I’m sitting in a modified birdcage when a waiter in a three-piece suit approaches my table pushing a cart loaded with ice-cold bottles of Champagne. “During the day, this is the dim sum cart,” he explains, pouring glasses of Brut. Clearly, this is not your neighbourhood Chinese restaurant.
The Vancouver outpost of Hong Kong-based, Michelin-starred restaurant Mott 32 represents a sea change in our perception of what a Chinese restaurant in Canada can be. No matter where you grew up, there was a Chinese restaurant in your town. Back in the 19th century, Chinese workers who were originally brought in to work on the Canadian Pacific Railway stayed on when the project was completed and opened restaurants all across the country. In many cases, these were the first places that people in small Canadian communities ate at outside of their own homes.
Starting sometime in the 1980s, regional Chinese cuisine — fiery Szechuan, delicate Cantonese, and fresh Shandong — expanded both our understanding and our palates, and by the 2000s, with vast numbers of Chinese immigrants arriving from Hong Kong and the mainland, more ambitious, upscale restaurants began to open.
While Toronto excelled in a certain kind of Chinese/Western fusion style of cooking as exemplified by Susur Lee, Vancouver and its neighbouring city, Richmond, soon became one of the best places in the world for authentic, traditional Chinese food. Restaurants like The Jade Seafood, Kirin, Hoi Tong, and Golden Dynasty brought a level of authenticity and sophistication to Chinese food in Canada.
In the past few years, however, Vancouver’s highest-end Chinese restaurants are now more spectacular than ever, with thrilling contemporary design, serious wine lists and cocktail programs, and exquisite food that draws on British Columbia’s full bounty. Taken together, they make them some of the most exciting restaurants in the country — full stop.
The Look: Traditional. Chandeliers, ornate drapery, and framed calligraphy are all in the mix, but the view of the North Shore Mountains is the real highlight.
The Food: Carefully calibrated dim sum offerings. Think tender steamed black-truffle dumplings, lacy taro dumplings, and spicy braised beef tendon.
The Drink: Crowd-pleasing wine in big bottles.
The Look: Futuristic, with most finishes done in high-gloss white. The private rooms — tucked beyond closed doors — skew more opulent.
The Food: Sophisticated takes on Cantonese delicacies, like cuttlefish ink dumplings topped with gold flakes, or marinated chicken gilded with truffles.
The Drink: BYO exotic bottles to uncork in the back.
The Look: Moody and modern, in a gorgeous glass-enclosed building overlooking Granville Island. Crystal bedazzled chopstick holders rest on plush linen.
The Food: The signature pan-fried mini lamb buns pair cumin-spiced roast lamb leg with king mushrooms inside sesame-coated shao-bing buns.
The Drink: Standout B.C. and international wines.
The Look: Envisioned as a throwback to 1920s Canton, with antique opium pipes and vintage birdcages hanging against silk wallpaper.
The Food: Rare and laborious. A $98 double-boiled, Japanese abalone, sea cucumber, conpoy, fish maw, and bamboo pith soup must be ordered in advance.
The Drink: Expertly mixed cocktails like the Hanami.