Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie: Vancouver's Chinatown

Widely recognized as one of the continent’s significant dining destinations, Vancouver is a foodie’s paradise. Blessed by ethnic diversity, the city plays host to a myriad of styles and influences, underpinned by a cornucopia of local produce and a wealth of marine species, while a thriving local wine industry promises perfect culinary pairings. In the midst of the city's culinary diversity, Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie has emerged as the anchor for Vancouver's re-energized Chinatown and one of the its hottest new restaurants. Bao Bei, which means 'precious' in Mandarin, opened in January 2010 in the heart of Chinatown with the hope of recreating that special charm that the area used to have.

Tannis Ling of Bao Bei - photo: KK Law

Recently named one of the top 10 new restaurants in Canada by enRoute magazine, Bao Bei lives up to its reputation. Set in a lovingly refurbished setting, this modern Chinese brasserie boasts a cool menu and even cooler decor. The small plates convey a decidedly novel Asian influence, and the well-stocked bar filled with creative concoctions and smartly chosen wines completes the picture. Bao Bei owner Tannis Ling worked her way to the top of Vancouver's culinary ladder by tending bar for years at Chambar, an acclaimed Vancouver restaurant and bar, before opening Boa Bei, a funky high-ceilinged restaurant, with oversized windows, long cocktail bar, and specializing in Taipei and Shanghai-inspired cuisine.  

Bao Bei Chef Joël Watanabe - photo: Antoinette Bruno

Executive Chef Joël Watanabe, uses French techniques and a Japanese eye for plating and presentation, creating unique dishes that integrate authenticity with a modern twist. The menu is a curious amalgam of Shanghainese, Taiwanese and Vietnamese dishes, many with French inflections, which is understandable, since Chef Watanabe is half Japanese and half French.

Chinese knick-knacks detail Bao Bei's interior

The room is a labour of love with elements of a traditional French brasserie intertwined with vintage Chinese motifs, clean modern lighting and playful details that are a nod to the owner’s family. Ling's cleverly christened 'schnacks', 'petits plats Chinois' and 'petit cadeaux' are wildly popular and guarantee a full house every night. Her mother’s cooking is the main inspiration behind Bao Bei's food concept. Nothing is set in stone, but she says you can expect “lots of noodles, dumplings, drunken chicken – stuff like that”. 

Bao Bei's innovative small-plate MSG-free menu

Although the menu sees some experimentation, she carefully points out that there’s “nothing crazy — I’m trying to keep it as authentic as possible”. Watanabe’s menu, inspired by the cooking of Ling’s mother, is heavily influenced by a recent research trip to the streets of Taiwan, accented with some flavours from Vietnam, and tweaked with a decidedly Japanese izakaya accent. The menu is a tasty read, beginning with an assortment of appetizers, or bar 'schnacks' at just $4 each, such as Marinated Eggplant with soy, garlic and ginger; Braised Beef Tendons with Chinese celery, cilantro and mala paste; or Tofu Skin with king oyster mushrooms in a truffle vinaigrette.

Prawn and shrimp gyoza-style steamed dumplings

Petits plats chinois, or small plates, include Mantou: Delicate steamed buns filled with pork belly, bean sprouts, preserved turnips and sugared peanuts; Kick Ass Fried Rice; and special daily 'plats chinois' like Steamed Ling Cod with ginger, scallions and meaty Chinese Woodear mushrooms, garnished with a crunchy tempura topping, which was featured the evening we dined at Bao Bei.

BC Ling Cod steamed with ginger, scallions and meaty Chinese Woodear mushrooms, garnished with a crunchy tempura topping

Sautéed King Pea Tips  with garlic and Shaoxing

Petits cadeaux are the dumplings and potstickers, with delectable offerings like Steamed Prawn & Chive Dumplings; Steamed truffled pork dumplings; and Duck & mushroom wontons in duck consommé with yellow chives — each served in bamboo baskets and perfect for sharing. Sautéed vegetables are also popular, like King Pea Tips with garlic and Shaoxing; Lotus root with Chinese chive, curry and black bean Bitter Melon with Westphalia ham, chicken stock and garlic. 

Mantou - steamed buns with pork belly, bean sprouts, preserved turnip and sugared peanuts

Cocktails at Bao Bei are a whole other story. Ling incorporates herbs from an apothecary shop into some of her drinks. "It's stuff my mom gave us as kids. We're now spinning them into classic cocktails with a twist." Of note is her new signature drink Kai Yuen Sour, which is named after her auntie, made with a dried plum infused simple syrup, Forty Creek rye, egg whites and lemon juice. 

And when our server brought us the bill we were handed a cool little postcard with old black and white photos of Ling's grandparents on the back and a 'Learn To Speak Chinese' guide, on the back, full of useful phrases like “It’s not you it’s me,” “I’m not drunk yet,” and “I love you.” All useful phrases in the past, and might be again if I'm ever inspired to try and speak Chinese! But I did learn that Bao Bei is hǎochī — delicious!

Kai Yuen Sour
Makes 1 cocktail

Plum water:
4 dried Chinese plums — find them at the T&T dried fruit section
1 cup water

Simmer dried plums in water for 15 minutes and cool. Can be done ahead of time.

2 ounces Forty Creek rye
1/2 ounce lemon juice
1 ounce plum water
1 egg white
2 dashes of Angostura

Add all ingredients to shaker and shake vigorously to froth egg white. Strain in rocks glass over ice. Garnish with shaved preserve date — also found in any Chinatown store or T&T Supermarket.