Nestled in perhaps the most competitive dining corridor in the city is an oldtime Burnaby favourite that's constantly re-inventing itself and serving some of the best and most affordable fine dining in the city.
Tivoli's at the Executive Hotel at 4201 Lougheed Hwy. has 2010 B.C. Chef's Association of the Year Chef of the Year Bob Kovachevich as its corporate chef - Kovachevich oversees the kitchens for all five of the Executive Inn's Lower Mainland properties - and executive sous chef Jason Brezynskie serving a new winter menu, and their culinary genius makes hotel general manager Christopher Mis' job much easier.
"We're always trying to make our menu better,"
Kovachevich said as he unveiled his new winter and Christmas menu. "The goal here is fine dining in a casual atmosphere at affordable prices."
"And it's always about great service," added Mis, who brought 15 years of hospitality experience to the Burnaby job he started earlier this year. "What we take pride in is we have a lot of business people who can come in for breakfast, lunch or dinner and not only will they get great food from a great chef, they can do business or have a nice conversation in a relaxed atmosphere."
Mis said the proliferation of chain restaurants along the Lougheed Highway corridor has stirred the competitive vibe, but Tivoli's has been around a long time and it's well-known in the city as a hidden gem.
"We're a great little hideaway, and we have a lot of loyal customers," said Mis.
Many of those regulars come back because of the work of Kovachevich, the Belgrade, Serbia native who has held his current position since 2007.
Using the freshest ingredients and incorporating all of the cooking knowledge he has picked up in such far-flung places as Croatia, Holland, Israel and Germany, Kovachevich has put on a nice mix of ethnic dishes on his menu.
Everything from the butter chicken to the sweet-and-spicy chili chicken, Mediterranean lamb shank, Tivoli's quesadilla and fish tacos are cooked with a precision and expertise you expect from an award-winning chef.
But when we sat down with Mis and Kovachevich for a dinner recently, the affable and talkative chef said his cooking philosophy is simple.
"You need to have a menu that you can train your people to cook well all the time," he said. "I'm in charge of five restaurants, so I can't be everywhere. What I can do is make sure my teams know each dish inside out and can cook it perfectly each time."
As an example, Kovachevich brings out what would seem to be a basic: the cheeseburger and fries.
But there's nothing basic about the Tivoli's burger. Using certified Angus ground chuck, the burger is served with specially made white ciabatta bread. With a little lettuce, onions, pickles and cheese, the burger melts in our mouths.
The fries aren't bad either and the fact a seemingly simple dish can have such a nuanced and fine flavour is evidence that Kovachevich is a master teacher, trainer and cook.
For a change of pace, we order the salt and pepper tiger prawns, which have a fine balance between the mild chili and a sweet and tasty mango salsa.
The crunchy prawns are perfectly complemented by the salsa, and Kovachevich isn't shy about helping us eat.
"There's nothing on this menu that I haven't eaten and wouldn't recommend to my family and friends to eat," he said.
Kovachevich's culinary skills are firmly in evidence when he personally prepares the slow-cooked lamb shank served in a red Zinfandel sauce with garlic mashed potatoes and asparagus.
If we thought the burger melted in our mouths, then the lamb literally falls off the bone and melts in our mouths.
While our dining senses are dazzled by the Tivoli's team, we can't help but notice how busy the restaurant is getting on a cold weeknight.
Everybody from businessmen working on their computers to young families to sports aficionados watching the NFL are having a good time, and true to Mis' observations, there's a lot more conversation going on then you'd expect in a bustling restaurant.
"The art of communicating almost seems like a lost art," said Mis. "Not here, though. People know they can have a great meal and have a great conversation at the same time here."
Kovachevich also takes pride in his wine list, serving us locally sourced pinot gris and cabernet sauvignon. Kovachevich admits that he loves the wines being produced by New Westminster garage winery Pacific Breeze and there are some great wines coming out of the Interior that he will be adding to his wine list soon.
We finish with a parfait for dessert and it's sublime: not too sweet, but flavourful in every bite.
Overall, the dishes have healthy-sized portions and the prices are below what you would spend at competing chain restaurants in the Lougheed Highway corridor.
And since Kovachevich has been known to put on his apron at all five places he manages, don't be surprised if the award-winning chef is the creator of your lunch or dinner.
With Christmas coming fast, Tivoli's has put together several holiday dining options.
The three-course lunch is $24, the three-course dinner is $29.95 ($32.95 if you substitute New York steak as your main), while the Christmas lunch buffet, running until Dec. 14 is $22.95.
On Christmas Day, the four-course dinner is $35.
For more info or to make a reservation, call 604-297-2118 or go to ww.tivolisrestaurants.ca. You can also check them out on Facebook, where there are prizes available if you "like" Tivoli's.