163 Keefer St.
Signature Drink: Madame Chiang
Signature Dish: Mantou Buns
Dinner & drinks for two: $85
It’s been a sad fact for far too long that the best Chinese food in the Lower Mainland is not in Chinatown. Despite Richmond’s near-monopoly on mouth-watering dim sum, however, virtually none of those heavy-hitters are places where you would go for a cocktail with that bowl of congee.
Enter Tannis Ling, former barkeep at Chambar, and owner of Bao Bei, a self-styled Chinese brasserie that just opened up in Chinatown, around the corner from old-timers like New Town Bakery. In the kitchen is Joel Watanabe (formerly of Bin 942, Araxi and La Brasserie).
The room will definitely attract the hipster crowds. The retro neon sign outside ushers you into a long rectangle of white-washed walls adorned with sundry items like old silver tea trays, mounted butcher knives, also painted white, and something that, at first glance, looked like a large blood stain near the back of the room. (Don’t worry, it’s not.)
For a place run by a bartender, I was surprised to see only five cocktails (two were added by a later visit) on the menu, but these are an interesting selection, balanced out with lots of fresh herbs, juices and quality hooch. The rest of the liquids list is made up of ten Asian beers, a couple of sakes (Gekkeikan was an odd choice here, but One’s Pearl makes up for it), and some bottles. The latter are all available by the glass, with the exception of the champagne, and hail mainly from France, Australia and Spain. All of the by-the-glass selections—as well as the beers and most of the cocktails—are under $10.
On our first visit, the Madame Chiang ($9) stood out, a simple blend of gin, Fernet Branca and fresh grapefruit. The Mimi ($8), an interesting combination of Zubrowka—the bison grass vodka—with fresh beet and pear juice, was a little too strange on the palate to order again, but it would probably appeal to those looking for a “different” experience.
As for the food, the prices here are equally accessible. All of the “schnacks” are $4, and include items like the tasty crispy fishies; tiny whole dried anchovies laced with peanuts and chilies. These are a common snack in China, although there they’re usually tossed in rice flour and deep-fried, which gives an extra-crispy coating. Crispy daikon cakes with Chinese sausage—made in-house—dried shrimp and mushrooms, was another interesting offering, although it could have used a little more intensity.
Pot stickers are $5 to $7, and were less impressive. A steamed prawn with chives version just fell apart at the touch of the chopsticks, while the pork dumplings were fairly tasteless. The soups are large Buddha bowls stuffed with the likes of braised shortrib and daikon, or barbecue pork and watercress. The fish noodle version ($15) was a favourite, with house made fish balls, clams, prawns and fresh herbs.
The “petits plats chinois,” which make up the bulk of the offerings, mainly hover between $6 and $12, although the Manila clams are $17.50. There were hits and misses here. Beef tartare ($12) with quail egg and burnt scallion oil was light and fresh, but the Vietnamese pork pâté ($6) was chilled hard, difficult to cut, with a crumbly texture, and a lacklustre showing of the main ingredient. The slices of skinny toast it came with were fairly redundant, since the pâté refused to spread. I noticed that on my last visit, it had disappeared from the menu.
Steamed Mantou buns with braised shortrib ($9) were much better. These are deconstructed flat buns topped with the shredded rib, scallions, and pickled cucumbers, and were comfortable handfuls. Shao bing ($8) were excellent braised pork butt sandwiches on well-toasted sesame flatbread, with Asian pear, pickled veggies and mustard greens. The bahn mi trung ($8) was an interesting take on a classic Vietnamese sub, with more of that housemade Chinese sausage, a free-range omelette, pickled daikon and a chili-garlic mayo, and was quite delicious, if a little unwieldy in size. Duck congee ($11) was aromatic, but the main ingredient seemed to be in absentia.
Bao Bei has a lot going for it, and I’m sure will be a popular draw in an area that could certainly use a bit of an economic lift. The blips on the menu will hopefully even out over time, and I foresee a long and successful run for the new kid on the old block.
A drink worthy of the Mad Hatter
With Alice in Wonderland opening in theatres tomorrow, here’s a drink to celebrate “tea time” in a whole new way. I substituted simple syrup for sugar, but both work equally well.
½ oz Hendrick’s Gin
Dash of fresh lemon juice
Lime peel, curled
Stick of cinnamon
1 cup white tea
Sugar to taste
Combine all ingredients in tea cup, stir with cinnamon stick, and add a few drops of simple syrup or sugar to reach desired sweetness. And a very merry, un-birthday to you!
Laughing Stock Vineyard has opened their futures offering of Portfolio 2008, their signature Bordeaux-style blend. At $35 per bottle, these will go fast. Visit http://www.laughingstock.ca for details.
Cru Restaurant (1459 West Broadway) has introduced a weekly Thursday-night “date night” menu, offering three courses for two people, with wine, for $99. Menu selections include Riesling-poached Anjour pear with mustard greens and Poplar Grove tiger blue cheese, roasted Fraser Valley duck breast, and chocolate truffle torte. Call 604-677-4111 for reservations.
Hollywood at Opus
This Sunday, March 7, Elixir Bistro (350 Davie St) will be offering a three-course dinner in honour of the Oscars. $30 for three courses, and $20 for optional wine pairings. Special $25 appetizer platters will be available in Opus Lounge as well. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for reservations.
Food in Brief
Charlie’s Restaurant & Bar at 1265 Hamilton St is now officially open, serving artisan pizzas and crafty cocktails.
Also open is The Corner Suite Bistro de Luxe at 850 Thurlow St, although without TV star Anthony Sedlak as its chef. Sedlak’s TV and book obligations have apparently taken over his schedule.