Name: Cask Whiskey Vault
Location: 8400 West Road, Richmond, BC
Food: Japanese Izakaya and Robata
Prices: Appetizers, $9 to $21 ($98 for Cinco Jotas Iberico); robata skewers, $11 to $18; mains, $36 to $47; tasting menu, $59 ($108 with whiskey pairings)
Further information: Open Wednesday to Sunday from 5 p.m.; reservations recommended, no terrace.
Whiskey may not be an old person’s drink anymore, but I guess I’m a cliché. At 51, I am just beginning to learn to love and appreciate this huge and vast world of spirits, as complex as wine.
To develop my palate, I recently attended a few dinners with whiskey. And what I quickly discovered was that by the time the rich prime rib or other heavy main course rolls around, even the most ardent whiskey aficionado begins to crave a fat Bordeaux or a Chardonnay that cleanses the palate.
Although some may disagree, I think whiskey goes perfectly with food. A peated Islay single malt extracted from an oyster shell is a classic complement of saltiness and smoke. A sweet, nutty bourbon with salty aged cheese can be transformational.
But a multi-course meal accompanied by neat shots of whiskey and a refreshing highball in between? It’s a big challenge for the taste buds.
Unless you dine at the Cask Whiskey Vault. This sexy new Japanese whiskey and robata bar in Richmond’s Club Versante offers a three-course tasting menu (seven, if you count its various elements) that’s not only scrumptious, but also eye-opening – and exceptional value at $108 with agreements.
Cask is the first of several high-end restaurants to open in the new Richmond International Trade Centre, an office tower adjacent to the Versante Hotel near the airport.
The entire complex, which includes a French bistro which will debut next week, was originally designed as a private club for tenants and jet-set business clients.
The pandemic has upended those plans and restaurants will now be open to everyone. Cask still offers memberships (a growing trend among high-end restaurants) that grant access to the private vault room (without the usual minimum spend). But according to a spokesperson, details, including fees and benefits, are currently being reviewed.
Dark and plush, clad in skin-tight leather loveseats and intricate floor-to-ceiling millwork that must have cost a small fortune, Cask is the type of hideaway that makes me wish cigarette smoking was still in style.
Although not yet well known, the 65-seat venue gets quite busy on weekends and draws an eclectic crowd. A gentleman was dressed in cosplay horns and a cape the night I was there. There is live music on Thursdays and Sundays.
When Cask opened in November, former general manager Brad Stanton said the goal was to become one of the best whiskey bars in the world.
New managing director, Chelsea Rose Schulte, said that with her collection of over 500 bottles – including rarities such as the 32-year-old Port Ellen at $788 an ounce and a 46-year-old Bunnahabhain (recently acquired and not yet priced) – Cask is competitive in the Vancouver market.
Sadly, Ms Schulte – who is masterful at pairing and does a really wicked riff on the penicillin cocktail with galangal for extra flavors and a smoky Port Charlotte float – has submitted her notice to resign and will leave next month.
Staff retention is a problem for all restaurants right now, but this kind of rapid turnover signals that something more problematic is brewing and will need to be resolved before Cask can be the best of everything and achieve its lofty goals.
In the kitchen, executive chef William Lew is skilfully assisted by chef de cuisine Brian Hoang, with an impressive track record full of high-level international experience: the Englishman Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, the Hong Konger Black Sheep (who has just after writing the original pandemic playbook for restaurants) and, most recently, sous chef at Indochine in Dubai.
When whiskey distilleries host dinner parties, they often look for heavy, traditional Western cuisine that matches that outdated perception of whiskey lovers as old, white, gray-haired men. I urge them to rethink this.
Whiskey and casual izakaya dishes are a heavenly marriage. The entire izakaya repertoire of fried, greasy, fused snacks and grilled kebabs was designed to be consumed with large amounts of alcohol, much of it whiskey-based.
And as the Cask shows, snacking can be elevated to an extremely luxurious level.
Our tasting menu started with a soft, sweet, green ounce of 10-year-old Arran. The scotch was light enough not to overpower the shima-aji sashimi, which was aged for weight, and the mineral notes played well with the delicate plate’s pickled beets (micro-cut into small flowers) and soy cream sprinkled with green onion oil. . But the Arran’s biscuity notes also stood up to beautifully fried prawn tempura and crispy eggplant with a spicy, caramelized sanbaizu dressing.
The second course was a tougher tightrope to balance. Ms. Schulte treats peat as she would treat tannins in wine. And the smoky power of the limited-edition Ardbeg AN OA matched a crisp truffle potato “okonomiyaki” (thinly sliced cobbler potatoes covered in Kewpie mayonnaise, dark fruit katsu sauce and a dusting of flakes bonito). And it amplified the meatiness of the charred wagyu and beef tongue skewers. But he missed the mark with gamy lamb chops marinated in Korean chilli. The spice (always difficult to associate) accentuated the alcohol to the point of burning.
Desserts were apple pie with miso caramel and vanilla ice cream and assorted petit fours. Kaiyo “the Single” 7 Year Old, aged in bourbon and Japanese oak barrels, was the perfect tropical, honeyed finish.
The tasting menu is taken from the regular food menu, which can be ordered à la carte. If you know your whiskey and trust your palate, there’s plenty of mix-and-match fun to explore. But for those, like me, who are just getting started, tasting flights are a great way to start.
Cask is a serious whiskey bar with great food and a great concept. It brings something new to Metro Vancouver and would be a huge hit downtown. In Richmond, it’s a testament to the city’s growing culinary reach. And for those who don’t live there, a destination to discover.
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