There’s a renaissance going on in downtown Nanaimo and a cutting edge eatery, the Modern Café, is helping lead the charge.
Nanaimo, town of about 90,000 on Canadian Vancouver Island’s eastern shore, has a rough-and-tumble history that includes fur trapping, coal mining, fishing, and logging. A decade ago, the historic downtown fell into disrepair as businesses and customers abandoned the area for shopping malls on the outskirts of town. Fortunately, visionaries like Scott Cooper saw potential in the old brick walls of buildings like the one housing the Modern Café and today downtown Nanaimo is bustling with boutiques, coffee shops, and restaurants.
While the Modern Café is in a historic building, the restaurant is thoroughly modern. The sign out front maybe retro neon, but the artwork, the interior décor, and the menu are all very much today.
When Cooper bought the restaurant, he loved the location and the building, but he wasn’t crazy about the food. He brought in Chef Paul Dokmanovich, currently executive chef at the iconic Chateau Lake Louise, to completely remake the menu. The results are dishes with unusual combinations of ingredients and interesting layers of flavor.
For instance, their Happy Tuna Sushi, a favorite with Modern Café customers, is eight-inches of panko-crusted sashimi tuna covered with diced strawberries, avocado, and cucumber with sweet soy-mango salsa, chipotle mayonnaise and tobiko roe. The combination of ingredients may seem a bit unusual, but it produces flavors that are both sweet and savory and textures that are crispy and soft. As you eat the roll, the raw tuna inside continues to cook so that what was raw and cool at the beginning is warm and cooked at the end.
Poutine, that Canadian French fries-gravy-cheese curd fast food, is transformed at the Modern into something delectable. Their Gourmet Poutine includes hand-cut fries, ultra-fresh cheese curds, and rich gravy made with a dark ale.
Their Bengal Prawn Linguini includes sweet sautéed prawns tossed in a sweet curry sauce with toasted cashews and served with a seasoned breadstick. The pasta is cooked al dente. The half-dozen shrimp are firm and perfectly cooked and the sauce is sweet with a satisfying bit of heat that comes a few moments into the bite.
We also tried their Certified Angus Beef burger, and, unfortunately, the nice, thick patty was cooked just a bit too much for our taste. However, the smoked bacon, Gruyere cheese, caramelized shallots, lettuce, thinly-sliced dill pickle, drizzle of truffle oil, and “modern sauce” on an onion cheese bun gave this burger plenty of juicy flavor. It’s served with yam fries. I’d definitely order this one again, but I’d ask for the meat to be cooked medium rare.
Our hands-down favorite was the Modern Macaroni and Cheese that’s made with wild mushrooms, prosciutto,
green peas, spinach, truffle oil, and topped with a four cheese blend. It’s the ultimate comfort food and delectably creamy and rich without feeling heavy.
Most of Modern Café’s dishes are available in half or full portions. Next time we order their Mac and Cheese, it’s so delightful that we’re ordering a full portion.
The Modern Café has also joined the Nanaimo Bar Trail with the Nanaimo Bar Martini and the Nanaimo Bar Latte. Nanaimo Bars, sweet dessert bars made with a brownie-nut-coconut bottom and vanilla custard-type topped with a thin layer of dark chocolate, were invented by a housewife in the town in the 1950s and have become a town trademark. The Naniamo Tourism Bureau has created a Nanaimo Bar Trail that enables visitors to sample different versions of the sweet treat.
Modern Café’s Nanaimo contributions to this tradition are the Naniamo Bar Martini and the Nanaimo Bar Latte. The Nanamio Bar Martini comes in a martini glass drizzled with chocolate syrup and is made with vanilla vodka, crème de cacao, and coconut liquor. Their Nanaimo Latte has espresso with coconut and chocolate syrup that tastes like a liquid Nanaimo Bar.
Real Bottom Line: Next time you’re on Vancouver Island, head to Nanaimo’s happening downtown district. There you’ll discover plenty of interesting places, including terrific food at the thoroughly Modern Café. www.themoderncafe.ca – Reviewed by Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor, Photos by Anne Weaver, RFT Editor