Winsor Dobbin finds Olympic city Vancouver is welcoming guests with innovative restaurants and slick new bars.
British Columbia is known for its stunning natural beauty and dramatic scenery but has not, until recently, been a magnet for gourmets. That has changed dramatically as Vancouver and neighbouring Whistler gear up to host the Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games next year.
Funky restaurants and bars are popping up and Vancouver was last year listed alongside culinary hot spots New York, Paris and London as one of the top 10 restaurant cities in the world by Food & Wine magazine. It has also been named one of the world's best cities to live in and rated among the top 10 to visit by Conde Nast Traveller.
Two leading Michelin-starred chefs, Daniel Boulud and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, are setting up restaurants in the city by the sea in preparation for an influx of visitors in the lead up to the games.
Boulud is opening a version of his popular New York restaurant, DB Bistro Moderne and taking over the management of long-time Vancouver favourite, Lumiere.
Vongerichten, who has restaurants spanning London to New York to Shanghai, makes his first foray into the Canadian dining scene by launching Market by Jean-Georges in the new Shangri-La Hotel, which opened last month.
The newcomers face stiff competition in a city known for its West Coast-style fusion food and range of ethnic options - particularly Japanese and Indian - as well as innovative eateries such as Salt Tasting Room, which offers portions of artisanal cheeses, small-batch cured meats and great wines.
Sitting at communal tables, diners order from a chalkboard selection of charcuterie and cheeses from around the world, which are matched with local wines or 17 different sherries. I loved a tasting plate consisting of Kazu beef with Guinness mustard, smoked pork loin alongside Cipolinni onions and fresh herb salami with peppers - all served with a trio of wines.
Open from noon to midnight, Salt is down an alley in gritty Gastown; you'll run a gauntlet of the homeless to get there but the experience is sublime.
Also check classy waterfront favourite C Restaurant. It serves inventive dishes and is a prime mover in Ocean Wise, a local program that promotes sustainable seafood.
Everything on the menu comes direct from local fishermen and the food is delicious - think pan-roasted sablefish or honey-glazed scallops.
Yew at the Four Seasons Hotel is another funky alternative, with contemporary food, a raw bar, a panini bar and more than 150 wines available by the glass.
Encircled by the Pacific Ocean, the Rockies, the fertile Fraser Valley and the wineries of the Okanagan Valley, Vancouver offers a buffet of options for travellers.
First stop for any visitor should be the bustling Granville Island Public Market, which is open daily. You'll find all the best local produce, much of it from small farms, and many stallholders are happy for you to try before you buy. Prepare to be there a while: one stall called Oyama Sausage produces more than 300 charcuterie lines, including a dozen styles of prosciutto and a huge selection of sausages.
Edible British Columbia runs chef-guided market tours and its store on Granville Island stocks a range of local products.
For raspberry wheat ale and other interesting seasonal brews, head to the nearby Granville Island Brewery. And for lunch, an ideal spot is the waterfront eatery Go Fish, where seafood chowder and fish sandwiches are on the menu.
Back in town, wine lovers will enjoy Uva, a slick new bar next door to the hip Moda Hotel.
Talk to just about any local and they'll recommend a visit to the award-winning Vij's Indian restaurant, where favourites include duck breast with spicy mango and sauteed yellow and green zucchini. An alternative to Vij's is the Punjabi Market for all-you-can-eat curry specials for less than $C10 ($12.40).
Vancouver's Chinatown is arguably the best in North America while its large Japanese population has introduced dozens of izakayas, traditional tavern restaurants.
Tojo's is regarded as the pick of the bunch, with its omakase (degustation) dinners highly regarded. The atmospheric Kingyo on Denman Street is a standout with helpful, friendly service, while Hapa Izakaya is packed to the rafters.
Locals also recommend French-bistro style Pied-a-Terre, the homestyle North American cooking at Fuel, classy Parkside in the West End, Belgian-themed Chambar, Latin-flavoured Cobre and West, the 2008 Vancouver restaurant of the year winner.
Raincity Grill, one of the forces behind the 100-mile menu movement (with everything produced within 160 kilometres of the restaurant), is another local favourite.
In Vancouver, you don't have to break the budget to eat well. One of the great bargains is a kurobuta pork hot dog served with Japanese seaweed, daikon relish and soy at the always-busy Japa Dog stall on the corner of Burrard and Haro streets.
Banana Leaf serves authentic and affordable Malaysian cuisine (but be prepared to line up), the sandwiches at So.Cial in Gastown are legendary for both size and quality, while Caffe Artigiano serves what is reputed to be the city's best coffee.
And don't miss out on the amazing La Casa Gelato, which offers 500 gelati, sorbets and yoghurts, many with wild and wacky flavours (curry, wasabi or basil and pernod gelati anyone?).
The writer was a guest of Tourism British Columbia.
Air Canada flies non-stop from Sydney to Vancouver (meaning you avoid going through US customs and immigration). Phone 1300 655 767. See aircanada.com.
The Coast Plaza Hotel and Suites, 1763 Comox Street, has serviced apartments on the edge of Stanley Park, five minutes from the bustling Denman Street restaurant strip in the vibrant West End. Phone 604 688 771. See coasthotels.com.
Salt Tasting Room, 45 Blood Alley, Gastown, 604 633 1912, salttastingroom.com. C Restaurant, 2-1600 Howe Street, 604 681 1164, www.crestaurant.com. Yew Restaurant and Bar, Four Seasons Hotel, 791 West Georgia Street, 604 692 4939, fourseasons.com/vancouver. Kingyo, 871 Denman Street, 604 608 1677. Vij's, 1480 West 11th Avenue, 604 736 6664, vijs.ca.
tourismvancouver.com and hellobc.com.
A VINE TIME
Canada is not usually associated with fine wines but the Okanagan Valley, 400 kilometres east of Vancouver, is fast emerging as a producer of world-class offerings, with some nudging past $100 a bottle. Most, however, remain affordable (between $20 and $30 a bottle).
More than 140 wine producers operate in British Columbia, the majority in and around the Okanagan Valley (where you can find several Australian winemakers working alongside the locals). The best wines are the pinot gris, chardonnays and rieslings, alongside some promising pinot noir and merlots. Ice wine is a sweet dessert wine made from grapes that have frozen on the vine.
The big names include Mission Hill, Nk'Mip Cellars, Sumac Ridge, Jackson Triggs, Cedar Creek, Quails Gate, Wild Goose and Hillside Estate, which is a perfect spot for lunch.
The best places to dine include the Sonoma Room at the Burrowing Owl Estate Winery, Naramata Heritage Inn and Spa, and Passatempo.
The Naramata Heritage Inn offers classic country accommodation while the Spirit Ridge Vineyard Resort and Spa offers luxurious lodgings.
GET OUT OF TOWN
Ski resort Whistler Blackcomb, a scenic two-hour drive north of Vancouver, offers an excellent range of dining options - far better than you'd expect at a popular skiing destination.
Standouts include Bearfoot Bistro, which serves dishes such as coconut chilli soup with croquettes and soy pop rocks and pan-seared scallops with braised pork belly.
There's also a superb wine cellar featuring the international stars and local labels such as Blasted Church, Tantalus and Inniskillin.
Also worth checking out are Araxi, Rimrock Cafe (for lobster laksa or crab and salmon cakes), Fifty Two 80 Bistro and Bar, Ric's Grill and Apres restaurant.
The Dubh Linn Gate pub is a great spot for a late-night drink. Earls, a local chain, is the place to head for massive (and surprisingly good) serves of steak and ribs.