I hate to generalize, but here I go: By and large, Asian restaurants in Vancouver are mom-and-pop shops, heedlessly appointed with vinyl tablecloths, blazing pot lights and indifferent service.
Sure, the low overhead is a large factor in their penny-pincher appeal. But not everyone wants to eat off plastic plates or have their facial blemishes microscopically scrutinized on a first date. From time to time, a comfortable dining experience is just as important as the quality of food.
Enter Chau Kitchen & Bar, a west-end Vietnamese restaurant awash in flickering candlelight, soft music, dark-wood furnishings, clean lines and elegant orchid arrangements. Check out that customer banging away on his laptop. This sunken dining room is so modern it even has Wi-Fi access. (Not that I want to encourage this increasingly common lapse in table manners.)
I'll admit that modern Asian restaurants can be a risky proposition for those who actually enjoy authentic Asian food. Too often, they fall into the P.F. Chang school of bland, overpriced, North Americanized mediocrity.
Or, even worse, are run by young chefs so eager to distance themselves from their parents' generation, they concoct wildly experimental fusion creations that might as well be served in suburban shopping-mall food courts.
Chau doesn't suffer from any of these problems. Owner and executive chef Maria Huynh was born and raised in East Vancouver, is only 28 years old, has studied Western cooking techniques at Dubrulle Culinary Arts and worked at the Cactus Club Café, the quintessential contemporary West Coast chain restaurant.
Despite all this, she pays serious props to her heritage. You can read about it on the laminated menu, where the story of her parents' escape from Vietnam and first café in an Indonesian refugee camp takes pride of place on the first page. You can see it on the walls, adorned with sepia photographs of her family.
Most importantly, you can taste it in the food, where subtle nouveau flourishes enhance familiar dishes more often than they distract.
Take pho bo ($6 or $11), for instance. This isn't a cartilaginous, marrow-rich beef noodle soup that's been simmering in the same well-seasoned cauldron for days, weeks or even years. The chicken-bone broth is crisp and clean, yet deeply flavoured with autumnal star anise and Vietnamese cassia cinnamon.
Ms. Huynh builds on this refreshing base with small, dense, properly chewy meatballs. They come from Kim Chau Deli, which her parents sold last spring, and are made from the same recipe that generated lineups outside the family's apartment door when her mother began selling them to Vancouver's Vietnamese community back in 1986.
Rather than using the typically cheap cuts of tendon and tripe found in pho, Ms. Huynh adds tender brisket trimmed of all its fatty love handles and succulent pink tenderloin that melts on the tongue. If this is progress, please pour me another bowl.
Steamed rice-paper rolls ($6.50) are wrapped tight around plump prawns, leafy lettuce, crunchy cucumber and thin slices of deep-fried rice paper. The crispy slivers, akin to bubbly-edged egg rolls, may not be traditional, but add wonderful texture.
"It's all for texture," Ms. Huynh says later by phone. "Asian cooking uses a lot of chewy innards. We don't serve that here, but we try to provide texture in other ways."
She points to the grilled la lot leaf wrapped around minced beef. In the centre, she adds a juicy, crunchy, tuberous slice of jicama.
Here is a woman after my own crusty heart. I love texture. I think it's one of the most essential, yet underrated elements in modern kitchens.
This probably explains why I adore her vegetarian chay curry ($10), with its razor-thin slices of golden bean-curd crisps that float like tiny lily pads over thick rounds of seeded taro, gummy cubes of tofu and al dente broccoli florets in a fiery, yellow, turmeric-spiced coconut sauce.
It also explains why I'm not so crazy about her diluted lemon-beef tenderloin carpaccio ($11). The paper-thin sliced beef is ruby-red, lean and obviously of a very high quality. But the dish's lime vinaigrette, which hasn't been drained (on purpose), pools like a pond, sucking the life out of everything, even the fried garlic and fresh cilantro garnish.
Sea salt and cracked black-pepper chicken wings with lime dip ($7) are okay. In all fairness, I probably shouldn't compare them to cult-favourite wings at Phnom Penh (but I will), which are lightly battered for extra crispiness and served with a creamier, far more pleasant lime sauce.
All in all, the room is lovely and the food is very good. But if Chau wants to be a truly modern Vietnamese restaurant, it really has to work on service.
The young woman on the floor is doing the best she can all by her lonesome. Yet as we wait, and wait a bit more, for a simple refill of water, I can't help but wonder why the two management types standing by the bar don't jump in to assist. They don't even step in later, when the waitress hops outside to fetch a few sprigs of fresh mint from the window-side garden for our citrus tea.
If I knew we were going to be ignored this long, we could have just gone to a mom-and-pop shop on the Kingsway.
Chau Kitchen & Bar: 1500 Robson St., 604-682-8020