The world of natural wines can be daunting for even the well-initiated, since the practice of growing organically and/or biodynamically is expanding in so many global wine-making regions. Throw the ever-changing fun of pairing wines with foods in the mix, and you’ve got the terroir of Latab, a fun and forward-thinking new wine-focused snack bar that’s recently opened up in Vancouver.
Latab Wine Bar is the endeavour of longtime industry pros Kris Barnholden and Eryn Dorman, who have injected into the Vancouver dining and wine-drinking scene a playful and dynamic new destination.
Dorman says he and Barnholden were eager to pair up and “do something that wasn’t being done in Vancouver,” which was to not only focus on natural, organic, and biodynamic wines, but to do so in partnership with foods that really take the notion of wellness and sustainability to the next level.
Dorman describes past dining experiences where the evening’s indulgences left him with a “food hangover,” and that he yearned to offer diners a place where they could eat well but leave feeling invigorated.
“We both believe in the future food movement,” elaborates Dorman of his shared vision with chef Barnholden. “We want to be a little more challenging, and are interested in pushing people out of their comfort zone a bit,” he adds.
Latab’s menu is small and very smart. Chalked onto a large display board, the ingredients represent not merely what is seasonal or local, but the dishes also showcase alternative proteins and foods that are truly good for us.
Ideal for sharing and mix-and-matching, the well-portioned plates begin with smaller snacks and move into more robust entree-sized dishes and a couple of desserts. And, of course, they can be paired with delectable and unconventional wines at the deft suggestions of Dorman.
The small and cheery Helmcken restaurant is outfitted in a style that matches the restaurant’s overarching theme of whimsy-meets-sophistication. It’s cozy and warmly lit, and is intimate without feeling crowded. Couples, friends, and even solo diners will feel at ease in the space, and truly welcomed by Dorman and Barnholden, who take the guest experience quite seriously.
Dorman, who serves as Latab’s General Manager and sommelier, works the floor nightly, which is for him a rewarding role and one that allows him to really engage his guests. This works twofold: Diners can benefit from Dorman’s unobtrusive hospitality, but it also offers up the chance for Dorman to connect with his customers about Latab’s philosophy of food and wine. Fortunately, what Dorman exudes in these encounters is his savvy and passion; comfort reigns, and Dorman manages to completely avoid being preachy or overly-cerebral, each and both of which can be alienating at the dinner table.
Instead, Dorman presents Barnholden’s dishes with enthusiasm for their components and merits, and talks about his wine selections with an approachable ease even the most casual of oenophile will appreciate.
Take, for example, when Barnholden kick-starts the meal with a raw bread topped with radish and sea urchin, and Dorman pairs it with a glass of 2014 Umani Ronchi Verdiccio. Sure, you may have had a butter and radish starter with a glass of white wine, and really, this is what you’re having here, but the pieces are more of a revelation. Yes, a raw cracker can have texture and snap, and yes, grass-fed butter tastes more verdant, and yes there is a delicious salinity when sea urchin hit the palate.
A further eye opener is a full-on bit of cookery trickery that allows Barnholden to play with a vegan dish that appears to contain an animal product, but there’s no processed meat substitutes here at all. It’s an all vegetable egg made of celeriac (the white) and pumpkin purée (the soft centre). It may look like an egg, and quiver like an egg, and ooze like an egg, but, sorry–in this case it’s just not an egg.
Drinking natural wines, too, is a revelation in its own right. The colours of the wine are different, the wines open and hold differently, and how the tastes shift with the food and across the palate is also a departure from conventionally-produced wines. Many of the varietals have familiar names, but many may represent uncharted territory to even seasoned wine lovers, which creates a whole new realm of exploration.
Dorman says he is so fond of natural wines because they are “completely unadulterated [and] the real expression of the wine,” and the way in which the industry and consumers are opening up to these wines he likens to when organic and more small farm foods started gaining popularity, leading eaters to a ha moments of “this is how it actually tastes.”
With ingredients coming in and out of season, as well as the wine list ever-open to changes, Dorman says his pairings with Barnholden’s dishes are inspired by the food and the wines both–neither one is too dominant. Dorman admits, though, at Latab they are “not doing things in the traditional fashion like at other restaurants.”
Those who may shy away from the cerebral nature of the wines and food would be doing themselves a disservice by skipping out on the experience of a dinner or snack at Latab offers. There is no pretension, no preaching, no weirdness. It’s a fun little space, and one that’s run by a duo who understand that dining out is one part entertainment.
Fortunately, Dorman and Barnholden have the experience to back up their passion, and that shows in every sip and bite on their ever-changing menu at Latab.
Address: 983 Helmcken Street
Hours: Daily 6 p.m. to Midnight