Vancouver’s New Asian Restaurant Scene

On a rain-slicked street lined with shuttered herbalist shops and darkened bakeries glows the retro neon sign for Bao Bei. Step past it and into the lofty industrial lounge and you’re greeted by silk-fringed lampshades, worn leather armchairs, and threadbare Oriental carpets lain over a lacquered concrete floor. The restaurant’s vintage treasure collection—sepia-toned pinups in the bathroom, weathered calligraphy scrolls, a stone fu-dog statue guarding the iron-gated entrance—pay respect to Old Chinatown’s storied past. But the audacious tastes coming out of the kitchen bring us to a whole new chapter in Asian cuisine.

Bao Bei doesn’t take reservations, so the wait for a table can be long. Pull up a stool at the bar while a young hipster in scruffy beard and skinny tie shakes Forty Creek rye, lemon, bitters, egg white, and dried plum syrup into the room’s exquisite signature cocktail. FYI: the Kai Yuen Sour goes great with a bowl of umami beer nuts, aka Crispy Fishies (roasted anchovies tossed with salt, chili, and peanuts). When seats in the back dining area finally do come up, be sure to order the crunchy sesame flatbread Shao Bing. A popular street food breakfast pocket in Taiwan, it is here reinvented as a lusciously messy supper sandwich filled with braised hormone-free pork butt, crisp A Asian pear, pickled onion, and organic mustard greens.

Yes, ours is a city of passionate fads. It wasn’t that long ago every restaurant in town started serving main courses on small, appetizer-sized sharing plates. Or that every single morsel of sablefish arrived marinated or glazed in miso. Wasn’t it just last year we were all constraining our meals to a 100-mile radius? Those were all moments, culinary trends—sparks of genius, if you will—that originated here and then jumped to other cities around the world.

And now, it seems, here we are again. Bao Bei (“Precious” in Shanghainese) is just one example of the current mania for new-order Orientalism. Call it a member of the Post-Postmodern Asian Vancouver School, which also includes such places as Maenam, Chau, Oru, and many of the Japanese izakayas—almost a subset unto themselves. They do not serve molecular, cutting-edge contemporary, or fusion food; that would be modern cuisine. Their green teas and hot lemon waters have been replaced, as they are at Bao Bei, by well-made whisky sours, craft brew on draught, and aromatic Gewürztraminer pairings from the Okanagan Valley. But their food—simple, unpretentious cuisine that celebrates classic recipes and traditional flavours while edging them forward ever so slightly—explodes with a fresh, healthy sheen (no cornstarch or MSG), high-quality local ingredients (organic produce, sustainable fish, hormone-free meats), and subtle creative flourishes that enhance familiar dishes more often than they distract.

On this slow Wednesday night in the dead of January, the wait for a table at Vij’s is exactly 45 minutes. That’s nothing.
Two hours is common at this wildly popular modern Indian restaurant, which still doesn’t take reservations, not even after both the New York Times and British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver called it one of the best in the world.

“Would you like a glass of Prosecco?” asks owner Vikram Vij, proffering a bowl of spicy chickpea fritters. If you want to understand why the New Asian school is taking off in Vancouver, this dimly lit back lounge is a good place to start. “I wanted it to be like a family den,” he says, blue eyes twinkling, as he nods to the retro-swanky dark-wood panelling and low-slung sofas. “Doesn’t it look like the kind of place you’d go to smoke joints and have sex?”

Vij is certainly an original. When he and his wife, Meeru Dhalwala, opened their sexy little jewel box on West 11th Avenue in 1994, it was one of the first “ethnic” restaurants in North America to offer an elegant dining experience, good wines, and excellent food that combined authentic Indian flavours with French techniques and local ingredients.

“I literally had to hold people’s hands,” says Vij, recalling how people couldn’t understand why he didn’t serve boiled-to-death butter chicken or how lamb popsicles, even if they were prepared à la minute with fresh sauces, could cost so much. “They’d say, ‘This is not Indian food.’ I’d say, ‘Do me a favour and taste the food. If you don’t like it you don’t have to pay for it, but at least give me the courtesy of tasting it.’

“Angus An understands the frustration, and says he owes a debt to Vij’s for paving the way. At Maenam, a Thai restaurant in nearby Kitsilano, he still has customers who expect pad Thai made with ketchup and have trouble believing that the heat of an uncompromisingly spicy halibut curry can be effectively tamed with a semisweet Alsatian Riesling pairing. But it’s easier, thanks to Vij.

“He changed the way people think about Indian food,” says An, who mentored with David Thompson at Nahm in London. “We run our kitchen like a French restaurant. Everything is broken down by station and we prep everything daily. We are one of the few, if not the only, Thai restaurants in Canada that craft all of our own curry sauces in house by hand. Like Vij’s, we offer good cocktails, wine and beer pairings, we follow the seasons, and we offer good service. It’s a unique experience.”

Around the time that Vij’s was taking off, Andrew Wong launched Wild Rice, a true prototype for the trend. When it opened 10 years ago, kitty-corner to Cinemark Tinseltown, the sleek restaurant, with its coolly lit aquamarine resin bar, was probably the only room in downtown Vancouver where one could eat pork dumplings and Canton-style, bone-in chicken by candlelight. “People could linger, enjoy their food, enjoy their drinks, enjoy their conversation. It didn’t have to be a 45-minute mad dash in and out. I wanted to bring dining back to Chinese cuisine.”

Elsewhere in town, Japanese izakayas were planting their fun-loving feet. The local incarnation of these rowdy, Tokyo-style after-work pubs started off fairly casually with such grotty holes-in-the-wall as Guu and Gyoza King. In 2003, Hapa Izakaya upped the ante with its dark, industrial-minimalist design, comely waitresses, and buzzy hipster vibe. Almost single-handedly, the Robson Street location popularized the now-ubiquitous izakaya concept by lending it some polished glam.

“That style of dining is not seen anywhere else,” says Maenam’s An. Tannis Ling, Bao Bei’s owner, says she too was inspired by the izakayas, which showed Vancouverites that tableside-seared mackerel and deep-fried shrimp in spicy mayo were just as valid as sushi.

Even Vietnamese dishes like beef bo la lot can take on a sort of glamour in their post-postmodern incarnations. At Chau Kitchen and Bar on Robson Street, owner-chef Maria Huynh elevates the classic Vietnamese street food with organic sirloin marinated in lemongrass, star anise, black roasted pepper, and garlic. Wrapped tightly in a large basil-like la lot leaf, it’s a traditional dish—save for the piece of jicama in the centre. “Vietnamese food has a lot of texture,” says Huynh, who grew up cooking with her parents at their Kim Chau Deli, then studied at Dubrulle, the culinary school at the Art Institute of Vancouver. “We use a lot of chicken feet and tripe, but there’s not a lot of flavour in cartilage. The jicama adds a nice sweet crunch.”

Asian restaurants that combine upgraded traditional food with excellent service, funky environments, and modern
drinks aren’t unique to Vancouver, of course. New York and Los Angeles are well ahead of the curve. But I think I first realized that there was something special happening here, something the rest of Canada lacked, when my Globe and Mail colleague, the venerable restaurant critic Joanne Kates, called Guu’s first Toronto location “the most fun place to open here since Noodles in 1974.” Really? How sad.

The Lower Mainland has been home to some of the best Chinese restaurants outside China since the early 1990s, when Vancouver and its suburbs were flooded with waves of Hong Kong immigrants spooked by the Tiananmen Square crackdown and Hong Kong’s impending handover back to China. Most of those restaurants are in Richmond, separated from the rest of the mainland not just by roadways and tunnels but by myriad invisible divides that are harder to bridge.

One attempt to unite the cultures happens, of all places, on the stage of the River Rock Casino. For the last three years, the HSBC Chinese Restaurant Awards have brought mainstream media attention to the culinary smorgasbord
at the end of the Canada Line. As dozens of non-English-speaking chefs and restaurateurs looked on in January, Bao Bei shifted the attention the other way. “We’re really excited that we were even considered,” Ling said before taking the critics’ award for wine and spirit service and the diners’ choice for best modern Chinese restaurant. “Those awards usually stick to traditional Chinese restaurants.”

Merging the two solitudes may not be as easy as all that, however. Just ask Sam Lau. The owner of Zen Fine Chinese
became a media sensation two years ago, when New York Times reporter Jennifer Lee named his Richmond
restaurant the greatest Chinese restaurant outside China in a book called The Fortune Cookie Chronicles. Lee was impressed by Zen’s Western-style tasting menus, which stuffed traditional Cantonese dishes into flaming whelk shells, yet still attracted a predominantly Chinese clientele.

This is an amazing feat, since most Chinese don’t want their cuisine modernized,” Lee wrote. Even with the boost, it proved a difficult tightrope to walk. After all the attention, Lau’s predominantly Chinese customer base kept trying to haggle his prices down until he finally had to close shop and move to Steveston. Today, he’s still struggling to stay afloat. Bao Bei is the last place he wishes to be compared to.

“Bao Bei’s not really a Chinese restaurant,” he scoffs, describing the restaurant’s neon sign and home-style comfort food as a throwback to the ’60s. “It’s a Chinese restaurant for Caucasians.”

In some ways, he’s right. Bao Bei’s kitchen is influenced by nostalgia. But does that make it any less authentic? The sticky rice cake with salted mustard greens, wood ear mushrooms, and dark rice-wine sauce was one of Ling’s favourite dishes as a child. Bao Bei Chef Joel Watanabe spent many days cooking with her mother to learn how to make it just right, then added a dash of scorching high-heat, wok-char smokiness for more professional effect.

“I knew there would be problems with the traditional Asian market, which is used to food in much larger portions at cheaper prices,” Ling says. “But I hoped the younger generation might appreciate the design and concept and service. I have a lot of friends who are intimidated by going to Chinese restaurants because the menus are so huge. I wanted a place where they could eat good Chinese food and not be intimidated. I made a Chinese restaurant for my friends.”

At Oru in the Fairmont Pacific Rim Hotel, chef David Wong has been facing similar questions about authenticity. When the pan-Asian restaurant opened across from the new convention centre last year, he was trying to elevate Korean, Japanese, Chinese, and Indian street food to fine-dining standards. Think nasi goreng with lobster or ramen with Berkshire pork and homemade noodles.

“It wasn’t connecting with people,” says Wong, Canada’s representative at the 2009 Bocuse d’Or competition in France. He has since changed the menu, bringing it more upscale and in line with the hotel’s swanky design and customer expectations.

Oru’s butter chicken is still the best in town, made with a cream-less curry paste that starts with a French-style almond roux. It sits side by side on the menu with chai foie gras and lamb shank vindaloo. “Call it fusion,” he says. “Call it whatever you want, but nobody else is doing this sort of thing and we’ve found our niche.”

Ling agrees. “What is real Chinese food? Is it the same recipes they’ve been using for hundreds and hundreds of years? I think we’re doing real Chinese here. I just think it’s more evolved.”