You know that one-hit wonder song that goes “I get knocked down/I get up again/You’re never going to keep me down”? Those lyrics come to mind when I think about Chef Sarah Kashani, and her culinary journey, which now finds her running the kitchen, and artfully shaking up the menu, at Charlie’s Little Italian.
The Mount Pleasant pasta and pizza joint is a great neighbourhood favourite, whether its for their killer daily special deals or their reliably excellent weekend brunch, and of course the fear would be that a new chef–particularly one whose Italian fare comes with an infusion of Persian flair–would rock the boat way too much.
But fear not. The seemingly fearless Kashani knows a thing or two about creating a restaurant that feels like home. It shouldn’t surprise anyone eating her sexy and satisfying pastas, salads, pizzas, or entrees that Kashani first caught the attention of Vancouver’s dining scene when she opened her own spot, Invitro, which took up residence inside a cozy converted home on Manitoba, also in Mount Pleasant.
There, Kashani had a short but stellar tenure showcasing her deceptively simple dishes packed with flavour, and when the project had to come to an end, the chef packed her knives and took up work in a couple of gigs around town. Then Charlie’s, now just about to celebrate its fourth anniversary in May, came calling. It was, to borrow a phrase, an offer Kashani couldn’t refuse.
Kashani calls Charlie’s “the perfect fit I’ve been looking for,” with its 65 seats (74 in the summer when the patio opens up). “It’s still intimate, still small, still a funky creative space,” adds the chef, seated across from me ahead of dinner service one recent afternoon.
And it’s Main Street, which Kashani hails as an artist’s draw. It’s no wonder, then, that Kashani brings an artist’s sensibilities to her plates, which are like portable canvasses of passionate expression. Yes, even when what’s being “expressed,” so to speak, is a Caesar Salad.
Grilled Romaine hearts are stacked with crispy prosciutto slices glistening from the slender, fatty slips meeting their fate in the fryer. The croutons are polenta cubes, and there’s a gently wobbling poached egg nestled in the mix, just waiting for you to pierce it with your knife to unleash the primordial yolky ooze. Once you’ve reckoned with the fact that you’re going to have to tear the dish apart, it’s pure joy to dig into.
“I want the food to look sexy, but I also want it to be in your face…but delicate,” explains Kashani of her overall approach.
The layers are there in her intent, and they’re there on the plate; a simple chicken and pesto pizza (called Pollo on the menu) showcases tender morsels of chicken thighs roasted Persian-style. There’s Kashani in there, with a delicate touch aimed at shaking things up with a jolt of fresh flavour.
Don’t worry, though, the boat isn’t being rocked so hard that you won’t recognize Charlie’s or its hallmark assortment of comforting Italian fare.
“I came in with a really respectful understanding that we have regulars, and that this is a neighbourhood joint,” attests Kashani. “There’s just so much more untapped potential here. You can still have your spaghetti and meatballs–but why not have a space where I can be creative, challenge the rules a little bit, and play around?”
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“Most of the chefs I admire are rule breakers,” Kashani explains. She calls her pan-seared Duck Breast entree, served with an “exploding” ravioli, her nod to modernist cuisine’s star chef, Grant Achatz.
“Why can’t I try and get liquid inside of a pasta and have it as a ‘wow moment’?” Kashani recalls of her creative process. “Why not change the rules? Why can’t we put the sauce on the inside? Why can’t we have the components of the dish tell a story?”
The result is a beautifully seared duck breast that arrives at your table with a scene-stealing oversized pouch of pasta that you have to burst open to release a gush of sauce. You may have been told to not play with your food as a kid, but with this grown up and sophisticated plate in front of you, Kashani is asking you to play along, and every taste of that savoury, earthy sauce is worth it.
Kashani says her favourite rule to break is any rigidity in the concept of “Italian cuisine.” She’s being deliberately bendy, and colouring outside of the lines, with a sprinkling of flavour bomb micro greens on top.
You’ll see it in the tender, nuanced sauteed Calamari on the starter menu, which is served swimming in a perky broth accented with nasturtium leaves. “Tastes like wasabi and looks like lily pads,” Kashani says of the latter.
Ahead of launching the revamped dinner menu, Kashani says she and her kitchen staff spent a good two months learning how to work together as a creative, cohesive, and ego-free unit focused on the art of not only producing eye-catching plate of tantalizing food, but also considering the life the dish will have once it leaves the pass.
Next up, Kashani will consider ways she can give Charlie’s brunch menu a jolt–think artful “graffiti-inspired food truck-style” dishes that match the vibe of the ‘hood. But nothing too weird. After all, Charlie’s is still a neighbourhood go-to, and Kashani is about welcoming folks in, not scaring them away. It’s a carryover from the hospitality she accorded her guests in her former restaurant, which she really made a home.
But that was then. She got knocked down. But she got up again, and is making Charlie’s her own…and everyone’s. This isn’t a one-hit-wonder situation.
“I really love what I do,” says Kashani. “The fact that i can try to make people happy…I’m in my element. I’ve always been t’he little engine that could’ in a way. And I feel like this restaurant has been around a long time but it hasn’t had its due–and now it’s time to give it its due.”
Address: 2610 Main Street, Vancouver