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It’s not easy maintaining people’s interest when you’re the most keenly anticipated opening in town — for four years running. And when you do eventually open under such circumstances, it’s harder still to satisfy your dining community’s strained expectations. But Vancouver’s Toptable Group (Blue Water Cafe, Elisa, CinCin and Araxi, along with Oceans and Carlotto in NYC, among others) managed to do both, and then some, with their first Victoria restaurant, Marilena Café + Raw Bar.

It has been crammed since day 1, in July, and the reasons are numerous.

Yes, the restaurant group’s prodigious budgets figure prominently among them; Marilena’s design is sleek and luxurious; and the cellar is deep, its B.C. focus not getting in the way of well-judged international acquisition. Toptable’s plan to bring some big-city restaurant grandeur and an expansive contemporary seafood menu to a city that arguably needed both was clearly a sound one.

But no single virtue of the operation rises above its chef, Kristian Eligh. His narrative has considerable local appeal. After some 15 years learning the culinary ropes at a number of great Vancouver kitchens (Diva at the Met, Market by Jean-Georges, Hawksworth), he is now a hometown boy, returned. But what really matters are his prodigious skillset and razor-sharp instincts in the kitchen. Eligh is the real deal. And so are his supporting cast: Clark Park at the raw bar and Dominique Laurencelle on pastry.

We recommend settling in here at the chef’s counter to watch Eligh at work. But the restaurant offers innumerable other perches to accommodate different moods and circumstances. You can enjoy a meal here just as thoroughly at the bar, the raw bar, or at a table or plush banquette. Wherever you settle, you’ll be enjoying admirably focused and product-driven cooking of ostensible simplicity. It’s the sort of cooking that falls flat fast when any of the details go wrong but is as satisfying as eating gets when the provenance and execution are beyond reproach. Like here.

All of which is to say we’ll be heading back soon. Prep the seafood tower, please. Bring on the ricotta gnocchi with kale pesto and cacio e pepe butter, and we’ll follow with a crisp-skinned striped bass with pork XO sauce. We hope the cheesecake with key lime curd is still on…

Photography by Allison Kuhl

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