Get the envelopes ready!!
The votes have been tabulated, and on March 7th 2017 – the 9th Annual Chinese Restaurant Awards were given out for signature dishes, social media picks, and diner’s favorites. I am lucky enough to have been a judge since the beginning and the awards have gotten bigger and better each year. The heavy lifting in driving this event forward has been done by Rae Kung for years now – she has managed and directed the Chinese Restaurant Awards with a lot of blood, sweat, tears, elbow grease, and any other metaphor for crazy work ethic you’d like to apply here.
Let me tell you what it’s like to be on the judging panel. First off – we eat out ALOT. Which is great fun of course, but not so great for the waistline. We pay for all of our own meals and make reservations anonymously. Each year – we try to find new voices and innovation. We each have our own point of view and there is lots and lots discussion – but I love working with my fellow judges, and I have tremendous respect for them. We take the awards very seriously.
You can see that across the various platforms of the awards – there is a tremendous variety of regional cuisines and price points. The depth of quality and choices is pretty staggering in Vancouver and Richmond. I’ll walk through the critic’s choices and give you my personal take on why each was a winning dish.
Jade Seafood Restaurant – Steamed Savory Custard with Seafood
Jade has been a steady high quality restaurant for a while now – but there was a change out with chefs in the last couple of years that have really reinvigorated the menu and cooking. Chinese diners love textures and much as flavours, and this steamed seafood dish delivers on both. The custard is wonderfully smooth and wobbly – with exceptional depth of flavour. Prawns and scallops are generously cast on top – perfectly cooked, sweet and tender. The dish rings with clean pure freshness – a real showcase of pristine ingredients and cooking skill.
Chef Tony – Steamed Pork Belly with Preserved Vegetable and Salty Lemon
I am a big fan of Chef Tony – and their menu featuring extremely well executed dishes of real cooking, rather than the vulgar trophy plates of other super high end Chinese establishments. Their steamed pork belly is just about perfect in my books. The rich pork is tender and succulent – the preserved vegetables providing sharp contrast – the preserved lemon underlining the dish with exotic punch. The homey flavors are perfectly balanced and you’ll find yourself unable to stop piling more and more on top of your bowl of rice. The dish is at once completely accessible but wonderfully elevated.
Yue Delicacy – Stewed Beef Brisket with Rice Roll in Hot Pot
Yue Delicacy is one of those tucked away Richmond Chinese restaurants – attracting a wealthy clientele that appreciates its clubby atmosphere and stepped up service. The food is executed at a very high level, with pricing to match. The chosen dish here is a classic of Hong Kong Cantonese cooking – a seemingly simple dish which actually takes a tremendous amount of skill and restraint to pull off well. The beef is at once super savory and super clean – and the rice noodle rolls have a fresh snap and chew. Tremendous!
Dynasty Seafood Restaurant – Baked Minced Pork Pie with Black Pepper
The first of two dishes from Dynasty on this list. This is an unassuming little pastry on their dim sum menu. But Dynasty’s kitchen’s hidden super power is able to take seemingly normal ingredients and refract and illuminate dishes is surprising ways – as anyone who has had their lemon sharpened char sui pastry already know. Here – the floral notes of black peppercorn blossom and imbue the pork filling with a nose tingling perfume, the meltingly tender pastry blanketing your palate and senses. You would not think a little dim sum pastry could be so pleasurable. But yes, they can.
Dynasty Seafood Restaurant – Spicy Garlic Dungeness Crab over Sticky Rice
To me, this is the ULTIMATE Chinese celebratory dish – the centrepiece to build a meal around. Local Dungeness crab is deep fried to concentrate the sweetness of the crab flesh – showered with Typhoon Shelter style spicy garlic chips and serrano peppers – piled over freshly made sticky rice, that is spiked with deep fried panko. The dish is sophisticated but invites communal gluttony as you tear into the crab with bare hands. The sticky rice, crab, and panko pushes the same pleasure points as the Sicilian dish of anchovies, pasta and toasted bread – the sharp brininess of seafood, comforting embrace of carbs, and the satisfying crunch of bread crumbs. It’s heavenly.
Heritage Asian Eatery – Pork Belly Bao
When I was a kid – bao’s were pretty work-a-day foods – filling and comforting, competent little hunger busters. Nothing more. But now – they are bewilderingly trendy and on point, with matching beer and cocktail programs. Woah. While others focus on cute names and toppings, Heritage Asian Eatery’s Chef Felix Zhou understands that bao are real food, and deserving of care and attention. The pork belly is cooked beautifully – the fat rendered nicely, but still rich and succulent – the preserved vegetables providing tannic backbone with the flavour profile of the classic mui cai cou ro. The flavour of these bao’s come from within – not sprinkled on top or in the fizzy drink beside it. It’s a small but important of example of how Chinese flavours can find a wider audience, but still be true to it’s roots.
Golden Paramount Seafood Restaurant – Eight Treasure Duck
Sometimes, during important Chinese meals, a dish is ordered because of lucky symbolism, despite tasting terrible (ie: the classic black moss with dried oysters combines the flavours of a home aquarium with disturbing sensation of eating hair). Here, no compromises need to be made to great flavours. A whole deboned duck is filled with eight grains, salted duck eggs, and rice – steamed and braised to perfection. Each distinct element coming together to form a greater whole. When the duck is cut open and served – it’s like a magic trick – a golden packet with a cornucopia of comforting plenty to be shared with friends and family. The dish reflects the deeply held Chinese sentiment that wealth should be shared to be made real.
Landmark Hotpot House – Dry Silver Fish with Spicy Salt
Why pick these little deep fried fish as a Chinese Restaurant Awards winning dish? First off – despite their humble appearance, they are completely and utterly delicious. Perfectly fried, crisp, salty, and spicy – the kind of dish that you’ll reorder of couple times because the first plate was cleaned off by your friends before you got enough. Secondly – it shows how a restaurant like Landmark pays careful attention to every single item that comes out its kitchen. How exceedingly high standards are maintained regardless of price point. But mostly because they are super super delicious.
Shanghai Station – Spicy Wontons
This little food court gem is a wonder of home cooking – two ladies sharing family favourites with a loyal customer base. There are no restaurant flourishes – the cooking is restrained and pure (reflecting Hong Kong sensibilities of clean cooking). They cook to order, to make sure you get the freshest dumplings. Delicious is more important to them than speed. They will insist that you sit down and eat them fresh – even when you have ordered them to go. They will offer you extra dumplings if they have made too many, rather seeing them go to waste. You may get a little bowl of soup if they think you could with a little bit of extra nourishment. You may think this is a fast food set up – but you could not be more wrong. Take my advice – put your order in, be patient, and simply give into the experience.
Hao’s Lamb Restaurant – Roasted Lamb Leg
One of the big differences with the new crop of Northern Chinese restaurants in Vancouver is their spirit of exuberance. While most Hong Kong style Cantonese restaurants value discretion and quiet – restaurants from China celebrate good times often and loudly. The roasted leg of lamb at Hao’s has a tremendous sense of fun and occasion – a dish that in brought to the table to choruses of oooh’s and aaah’s and Instagram flashbulbs. The lamb leg is carved table side into long shreds and hot spices and cumin are rubbed in (though I would recommend not letting the spices be rubbed in and dipping the lamb pieces into the spices yourself to maximize juiciness). The flesh has a nice succulence, and the spices are fresh and tingling. It’s a dish that reminds us that dining out should be fun and a little bit adventurous.
So there you go. I am sure there are dishes you feel are missing – but I hope the awards spark a little bit of curiosity for you to go out and try a few new things.
And here’s a little secret for you. One of the nice things about judging Chinese food – is that our judgements actually don’t matter that much. Awards don’t drive business and profits for Chinese restaurants – so there is no politics that we are subjected to. The Chinese Restaurant Awards have never been about doling out critiques or declaring winners and losers – but as a way to express unfettered enthusiasm and thanks to the cooks, waitstaff, and restaurateurs who work ridiculously long hours every single day and for the awesome food they make.
I certainly enjoy every delicious bite of it.