good reason for this: seldom does it work. The contrasting textures of rubbery flesh and fall-apart meat aren't big buddies, and the flavours cancel, rather than compliment, each other. To put them to work together in a spring roll ($10) might mask this, but to paraphrase a Spartan priest, innards tell no lies. The decorative dribble of Korean barbeque sauce struggled to make much of a difference, and when I asked for and received and extra side of the stuff, I completely submerged what was left over. My tongue took a beating, but the taste improved dramatically. Unfortunately, the salad that came with the spring rolls was identical to that which was plated with my tacos, begging the question: If the kitchen can approach its ingredients so playfully, why doesn't it mix things up on the accompaniment front?

I returned the next night for dinner with my wife, starting with a shared fig and arugula salad. With its slices of cool Brie and a dressing of fragrant cinnamon vinaigrette, it was simple, well-priced at $7. Quite autumnal, too, especially when paired with a warming glass of Batasiolo's Barbera D'Alba ($8). Some pungently aromatic jerk further by a colorful red onion and sweet cabbage slaw that cooled the palate. Delicious.

One sour note, though: the tilapia was soggy, overcooked and consequently void of flavour; a $12 disaster. I usually love the mild taste of this fish, and though evolution may have willed it to be battered and fried for our pleasure, my wife and I couldn't find a redeeming piece on the plate. Poor fish. To be fair, the accompanying sweet potato fries were on the crispy side of perfect – well seasoned, and piping hot. The success of those, combined with a unique side of mint and caper aioli, suggested the fish was a misfire. Another time, perhaps.

Dessert hit the right notes both times. The Callebaut chocolate and Amaretto mousse was so rich it bordered on the superbly dense. Better still was the phyllo “ravioli” of apple and blue cheese; drizzled with caramel and saddled with a scoop of vanilla gelato, it was a swerve away from the traditional, and a bargain at $6. At such a price, the last course could afford to slouch, though we were quite glad it didn't.

Meanwhile, the cocktail list is more attractive than the diminutive wine list, with many tempting originals such as the Jonagold, a sneaky mix of ginger liqueur, rum, thyme-infused apple puree, and ginger beer (all special cocktails are $8).

Overall, I loved Abigail's Party. Slightly imperfect meals, when perfectly served, are fine by me. Judging from the dishes I tried, it's clear that executive chef Ian Reynolds and sous chef Claire Cameron have enough interest in food to make an adventurous menu sing, even if a tad flatly in places (let's not make this a total love-in). I'll be back soon to try out their weekend brunch, and I know now that the next time my car gets broken into, I can come here, happy in the knowledge that I'll likely leave smiling.