1035 Mainland St., Vancouver
$150 for dinner for two with wine, tax and tip
Is that Ryan Kesler in the corner? It certainly is. And there’s Robert Luongo by the bar.
Visiting Chinois for the first time, soon after it opened late last year, I sipped chi-chi martinis and snacked on honey-walnut shrimps while watching local hockey legends pop Veuve Clicquot in the adjacent, members-only Pierre’s Champagne Lounge. This casual approach – laced with late-night nonchalance and a soupçon of sparkle – is the best way to enjoy this Yaletown celebrity hot spot that treats its guest list far more seriously than its food.
Owned by Peter Girges, a former partner in the Glowbal Group and talented impresario who revived the Opus Hotel with its pop-up restaurants, Chinois may have been a great idea when conceived. But that was, oh, about five years ago.
Back then, Vancouver’s Sino scene hadn’t yet received the dark, sexy retrofit that turned Hapa, Kingyo and other trendy Japanese izakayas into the most happening joints around. There was no Bao Bei, no Keefer Hotel.
Yes, there was Wild Rice. Ho hum. When the splashy Chinatown restaurant opened 11 years ago with its aquamarine bar, it pretty much pioneered the concept of dining on dumplings by candlelight. But for all its attention to ambience, Wild Rice’s menu has never held a flicker to its mom-and-pop neighbours or advanced Cantonese cooking in any significant way.
So it comes as no great surprise that Chinois, led by executive chef Ryan Mah (formerly of Wild Rice and the similarly Westernized Goldfish Seafood and Chop House), specializes in a sweet, starchy, largely pre-cooked rendition of old-school food-court cuisine.
The restaurant’s culinary nostalgia isn’t a total turnoff. For many, sweet-and-sour pork, kung pao chicken and crispy prawn wontons are the sine qua non of takeout orders. And the kitchen does take heed of current trends by using such natural, sustainable ingredients as free-range chicken and (some) Ocean Wise seafood, catering to special dietary requests (vegetarian and spicy dishes are clearly marked) and paying (peanut-free) respect to allergies.
But for anyone who has ever dined in Richmond, home to some of the best Chinese restaurants outside China, and appreciates the crisp freshness, subtle complexities and wok-char intensity of excellent Chinese food, Chinois’s limp, soggy, overly sauced mushroom yee mein noodles and reheated XO fried rice (Yaletown priced, as is most of the menu, at $21), will pinch the wallet as much as they underwhelm the palate.
When mining the past, a new restaurant should probably leverage its retro offerings with something shiny and original. Yet this kitchen’s brightest accomplishment is its in-house barbecue, so popular that the glistening red ducks hanging in a glass display case are often sold out by 7 p.m. Succulent pork belly on a $45 combo platter (yes, $45!) is neatly sliced and gently spiced with crackly edges. And the roast duck, or at least its breast, is moist and tender with a soft fatty layer under thin crispy skin.
But the duck leg, which requires extra pricking and poking to render its flabby tissue, sticks to the bone like a medieval meat popsicle that must be gnawed in hand because it’s too rubbery to carve. Zesty ginger sauce is a clever innovation that manages to cut through all the richness, but shrimp chips pooled with grease are just plain sloppy.
Deep-fried shrimp tossed in mayonnaise and sprinkled with candied walnuts is either a classic Hong Kong wedding banquet dish or an American-Chinese aberration, depending on which source you trust. Whatever the origin, these giant tiger prawns (obviously not Ocean Wise) have become Chinois’s signature dish. I’ve tried them three times. Although usually snappy and balanced with bird’s-eye chili to leaven the creaminess, there was one occasion when the kitchen slipped in stale nuts and old, mealy prawns. Not a great showing for an alleged star attraction.
House-made wonton soup is comprised of slimy dough wrapped around bland dumplings that bob in a barbecue duck broth foully seasoned with five-spice. Barnyard-scented sweet-and-sour soup is simmered so long it tastes pickled.
Wok-seared beef over crisp noodles is thickly coated in a starchy oyster mushroom sauce that would probably taste just as good, if not better, the next morning. Who cares if spicy squid is wet, chewy and over-steamed? Its salty batter help the drinks slide down.
Did I mention that the cocktails, created by Chambar alumnus Wendy McGuinness, are fabulous? Skip the wines. There aren’t many by the glass crisp enough to pair with all the heavy food, and bottles are marked up by about 300 per cent.
Service is friendly and attentive. And the brick-walled room, lined with bright Shanghai poster art by Vince Dumoulin, is sleek and lively.
But in the end, I suggest you simply head to the back, go with the celebrity flow and crack a bottle of Veuve.