When Chef Tony first opened – it drew immediate gasps for it’s attention seeking decor and prices. It is part of the wave of the aspirational businesses that have opened to catch a some of the Mainland dollars sloshing around our city. To be fair – the ownership and kitchen team are from the long standing Sea Harbour crew, so Chef Tony is not exactly a newly arrived carpet bagger.
But that did not stop the anxiousness felt by many diners for whom Chef Tony signaled an invasion. Most of our local Chinese restaurants reflect Hong Kong sensibilities – where discretion and decorum matter. But these new places: Chef Tony, Peninsula, Fortune Terrace, they were fearless in celebrating ambition and wealth.
That swagger carries into their menus – an ever escalating arms race of luxury seafood, truffle and caviar. I’ve eaten at restaurants where diners order ridiculously expensive dishes that sit mostly untouched – a wealth signalling prop, like a showy handbag. A genuinely off putting experience that makes it difficult to be a repeat customer.
But regardless how deep pocketed these restaurants are, they eventually have to find a place in the local dining scene or forever remain an exotic, and ultimately, unprofitable sideshow.
Among the Big China restaurants, to me, Chef Tony has taken the most interesting journey. Their menu has increasingly featured more rustic farmhouse offerings that better reflect local ingredients. Sophisticated comfort foods that pair perfectly with a simple bowl of rice (the litmus test of Chinese family food).
Though their dim sum has a huge following (their feather light baked good are showstoppers) – I am bigger fan of their dinner menu. Local ling cod tail, an underused cut, comes in a huge bubbling hot pot, sauce sweet with kabocha squash.
Pork steamed with house salted lemons – the briny sour undercurrent balancing against tender meat.
Their roasted “water” duck (as best I can figure, it’s mallard duck rather than the usual pekin) has great gamey richness though at the price of a tougher chew. The black truffle (yes, I know) roasted chicken is one of the best chickens I’ve had a restaurant – roasted to order, crisp skinned, and succulent. The black truffles paste is completely unnecessary – but certainly not an awful gilding of the lily. Both these dishes need to be ordered before hand.
For dessert – I always get their legendary Malay cake – amber hued with dark cane sugar, but ethereally light – it is made with super fine flour imported from China. One day, I will make good on the promise I’ve made to myself to march in with some DQ soft serve and sweet stem ginger to have with the seductive warm cake… but for now, this will more than make do.
If you ask Chef Tony’s management if their clientele has changed, they will say that though they still have their share of super spenders, the room is now predominantly filled with families for whom their large portion sizes encourage a sense of everyday plenty. Diners who may spend a little less, but have become loyal regulars.
For a restaurant, all types of customers are important of course, but as a diner, it is so nice to be in a room with other diners who actually like to eat.
Chef Tony Seafood Restaurant
101-4600 No.3 Road, Richmond, BC