Back in the day, there was way less pressure on chain restaurants in North America. They were go-to joints for basics: steak and eggs, pancakes, burgers, stroganoff, nothing special but warm and hearty pub-ish food that's perfect for a lazy Thursday night. They had names like "Anna's" and "ABC Restaurants". Simple, straightforward.

Things have become a little more complicated. In most major cities, we want our chains to be high-quality, fast, creative, and delicious. Oh, and include dishes from other cultures that come next door to "authentic". Oh, and be well plated and well served in a creative, stylish environment with a good wine pairing. OH, and be reasonably priced. It's a pretty tall order: in order to make food that's appealing to the widest customer base, you have to be less specific, less daring. And the less specific you are, the greater the danger of being bland and boring and scoffed at. It's a culinary grey area/fine line/no-man's land that feels like a set-up that's destined to fail by trying to be too many things to too many people.

I was invited recently to the Earls preview of their fall/winter menu, and to be honest I wasn't sure what to expect. I actually quite like Earls, but I couldn't really picture how I was going to write an interesting article about their food. As far as I knew it was pretty basic. I must admit that I was totally wrong.

We had 5 courses of creative, considered food with high-quality ingredients and surprisingly interesting flavours. We started with a leek and potato soup, which I've made many times and so I know is not easy to make flavourful and unique. I would probably drink a gallon of this:

It's not for dieters. Cream and cream and some more cream for good measure. Chunks of pancetta, praise Jesus. But it's not like the kind of richness that some restaurants employ in their dishes to make up for lack of flavour. It's a meal in itself and I would order it with bread and be full for a whole afternoon. And I'm a complete pig.

The most interesting dish on the menu was the tuna poke nachos. When I heard the name I thought: gross. But again, wrong. It's a cut, fried wonton with tomato, cucumber, albacore tuna, mango, avocado, serrano with a maple reduction and mango coulis. This is the pub food component, a higher-end play on nachos that's pretty creative and craveable. Chain restaurants usually can't have that high of a spice profile, so I kind of wished this had a bit of a spicier, more citrusy finish but the maple/mango combo is flavourful and basic and a great complement to the tuna. Would go great with beer.

This being the West Coast, we love us our salmon salads. Earls needs to have one too and their approach is seasonal, fresh and unexpected: They pan-fry the filet in maple butter making it very tender and juicy. It's served on a bed of what looks like a Thanksgiving horn-o-plenty: greens, butternut squash cubes, pumpkin seeds, dried cranberries, farro, goat cheese. An interesting use of unusual ingredients and a whole, healthful meal in and of itself. The fall flavours and textures compliment each other well. I inhaled it without taking a picture first, which is really all you need to know.

The home-run as far as I was concerned was the fourth course and that was the Yukon potato gnocchi with old-world San Marzano tomatoes and burrata cheese.

If I closed my eyes I would not have been able to tell that I wasn't in a boutique Italian restaurant paying $40 for my pasta rather than in a chain restaurant.

We finished with warm banana chocolate cake:

Caramelized bananas? Check. There's a whole lotta banana goin' on, and again it's specificity was what really impressed me.

We return to great places because they’re great, and Earls should really be no exception. I’ll for sure be back for that gnocchi.

This new Earls menu is available in all locations as of yesterday.