Dinner at Oru gets off to an awkward start when our waiter tries to steer us away from the shoyu ramen with 24-hour-braised Berkshire pork belly. It's not one of his favourite dishes, he explains.
While I appreciate his honesty, I've read so many mixed reviews that I absolutely must taste this Japanese noodle soup for myself. The waiter reluctantly takes our order, promising to strike the item from the bill if we're not happy with it. How curious. If the ramen is that bad, why is it even on the menu?
Oru, an upscale pan-Asian restaurant in the new Fairmont Pacific Rim hotel, may confuse many. Why elevate traditional street food - and charge premium downtown prices - when there are so many excellent, inexpensive ramen shops, pho joints and mom-and-pop curry houses in Vancouver?
This elegant newcomer won't likely appeal to adventurous hole-in-the-wall connoisseurs, who intrepidly troll Richmond strip malls hunting for the juiciest xiao long bao or most mouth-scorching Hunan pig heart.
But I truly believe that the concept of refined yet authentic Asian cuisine in a contemporary setting is poised to become the biggest trend to hit the Vancouver restaurant scene since Asian fusion: Witness Bao Bei, the Keefer Bar, Maenam, Chau and Gastown's newly opened Terra Cotta Modern Asian.
Oru is the most ambitious of its ilk to emerge thus far. In part, this is because it's the swankiest of the bunch (the minimalist, pale-wood interior is designed by the local architecture firm mgb). More importantly, the kitchen is trying to incorporate an overwhelming variety of cuisines - Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Korean, Malaysian, Thai and Vietnamese, among them - into its fold.
Executive chef David Wong, last year's Canadian Bocuse D'Or contender, seems passionate about respecting each distinct discipline and not dumbing down his dishes. "I lose sleep over proper techniques," he later says by phone, pointing to his grilled Korean beef short ribs ($14).
"Should I take it off the bone?" he says, referring to some of the questions that have haunted him. "Maybe some people haven't had this dish before. No, that's not how it's done. The bone is there because it adds flavour."
He's right. Although difficult to eat with plastic orange chopsticks (which really need to be rethought), this sweetly charred kalbi made with marbled Triple-A beef is superb.
But then there's the ramen ($15). Our waiter sidles up to the table with an anxious look on his face soon after the steaming-hot bowl is delivered. "What do you think?" he asks.
Well, the noodles are a bit doughy.
"Should I take it away?"
No, it's not that bad - but it's certainly not great. The broth is a light, clean-tasting blend of pork and chicken stock, garnished with a hard-boiled egg, slivered bamboo shoots and crunchy bean sprouts. It could use more soy-sauce tare for depth and salt for brightness. On the upside, it's made without MSG. The Berkshire pork chashu, though fatty and flavourful, is not nearly as tender as a 24-hour braise would suggest. Rather than melting apart, the thick-cut slices give the teeth quite a workout.
But it's the fat, spring-less noodles that really fall flat. It appears that Mr. Wong has bitten off more than he can chew by insisting on making his own in-house. To my knowledge, Motomachi Shokudo and Menya are the only Vancouver ramen shops that use fresh noodles. And even they source theirs from an outside factory.
As Mr. Wong explains, the noodles I tried were "rolled a little too thick." He urges me to come back and try the dish again now that he's nailed the technique.
Sorry. When a restaurant is charging nearly double the price of any other ramen shop in town, there's no excuse for a bad batch.
If not up to scratch, they should have been tossed out and remade or not served at all. Where's the quality control?
It certainly wasn't in play when the tom kha talay ($23) was being prepared à la minute. With a fragrant cloud of fresh galangal and lemongrass wafting up from the tureen, this classic Thai coconut-milk seafood soup smells delicious. It looks great too, bursting with fleshy pink spot prawns, tiny squid tentacles and lots of clams and mussels.
Then we taste it - and crunch into a large helping of gritty sand. I'm surprised no one else has complained, yet even more shocked that this dish ever left the kitchen.
"The sand was inside the clams," Mr. Wong later says. "You can't purge it by soaking them. There's very little we can do."
Not true. This mishap could have been avoided if the soup was tasted before it crossed the pass, as one would expect every plate to be in a restaurant of this calibre.
As with any new restaurant, there have been several changes to the menu. Some have been very successful. The latest version of murgh makhani ($16), for example, is easily the best butter chicken in Vancouver. The spicy dark-orange curry, thickened with almond paste, has a bright tomato-based acidity and dark smoky heft, thanks to succulent morsels of Polderside Farms' Redbro chicken that have been pre-roasted in a tandoor oven.
The reworked mou shu duck leg ($12), however, still needs tweaking. Apparently, the two-way Peking duck wasn't going over well, so Mr. Wong pared it down to this single, smaller dish. Although mou shu is traditionally a stir-fry, this shitake mushroom-based version is more of a stew, making it difficult to wrap in homemade steamed buns (not enough of which are provided anyway).
Cucumber wedges have been overly salted and left out to wilt, while coagulated hoisin-plum sauce is thicker than dark molasses (its prominently unpleasant tasting note). Why bother fussing with homemade hoisin if, like the ramen noodles, it doesn't measure up to the genuine, readily available, prepackaged article?
Mr. Wong might want to take a closer look at his fabulous desserts while reassessing his priorities and getting back to the basics. A traditional Japanese cheesecake ($7) is simple, light (the texture is similar to a fluffy pound cake) and perfect. Silken ganache chocolate tart ($8) on a crunchy, praline wafer rivals Alain Ducasse's famous Le Louis XV au croustillant de pralin. There's nothing Asian about it, apart from a scoop of ultra-creamy cardamom ice cream.
"It's just a really good dessert," Mr. Wong says. "You don't screw with chocolate."
I couldn't agree more.
Oru: 1038 Canada Place,