I can't remember the last time (if ever) I went to a Chinese restaurant, sank in at a dark corner table, nibbled at a succession of delicious dumplings, soups and wok-fried small plates, drank a few excellent cocktails and then finally looked at my watch 4½ hours later, pleasantly shocked to discover how much time had passed.
Bao Bei is a self-styled Chinese "brasserie," recently opened in old Chinatown's fashionable up-and-coming fringes. I enjoyed it so much, I went back the next night with a different group of friends (and had another fantastic experience).
Although the concept of a modern Chinese restaurant is new to Vancouver, there are similar sorts of eateries to be found in New York and San Francisco. As with Bao Bei, they are often conceived and operated by the children of Chinese immigrants, who are trying to stay true to their heritage while edging the food forward in a modern environment where they'd feel comfortable bringing their hipster friends.
"My dad didn't want me to do it," owner Tannis Ling, a former Chambar bartender, says later by phone. "He's got that old-school Chinese mentality - that running a restaurant is a major risk. He didn't understand the concept and expected the worst."
What Ms. Ling has created is actually a very loving homage to her parents. There are black-and-white photos of her family all over the restaurant, including one of her father's high-school rock band that has been blown up huge and hung on the back wall. And many of the dishes on the menu are slightly tweaked adaptations of her mother's traditional Taiwanese recipes.
But by the looks of the primarily young, skinny-jeaned, heavily tattooed and funky-haired clientele, Ms. Ling has also successfully launched a chic hot spot for her friends. "I've never seen such a good-looking crowd in Vancouver," a visiting fashion-industry executive from Toronto said on the second night.
Bao Bei's Keefer Street address will certainly lend it some street cred among the artistic set, which has only just begun gravitating to the once-vibrant, but long-faded historic neighbourhood.
Last winter, for example, the Fortune Sound Club moved its DJs into the old Ming's Chinese Restaurant. A couple blocks away, you'll find Bob Rennie's new private contemporary art gallery. Later this week, the Keefer Bar (which will house private long-term rental suites designed for visiting celebrities on its upper floors) is set to open a few doors down.
But for now, the area is still so little known, both of the taxi drivers who drove me there had trouble finding it and dumped me off at the wrong place. On the first night, as I backtracked in the right direction past shuttered herbalist shops and dark bakery storefronts, Bao Bei's cheerful pink neon sign and warm candlelit interior glowed like a beacon on an otherwise empty street.
The small restaurant is decorated with a compelling juxtaposition of spare contemporary touches (a striking row of white-painted chef's knives on a white-painted wall) and a shabby thrift-store chic (clusters of antique mirrors, framed needlepoint embroidery and sepia-toned nudie pinups in the washrooms).
It feels handcrafted, not designed, and extremely welcoming. As soon as I stepped into the lofty front bar, I wanted to plop myself down into one of the plush armchairs and admire the funky Victorian parlour theme, with its Oriental carpets thrown over the concrete floor and a collage of tarnished silver platters strung high up one wall.
But I'm glad we took a table in the back dining room, which is burrowed very cozily along a narrow corridor with much lower ceilings. The round, wooden tables - each set with a can of chopsticks, soupspoons and paper napkins - are arranged in single row against a tufted velour bench that runs the entire length of one wall.
Unlike most Chinese restaurants, where the large family-style platters come out fast, furious and all at once, our delightfully friendly server encourages us to start with a few small plates and order more at our leisure.
The menu is a curious amalgam of Shanghainese, Taiwanese and Vietnamese dishes, many with French inflections (chef Joel Watanabe is half Japanese, half French). But except for a couple of dishes (duck confit congee and wonderfully sharp beef tartare made with lean tenderloin, pickled mustard root and grated ginger), this is not fusion cuisine.
It's more of an evolution that improves authentic dishes with high-quality free-range meats, incredibly flavourful organic produce and fresh house-made condiments that aren't packed with preservatives and won't give you any MSG-induced shakes, cramps and headaches.
The food has a nice homemade quality (my two most trusted Chinese food experts concur). The superb sticky rice cake ($9) was one of Ms. Ling's favourite recipes as a child. Mr. Watanabe spent a few days cooking with her mom. But because he cooks on a professional stove, the wok-fried mix of pork, salted mustard greens, wood ear mushrooms and bamboo shoots really heats up the rice wine sauce, giving everything deep, smoky char that you could never replicate at home.
Ms. Ling and Mr. Watanabe spent nine days in Taipei with her mother's family, who showed them how to make the wonton wrappers used for the creamy prawn and chive dumplings ($7.50) and pot stickers ($6) stuffed with finely minced, white-peppery pork.
They also spent six days in Saigon, eating a lot of the street food that inspired the menu's fish noodle soup ($15), made with fantastically long, delicate bean thread noodles, succulent prawn balls and a pungent broth leavened with lots of crisp cilantro.
Almost everything is made in-house, even the soft steamed buns for the richly braised beef rib mantou ($9) and the crunchy sesame flatbread for the pulled pork and Asian pear shao bing ($8). The sausage is made by an outside company, but with Bao Bei's recipe.
The French baguette for the pork pate bahn mi is the only major bought ingredient, and it stands out as the one weak (hard and crunchy) item on the menu.
If this is modern Chinese, Vancouver has a good reason to celebrate the Year of the Tiger this weekend. Go share a toast with Mr. Ling, who apparently now loves Bao Bei and is so proud of his daughter, he's there almost every night with his friends.
Bao Bei: 163 Keefer Street;