One of my favorite public markets is located only three-hours drive north in Vancouver, B.C., which also happens to be one of my favorite nearby cities to visit. Granville Market is part of a much larger complex of shops, artist studios, galleries, restaurants, theaters and more, on Granville Island just south of downtown Vancouver. Finding parking is never a pleasant experience and you can easily get turned around when walking through its maze of mostly winding avenues, but these inconveniences are worth the trouble. For my wife and me, the biggest attraction on the island remains the market, stalls of produce, baked products, prepared foods, restaurants, confections, meat and seafood, cheese and beverages, among others, all in an L-shaped building, a market that never ceases to amaze—and tempt.
It’s simply called Fried Radish Cake, the English shorthand for the more descriptive Chinese ideograms on the menu. Customers of The Jade Seafood Restaurant in Richmond order it as part of a dim sum meal or as a snack.
The chefs at Jade don’t make the radish cakes in the usual way, which is to steam, then pan-fry a mixture of grated daikon, cornstarch and rice flour. Formed into squares or rectangles, they usually contain bits of barbecued meat or dried shrimp or both. A less common preparation is to cube the steamed cakes into smaller pieces before frying, then stir in an egg and sauce. Jade uses the latter technique.
Jade’s creative kitchen has twists up its sleeve though. The cubes were sautéed with XO sauce, just enough to provide a touch of heat and bits of dried seafood without making the cakes wet. Instead of adding an egg into the pan, it was cooked separately, shredded and sprinkled on top of the dish. These by themselves would have been a pleasant enough surprise, but into the mix were tossed in fried garlic chips and edamame. For presentation, the radish cubes were served in two squares of large wonton-like skins, one rotated 45o relative to the other, fashioned into an edible ‘bowl’ and deep-fried. Fantastic and inventive (☆☆☆☆).
We also loved Jade’s justifiably famous har gow (☆☆☆☆). Four large dumplings were filled with sweet, succulent shrimp that burst with intense flavor and snapped when bitten into.
On the other hand, the service was horrendously inattentive, which did spoil our overall meal experience.
The Jade Seafood Restaurant
8511 Alexandra Rd
Richmond, BC V6X 1C3
I bought this basket of the most amazing collection of fruit from Granville Market in Vancouver—raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, red, green and black grapes, kumquats, strawberries and golden gooseberries. And for a mere $6.99. None of it is local, but what a deal!
When Chef Angus An used tamarind sauce and palm sugar to make pad thai, Thai food lovers in Vancouver were introduced to an authentic flavor. There was no ketchup (or peanut butter). The striving for taste authenticity while using local ingredients has been a hallmark of An’s. He’s also a perfectionist who would go to great lengths to get the ‘right’ ingredients, such as importing lemon grass from Thailand rather than using a less satisfactory one from Mexico. When he opened Maenam in 2009, accolades were quick to follow, including from fellow chefs and Vancouver Magazine, which annually rated it among the top Thai restaurants.
Chef An grew up in the area (graduated from UBC), got trained in classical French cooking techniques (French Culinary Institute) and did his apprenticeship at restaurants in London, Montreal and New York City. But, he (and his Thai-born wife) decided to return to Vancouver, and opened Gastropod, a fine-dining (and expensive) destination—think molecular cuisine (ugh)—which they both shuttered when the economy turned sour. That’s when the idea of Maenam was conceived, a place for more affordable yet high-quality Thai food to fill what they both perceived as an authentic Thai restaurant gap. It’s revealing that Maenam is not located in the downtown Vancouver core but rather the more modest Kitsilano district, just south of Granville Island.
The concept is to feature the bounty of British Columbia in Thai cooking, whose pairing may seem odd at first. So while An might import much of his produce from Thailand (up to 150 pounds per week), his proteins are local—sturgeon, black cod, salmon, Dungeness crab, Humboldt squid, mussels, mushrooms, four-hooved animals (including lamb), chicken. You get the idea.
Because my wife and I were on Granville Island today, we thought we’d go a bit further to Maenam for lunch. (There is no special lunch menu, only a subset of the broader dinner menu at the same prices.)
The outside is unassuming, looking like any other restaurant along the busy West 4th Avenue corridor. Upon entering, you walk into a tiny waiting area that opens up on the left into a refined minimalist interior of wooden floors, burled wood tables, black chairs, pinkish-purple paint on the walls and ceiling. A full-service bar lines most of the eastern wall.
On the menu, what struck my curiosity right off the bat was a lamb dish, a braised shank in place of chicken that is normally used for this geng gari curry recipe. This typifies what Chef An is trying to do. Interesting too were a smoked salmon salad with pomelo sprinkled with fried salmon skin and toasted coconut and a banana blossom salad. For those who can’t get past pad thai at lunchtime, you can get it paired with Singha ($18) and be done with it.
Our two choices narrowed down to a stir-fry and soup.
I can just imagine the chef wielding dual cleavers to mince the beef, in this case a hanger steak, for the Stir-fried Beef with Holy Basil; ground meat would have produced rubbery results. Chinese long beans gave the dish a nice crunch. The savory meat was spooned on top of a bed of steamed jasmine rice. In keeping with how Thais enjoy this dish, a fried egg was served over the whole entrée. Holy basil was used both in the mince and as whole fried leaves as a garnish. The only reason the dish didn’t get my highest rating was an over-saltiness from the liberal use of oyster sauce, too much of a good thing. Otherwise, it was quite delicious (☆☆☆½).
Faultless was Coconut Mushroom Soup (☆☆☆☆), Maenam’s interpretation of tom kha. Here was a satisfying soup, redolent of galangal and lemon grass, spicy from a couple of red Thai chiles, savory from fish sauce, bright from lime juice, rich from coconut milk, bitter and herbaceous from cilantro, all in perfect balance. Substance was provided by enoki mushrooms, meaty oyster mushrooms and pieces of chicken thigh. The last ingredient caused my wife and me some confusion because on the menu also was Coconut Mushroom Soup with Free Range Chicken (tom kha gai), which includes braised chicken thighs. Regardless, I would’ve licked the whole bowl clean if I had the cojones.
The other dining option for lunch would be a chef’s set menu ($27 per person) that included a starter, salad, curry and stir-fry. There is an equivalent set menu for dinner ($40, $35 for vegetarian). The menu changes seasonally.
We could easily make Maenam a regular stop whenever we’re in town.
1938 W. Fourth Ave.
Anyone who travels along the Seawall Walk around Stanley Park can’t help but notice Siwash Rock. It stands out as a rugged, basaltic outcropping slightly offshore in stark contrast to the smooth sandstone hillsides. Adding to its distinctiveness is the Douglas fir growing on top.
The entrance to Vancouver’s Stanley Park from the south is lined with cherry trees. I was fortunate to have seen them in full bloom just before the first day of spring. The most spectacular were the kwanzan cherries whose fluffy pink blossoms cover the entire tree crown. Also heavy with flowers were the tulip magnolias.
A spinach salad is kind of like something you feel you should eat in order to get your greens for the day. Not glamorous or exciting, just—healthy. That was our thinking anyway—and maybe a nod toward St. Paddy’s Day when we wanted to quaff beer instead of drinking an artificially green cocktail (even if it was a house special green goblin mojito). That the salad turned out to be one of the best to cross our lips not only delighted but whetted our appetites for the noshes to come.
Even after the passage of so many years, Bin 941 Tapas Parlour continues to impress me. I ate here for the first time over ten years ago with my wife and friends. It’s been around the block a few times, the furniture and funky decoration showing some wear, but its tapas-inspired, eclectic menu of shared plates remains appealing in a city awash in quality restaurants.
We got to sit in one of two alcoves at the front, cushioned bench seat along one side of the counter-like table that faces the mirror-reflection space on the other side of the entrance. From here, you can’t help but notice humanity walking by outside, a people-watching vantage point.
Back to the salad. The first bite was unexpected. It was tart and savory, umami magic from the kitchen that came up with a mushroom-sherry vinaigrette. The greens were served on a plate that was brushed edge-to-edge with a creamy beet purée that I first mistook for part of the porcelain design (Hey, cool plate!). Even the shimeji mushrooms, doing a good imitation of noodles, were infused with intense flavor. There was also thought given to texture variation, from the creamy avocado to crunchy shaved chioggia beets to crispy fried saganaki cheese cubes, imaginative substitutes for croutons. Outstanding salad (☆☆☆☆), which I’d order again in a heartbeat.
Next came steamed Saltspring Island mussels in a spicy Thai coconut curry broth (☆☆☆). The mussels were monsters, plumped by the plentiful microorganisms in the Strait of Georgia. Normally, I like my mussels on the smaller side, but these were sweet, despite their size. Their mild flavor, I feel, is better served by a less amped up broth, good as it was, emboldened by Thai green curry, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and Thai basil.
Pork belly seems to be the obligatory ingredient on menus these days. Bin is no exception. The menu says theirs are braised but they must spend brief time under the broiler; besides the fat being meltingly tender, almost liquid, the meaty portions are charred and substantial. Dee-vine. Plus, they were topped with perfectly seared scallops, which themselves were garnished with a scoop of tobiko (flying fish roe). How about adding chicharron curls on the side for contrast? Oh, man! (☆☆☆☆)
If Bin 941 sticks around for another ten years, I’d be perfectly happy. This kind of quality never gets old.
Bin 941 Tapas Parlour
941 Davie Street
Vancouver, BC V6Z 1B9
My first introduction to poutine was Zog’s Dogs in Whistler Village, up in the mountains of British Columbia. Maybe it was the rarefied air but I began to wonder what Canadians saw in this, their quintessential snack, which according to many Canadians finds its greatest expression in Montreal. Gravy and cheese curds piled on top of fries. Putting wet stuff on fries is certainly not confined to Canucks; after all, we Yanks like to smother ’em with chili. And how about ketchup?
Let’s face it, people like to smother their carbs with sauce. To be fair, the poutine at Zog’s was ordered as a topping for a hot dog, which right away presented the problem of how to pick it up and eat it. Messy. Fork and knife were enlisted. But, the gravy was insipid, uninspired, blah. I wondered if the situation could be brightened with a more flavorful gravy.
Fritz European Fry House purportedly makes the best poutine in Vancouver. My wife and I decided that we should give it another go. We ordered it plain, meaning that we chose not to pile on any of the optional toppings at extra cost (bacon, pulled pork, chicken, smoked meat). The poutine had to be evaluated in its most basic form. We were not disappointed (☆☆☆½). Even if we had to sit on one of three benches flush against the walls (there are no sit-down tables) and scoop the fries, dripping with gravy and long, melted strands of cheese, into our mouths from a shared cup, we realized this was the real deal, a gravy worth every bite, one that likewise would make any biscuit ladled with it an instant classic. Fries? Crispy at first, but got soggy under the gravy.
Some poutine zealots claim that the cheese curds should squeak as you bite into them, in my mind more of a sensory attribute than taste advantage. We got none of that. The cheese simply melted and became stringy that needed a deft twirling of the fork to keep under control. Mozzarella? It didn’t matter to us if the cheese made any sounds or not.
Would we get poutine again? Yes, we would. Fritz has appeared on many lists as Vancouver’s best late night snack (it’s open until anywhere from 2:30 to 4am, depending on the day of the week). At my age, that’s not going to happen. But, you know, if I were a lot younger …
Fritz European Fry House
718 Davie St
Squish. Pop. Squish. Pop.
My shoes were making sounds on fields of muddy clay. In order to admire the daffodils in the Skagit Valley, i had to carefully plant one foot, then lift the other while trying to avoid water puddles, not exactly my idea of having fun. The epic rains that got dumped on our area yesterday soaked everything. But, if I just stood in place and diverted by attention to what was before me, the vista was priceless—acres upon acres of yellow daffodils as far as the eye could see.
Since we were on our way to Vancouver, B.C., we thought we’d drop in on Roozengaarde (in Mount Vernon) along the way. To convince us further, today was the only partially sunny day forecast for the next 7 days. Last week, I read that the bulb flowers would be blooming very early this year because of our unseasonably warm winter and recent sunny weather. (Cherry blossom trees were several weeks early, too, putting on beautiful displays throughout the Seattle area.) My sympathies to the folks around Mount Vernon and La Conner. They rely economically on the normally reliable tulip exhibitions during next month’s Skagit Valley Tulip Festival, but now face the prospect of dwindling displays.
For us, at least, while there weren’t many tulips to admire quite yet, the daffodils were spectacular in their golden glory, even if we had to trudge in the mud to get up close.
When Din Tai Fung came into town, the Seattle area suddenly was made aware of how superb xiao long bao can be. There have been versions of it served by restaurants in these parts, but never the billowy, savory, soup-filled dumplings that the great restaurant from Taiwan made. Almost immediately, the crowds descended on Lincoln Square in Bellevue where Din Tai Fung set up shop. It became almost impossible to get seated right away, a wait of an hour or so not uncommon. The opening of another branch in University Village in Seattle eased the situation somewhat, but the long waits are still there. Along with the high-profile, upscale location came high prices. XLB aficionados began to wonder if they could ever find dumplings this good at more reasonable prices anywhere else in the area.
Two years ago, Dough Zone began business in a strip mall behind Crossroads Shopping Center. It took over the spot vacated by El Comal, the Salvadorean restaurant that branched out to the Eastside from Seattle but never got traction there. On the menu was xiao long bao, not to mention all manner of dumplings, noodles and pancakes. It didn’t take long for word to get out: their stuff was good, REALLY GOOD. Rumor has it that someone associated with the DTF enterprise in Bellevue opened this place up. If that’s true, then the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. DZ became so popular that it too generated its own long lines. To relieve the pressure, a second location opened in Bellevue in the Fred Meyer lot, right off NE 24th. A third location in Issaquah is currently being planned. We went to the new location.
There is no menu, just a small order sheet on which you indicate the desired quantity of items next to their names, just like you do at DTF (though it has a fancy, glossy menu with pictures). This practice is becoming more commonplace at dim sum restaurants, too.
Let’s start with XLB. Dough Zone’s (unhelpfully and confusingly called juicy pork buns) has the same, impossibly thin wrapper twisted around the savory, aromatic ground pork filling. The filling is superbly flavored, but the real test of xiao long bao is the encasement of soup (or broth) that should ideally be hot enough to almost burn one’s mouth and pack a lot of flavor for such a small quantity. DZ’s does this with flying colors. What does this mean with respect to Din Tai Fung? It is its equal if not better, hard as this might be for DTF fans to imagine. The only thing missing was shredded fresh ginger to go along with the soy sauce and black vinegar, but, hey, that’s a minor quibble. I rate this at the top of my list (☆☆☆☆).
But, this was not all. Steamed Shrimp and Pork Dumpling was just as fantastic (☆☆☆☆). Rather than minced, the shrimp was left whole combined with ground pork, both surrounded by a wrapper a la jiaozi or gyoza, but with the shrimp tail artfully poking up from the top. These, too, had a flavorful broth inside, if not as plentiful as XLB. All I can say is, magnificent.
We also sampled two of their soup noodles. Noodles with Szechuan Sauce (☆☆☆) exhibited the málà duality that typifies dishes from that province, though nothing as intense as anything coming out of Spiced‘s kitchen. Reddish-orange in hue, the broth was mouth-numbing from Szechuan peppercorns and spicy from dried chiles. And it’s very savory, with no meat of any kind, only green onions and spinach. The noodles also had a nice firmness.
Under ‘Chef Specialties,’ Noodles in House Special (☆☆½) mixes shredded cucumbers, bean sprouts, egg, carrots, cilantro and dried tofu, not unlike Vietnamese bún in presentation when it comes out of the kitchen. At first, it looked like a cold noodle dish, but underneath the vegetable topping was a hot sauce. Immediately, I smelled something funky like shrimp paste but different, an off-odor that translated to an equally funky taste. It didn’t appeal to me, whatever it was.
Other appealing-looking dishes whizzed by in the hands of the waiters serving other tables. I wonder what that was? Wow, look at that! Aside from a few duplications of Din Tai Fung’s menu, there were items that are not. These will have to be tried on subsequent visits, that’s for sure.
Update (4-3-15): My wife and I returned for another lunch visit.
We’re convinced that DZ excels at steamed dumplings. Crab meat buns (☆☆☆☆), which are filled more with ground pork than crab, are the virtual twins of xiao long bao. They’re filled with a delicious soup that literally bursts in your mouth when you bite into them, piping hot when they arrive at your table. Externally, they are indistinguishable from XLB. These are crazy good. I’m still mystified by why they’re listed under ‘Buns’ on the menu.
We ordered two different soups. They’re small enough that it’s possible to order other things from the menu without gorging yourselves. Of the two, pork wonton soup (☆☆½) had clean, muted flavors, tasting of seaweed, with small nuggets of ground pork wrapped in wonton skins. Hot and sour noodle (☆☆☆½) lies between a soup and brothy noodles in presentation. The broth or sauce, however you want to classify it, was spicy and vinegary, but, man, was it good. Trying to slurp up a reasonable amount of slippery bean thread noodles while trying to carry on a conversation really became difficult, almost comical, since they seemed to be infinite in length. Fried soy beans gave this salty dish a nice crunchy texture.
We also had to try something we saw float by in a waiter’s hands the last time. Beef pancake rolls (☆☆☆) were pan-fried rolls like enchiladas rolled around slices of five-spice-flavored beef and chopped cilantro. They seemed like they could use some sort of dipping sauce.
14625 NE 24th St, Ste 4B
Bellevue, WA 98007