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Dine Like a Critic

Vancouver’s Livia Cafe and Bakery is so much more than its sourdough

ALEXANDRA GILL
VANCOUVER
SPECIAL TO THE GLOBE AND MAIL
PUBLISHED APRIL 26, 2019

Claire Livia, owner and baker at Livia Sweets, brings out fresh rhubarb and pistachio frangipane tart at Livia Sweets in Vancouver, on April 24, 2019.
RAFAL GERSZAK

Name: Livia Bakery
Location: 1399 Commercial Dr., Vancouver
Phone: 604-423-3869
Website: liviasweets.com
Cuisine: Italian bakery and counter-service café
Prices: Breakfast and lunch, $4 to $16; aperitivo snacks, $3 to $12
Additional information: Open Tuesday to Sunday , 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.; aperitivo from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.; no reservations.
Rating system: Casual dining
Rating: 3 out of 4 stars

The sourdough is made with a four-year-old starter named Gaia, 12-per-cent whole-wheat flour milled to order from Cedar Isle Farm in Agassiz, B.C., and an 18-hour proof.
RAFAL GERSZAK

 

This was supposed to be a column about two new bakeries on Commercial Drive, both of which specialize in naturally leavened sourdough. How lucky can one neighbourhood get? And someday soon, I will definitely visit The Bench Bakehouse in Il Mercato mall because their crusty loaves do look amazing.
But it’s just that every time I go to Livia Bakery (and I’ve been there more times in the past two months than I usually visit any restaurant for a review), I can’t tear myself away. The cozy-chic café is located about an hour by bus from my own fermented-bread desert of a neighbourhood and not the least bit convenient. Yet, I keep coming up with excuses to pop over.

I’ll be sitting at my desk thinking, “Oh, rhubarb just came into season and don’t Livia’s buttery danishes filled with custardy pastry cream look divine? Must eat one … Hmm, haven’t tried a breakfast sandwich and I do so love their plush potato buns … How could I possibly write a review without stopping in for an aperitivo-hour cocktail and charcuterie plate?”

Livia, as you might gather, is much more than a bakery. But the sourdough country loaves – thickly blistered and golden-ring-crusted with bubbly crumb and tangy chew – are still its heart and soul. They’re lined like dusty antique books on sunlight-dappled shelves in the street-side window, enticing passersby and almost begging to be ripped open and devoured.

The sourdough is made with a four-year-old starter named Gaia, 12-per-cent whole-wheat flour milled to order from Cedar Isle Farm in Agassiz, B.C., and an 18-hour proof. Rotating flavours include sesame, oat, cherry, rosemary-polenta and the fantastic green olive studded with fat Castelvetranos that are so slick with oil they metamorphose the country-white base into soft, stretchy silk.

A dish of meatballs, tomato sugo and poached eggs is served at the cafe.
RAFAL GERSZAK

The pastry chef behind all this glutinous glory is proprietor Claire Livia Lassam, whom you might recognize from the Vancouver Farmers Markets. Trained at the Northwest Culinary Academy of Vancouver, she has worked at Little Nest, Merchant’s Workshop (both now closed) and Sonora Resort. But, a bakery to call her own has been the dream since she was eight years old.

Ms. Lassam’s husband, Jordan Pires, runs the Remodelista-worthy front of house, which they filled with a Craigslist-collected hoard of cast-iron pedestal tables and vintage Thonet bentwood chairs. From the mini-hexagonal tiled floors to the ghostly bouquets of dried eucalyptus dangling from high ceilings, the design is Euro-elegant yet homey, real without tipping into rustic, painstakingly detailed but not contrived. My vision-board dining room looks a lot like this.

I suggest you go for breakfast when the pastry case on the front counter is heaped high with off-the-hook cornetti, Italy’s horn-shaped rendition of the croissant. Ms. Lassam’s recipe uses a little bit of sourdough starter, in addition to yeast, for richness and depth of flavour. They’re a little sweet and immaculately folded with well-defined, tissue-thin layers that are crackly and sticky on the exterior, but not blown-apart airy inside. The centre is honeycombed, to be sure, and far from cakey. But there is enough moisture in the dough (perhaps, she suggests, because she uses salted butter) that it has an extremely satisfying squishiness and toothsome pull.

Wash that cornetto down with a dark, chocolate-y espresso. They switch up the roasters – sometimes Milano, sometimes Agro. But it is always real Italian coffee, not that sour, thin hipster-bean nonsense.

Stay for lunch, if you can. Or have lunch for breakfast. The menus are hard to distinguish when spaghetti carbonara is available at 7 a.m. (another excuse to go back).

If it’s still available, do order nettle-ricotta toast. The ripe, earthy sludge is spread over a craggy, golden, butter-pooled pedestal showered with pine nuts, and crowned with a bouncy wreath of fresh herbs. Goodbye avocado toast. This green goddess kicks you to the curb.
Or, perhaps you’d like a bowl of small meatballs swaddled in slow-roasted tomato sauce, with softly poached eggs oozing yolk over melting wisps of freshly grated Parmesan?

Nettle toast with ricotta, sourdough, toasted almonds and Hannah Brook greens at Livia Sweets.
RAFAL GERSZAK

Whatever you order, most of the dishes contain five great ingredients or fewer and were passed down, “50-per-cent verbatim,” Lassam says, from her Italian mother and aunt.

Perhaps my enthusiasm for Livia is a Proust phenomenon. It feels like family. But I also admire Lassam’s circle of foodie friends. If you go for aperitivo – and you should for the house-made port cherries in the Manhattan alone – you’ll notice several neighbourly collaborations, including a duck-liver pâté from Ugly Dumpling up the road (where Merchant’s Workshop used to be) and a boozy cold-brew cocktail from Dave Back at Trans Am (who also used to work at Merchant’s). It’s probably no coincidence that Trans Am and Ugly Dumpling were two of my favourite restaurants reviewed in the past year.

Livia isn’t perfect. The counter service can be a little confusing and they don’t always answer their phone messages. The focaccia is usually sold out. You have to get there early for the brioche twists and stay late for the plum-frangipane tarts. During peak hours there are long lineups, and when it’s not busy, service can be a little slack. But when the forgotten glasses of vinho verde come poured to the brim with extra sourdough and chunky anchovy tapenade, how could one possibly complain?

Livia is more than a bakery. It’s a passion project that thumps from the chest with genuine warmth and camaraderie, excellent ingredients, simple cooking pared down to the essentials and gorgeous design. It’s the kind of place that makes me want to curl up on a bench, eat my weight in caramelized-onion jam mopped up with twisty baguettes and take up residence if they’d let me.