Name: Ugly Dumpling
Location: 1590 Commercial Dr., Vancouver
Cuisine: Farm-to-Table Asian
Prices: Small plates, $6 to $22; omakase, $45 a person (7 courses); $60 (10 courses)
Additional Info: Open Wednesday to Monday, 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. (11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday); reservations accepted.
Rating System: Casual Dining
I wouldn’t call Ugly Dumpling homely. And I don’t know if chef-owner Darren Gee has ever suffered ridicule from other barnyard animals in the Vancouver restaurant industry. (The odd name does make you wonder.) But I must say that this unassuming hatchling, which recently emerged like a duck out of water alongside common flocks of pizzerias on Commercial Drive, has the makings of a beautiful swan in a foodie fairy tale.
I went for the eponymous dumplings, not expecting much, and came away enthralled by the ambition of its freewheeling pan-Asian menu, the dignity of its ethical sourcing, the magic of its spectacular wine pairings and the grace of its attentive service.
Let’s back up and start at the beginning. For most people, this will probably be the Ugly Dumpling’s Instagram feed. Every afternoon, Mr. Gee posts a photograph of the chalkboard specials. It invariably includes: two cocktails (some quite intriguing, such as the dark rum, quince and bourbon drink featured the first time I visited), the daily dumpling and the staff meal.
The latter is a nice, homey gesture. Come share the simple, family-style meal that we all eat before service, it seems to say. It also indicates that Mr. Gee cares about his employees (staff meals aren’t typical these days). But it does set the bar kind of low. Cheese-baked rice with bacon and mushrooms? Okay, it’s a casual place.
The location, on the corner of Graveley Street, is an interesting one. The building is owned by Ted Grippo, whose family roots in the neighbourhood go back nearly a century. It once housed his gelateria and, before that, a home-electronics shop.
But over the past decade, it has been an incubator for two great local chefs – Jefferson Alvarez (who launched his Vancouver career here at DiVino Wine Bar and now co-owns Cacao) and Doug Stephen (who recently closed his immensely popular Merchant’s Workshop to open the even more popular Downlow Chicken Shack). I often wonder how they made this place work. The closet-sized kitchen, still only equipped with a home oven and two induction burners, is barely functional.
On a bitterly cold night, we sidle up to the bar and try, unsuccessfully, to shake off the chill. The glass-encased room, now minimally appointed in stark grey concrete and black wood beams, feels less inviting than ever.
We immediately order the daily dumplings, of course. What we don’t expect is to be so pleasantly blown away by the silkiness of the steamed wrappers, the bright burst of ginger in the juicy pork filling and the perfect pleats folded as tight as hospital corners.
These are no ordinary dumplings. They were handmade – rolled dough included – by Van Doren Chan’s mother. Van Doren Chan, who works by day as a wine sales consultant, is the Ugly Dumpling’s sommelier. She used to work at Le Crocodile, as did bartender Kyle Gartlan-Close, who guides us through a rock-star beverage menu, which is presented as a black-and-white colouring book (crayons served separately) and filled with detailed descriptions of rare sakes, limited-edition sherries and uncommon wines.
Sichuan chili pork paté is pickled head cheese, slowly rendered in-house and swaddled in aromatic gelatin infused with nose-tingling peppercorns. Mr. Gee, who was a sous-chef at Farmer’s Apprentice, buys a whole pig each month, breaks it down himself and uses every single part. So this terrine does come from the actual head and is only available in small quantities, which explains why the menu changes so often. A few days later, more than half a dozen dishes were new.
B.C. herring, purchased by Mr. Gee’s uncle at the annual Steveston Harbour charity sale, is crisply pan-fried and splashed with yuzu. Is the chopped-egg tartar on the side a little runny and oddly out of place? Sure. But who cares when the next dish is shirako (the creamy milt or sperm sac scooped from the same batch of herring) in a wintry gratin folded with braised leek and seaweed-seasoned béchamel.
You rarely see local herring on Vancouver menus because it’s so scarce. You never, ever see shirako on local menus unless it’s flown in, at great cost, from Japan. This is crazy amazing for a tiny dumpling joint on Commercial Drive.
And it keeps getting better. Next up are soba noodles, handmade by Ryoma Matarai (former owner of Kinome in Kitsilano, where Mr. Gee also used to work). Would I prefer the delicate buckwheat noodles served warm instead of cold in the depths of December? Maybe. Is the kitchen a little heavy-handed with the togarashi (the sriracha of dried spice)? Sure. But come on, there is no other restaurant in Vancouver where you can get fresh soba noodles.
Nibbling on a warm slice of crumbly, persimmon upside-down cake – so seasonal, so comforting – I glance around, wondering if the other guests realize just how special these dishes are.
Then I get a little nervous for Mr. Gee, his talented cooks and all the exceptionally friendly, well-versed servers. Can they keep scoring this high with a roll-the-dice menu night after night?
Four days later, they did.
We had more delicious dumplings, not homemade by Ms. Chan’s mom this time, but stuffed with salted duck egg and lightly pan-fried. There was also black cod gently simmered in light black-bean sauce, perfectly paired with a sparkling chenin blanc from Margaret River. And tonkotsu ramen with a sumptuous broth made from the last slow-boiled bones of that hard-working pig and hearty red-fife noodles, again made from scratch.
Even a humble red-bean cheesecake with an extra-thick crust (because cheesecake never has enough crust) managed to surprise and delight.
People often talk about cursed restaurant locations. But this one, I think, might be blessed.