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Q&A with Chef Warren Barr of Pluvio Restaurant and Rooms

Q&A with Chef Warren Barr of Pluvio Restaurant and Rooms

Pluvio Restaurant and Rooms quietly opened up in Ucluelet this past spring and immediately caught national headlines as one of En Route Magazine’s nominations for “Canada’s Best New Restaurant.”

Co-owners Warren Barr and Lily Verney-Downey have a long history of hospitality and both put in lengthy stints at the acclaimed Tofino Wickaninnish Inn (where they first met), so it was only a matter of time before the couple started something of their own. The results for “Canada’s Best New Restaurant” are set to drop this fall, but until then, here is our interview with Chef Barr.

What was the impetus for you [and co-owner Lily) to leave the Wick and start up Pluvio?

I had always wanted to open up a hotel and restaurant ever since I was the chef at the Inn at Bay Fortune in Prince Edward Island. Most cooks get into it and they want to open a restaurant, but working at the Inn at Bay Fortune, we had 16 rooms and a nice little grounds area and it was an immersive experience—I thought that was really neat. And then my time at the Wick—I was at Wickaninnish Inn for eight years, six years as the Executive Chef—it sort of solidified that. 

My partner Lily has always had the same ambitions. We met each other at the Wick and have been together for seven or eight years now, so fortunately it lined up for both of us to do our thing together. 

What did you envision for the restaurant?

Something small, higher-end, very experiential, a place where people could have a good time. When we got Pluvio going, we really wanted it to be somewhere that was fun to eat, with great food, great service. We wanted all the finesse and all the detail and discipline of fine dining, but without anyone really noticing. 

What was your plan for hitting the more subtle side of high-end?  How do you do that?

By keeping things a little less formal. Maybe re-defining what fine dining is in the first place is where to start.  Everything right down to our playlist, it’s just a bit more fun. Our service team has all the grace and elegance of fine dining, but they’re just more personable and try to engage with the guests a bit more;  make it more about them. 

When you think of fine dining, what are some of the things you don’t want to incorporate? 

We definitely don’t want anything to be stuffy about what we were doing. That was very important to us. Instead, we wanted the food to be exciting, interesting, disciplined—something unique you couldn’t get anywhere else. Our menu is designed to have an appetizer, a main and a dessert. If you come in and just have a main course you probably will leave hungry. We want people to have a dining experience. But, we’re not going to overdo it. I also don’t believe in unnecessarily small portions just to call it fine dining⁠—that’s not the point,that’s not what we want to do at all. 

What’s exciting and different about your menu at Pluvio?

We do everything in-house. Our bread basket has crackers, sourdough and cornbread we bake every day. It’s served with homemade butter that we churn in-house, we season the butter by whisking in some sake kazu from Granville Island Sake company—that’s their spent rice ration making the sake. It gives the butter a really good flavour. We’re currently working on making all our own vinegars, and we have lots of ferments. I’m a sucker for truffles, just like most chefs are, but we might use those truffles with something that’s spruce or something from the area that we’ve picked or foraged or cultivated ourselves. So using a lot of the wild ingredients, but for me, using a lot of these ingredients and homemade things, I never really wanted the menu to be about those things, I just wanted them to play into the dishas much as anything else. I don’t want to make them a novelty. And I guess defining what Canadian cuisine is here on the West Coast.

What does West Coast cuisine mean to you?

It’s an elusive target. Every year I think I get a little bit closer to my definition of it. My current definition of it, and I think one that I’ll probably stick with, is just using local ingredients like we do, but maybe giving them an approach or treating them with different cultures in mind. For example, I’m not going to make a curry dish, or a Japanese dish or Chinese dish, but I might use some of those techniques—they’re so prevalent on the West Coast and just Canada in general with our multicultural society, so I might use some of those techniques and some of the inspiration and apply it those ingredients. Right now, I have a char siu pork and scallops dish on the menu. It’s local scallops and local pork with a sweet chinese barbecue sauce, thyme, jus and peaches that are grilled and glazed with char siu as well. And the jus is spiked with homemade peach vinegar. It’s not a Chinese dish, but it’s using some of those influences and techniques, and playing into something that showcases our local ingredients in a way that’s kind of unique and memorable (hopefully). Hopefully memorable!  

How has Ucluelet reacted to Pluvio moving into the old Norwoods location, when that restaurant was such a local favourite? 

The community has been so receptive, it’s been amazing. Lily and I are so thrilled at how Ucluelet has welcomed us. I think most of Ucluelet was just happy to see it notbecome a taco shop or a cannabis store or something. That it stayed a good restaurant, I think was something the town was quite proud to have. You know, Norwoods was such an exceptional restaurant, a West Coast institution, that I think the town was just so happy to have us to take it on. Instead of destroying what Norwoods was, Pluvio is sort of building on what he [the owner, retired chef Richard Norwood] had started. 

How would you describe the look of it on the inside, what kind of atmosphere were you going for?

Being playful. A chef buddy of mine came down and talked about how cute everything is, which is another way we wanted to move away from fine dining. Lilyy is my better half and she’s the one that manages everything while I cook and do maintenance and things like that. Her dad is an artist and he did these great little cartoons of Lily and I; there’s three or four of them shown in the beginning of each menu where we welcome the guest. And we’re adding a couple more fun little features this weekend to make it, again, much more of an experiential thing. 

We’ve also got some wonderful moss art pieces, from Heather March, green stems, so we have these big beautiful framed pieces of nature. Lots of sort of earthenware plates and things. We wanted to capture all the fun and the feel and excitement of nature, but then kind of put a contemporary, exciting, more cosmopolitan spin on it.

What kind of experience can people expect at Pluvio?

The restaurant is part of it, but the fact is we have also built and designed a beautiful hotel behind it. That is as important to talk about as the restaurant because that is where the immersive experience begins ideally, when our guests stay with us. 

We’ve got these fun, beautiful, contemporary rooms, we deliver a breakfast outside at the end of service. They can wake up in the morning, and have a breakfast that we’ve prepared in the kitchen ready to go for them—it all sort of loops into one experience, an overall hospitality experience we’re trying to deliver. 

Did you work with a designer on the hotel side? 

Lily and I did it, and we couldn’t be happier with how it turned out. We just brought in the right people to work on it. The Galloway Brothers did all the outside work on it, which was great, and then we worked with lots of local artists to make the rooms nice inside [Heather March, Isaac Shaw photographs, textile weaving by Diane Rudge and furniture from Port Alberni’s Chad Miles].

How are you feeling after Canada’s Best New Restaurant Nomination?

Excited, grateful, really hoping it helps us survive our first winter [much laughter]. We’re thrilled. You kidding me? What more could you want? We know we’re offering something that’s kind of special and unique, what we’re doing here, I do believe that. But just because you’re doing something special and unique doesn’t mean anyone ever notices it, so to have that kind of exposure on a national level, when we’re out here in Ucluelet is exciting and it’s a big help. 

Pluvio Restaurant and Rooms
1714 Peninsula Rd, Ucluelet

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