The other night, at New Fishport Seafood Bistro, our table of seven was licking the last crumbs of pineapple-bun pot pies filled with creamy Alaskan king crab and black truffle when my friend Vicky received an alarming text from her brother.
After perusing online posts about how to prepare for a COVID-19 pandemic, he said he was on his way to No Frills to buy a two-week stockpile of quinoa, frozen vegetables and other non-perishables.
“Okay, maybe I’ll do the same – as soon as I finish eating at this Chinese restaurant,” she drolly replied.
Let the survivalists eat dented tins of tuna. While the rest of the world cowers under surgical masks, we’ll be showing our love for Chinatown (to paraphrase the New York campaign) by lavishly feasting in solidarity on the king of the sea.
I don’t mean to play down the severity of coronavirus and its attendant fears. The panic is real.
But it’s also true that the Chinese restaurant community has been unfairly hit by paranoid rumour-mongering and misinformation. Business is down by as much as 80 per cent in some cases, the BC Asian Restaurant Café Owners Association reports. Food courts are empty and many restaurants have been forced to close or lay off staff as customers stay away.
The upside? There has never been a better time to eat at Chinese restaurants in Metro Vancouver.
At the very top of that list is the return of Alaskan king crab. Real Alaskan king crab, not Russian, at better prices than we’ve seen in years – as low as $29 a pound.
First, a little culinary history: The Alaskan king crab festival was a beloved tradition in Metro Vancouver, going back to the mid-1980s and lasting until a few years ago. At the tail end of the fishing season, usually mid-March, the last of the live catch would be shipped to Vancouver in large quantities and offered, at most Cantonese restaurants, in two-, three- and four-course feasts at substantially reduced prices.
It worked for the Alaskan king crab suppliers, who could quickly sell any surplus that would otherwise decompose in holding tanks. And it worked for the Metro Vancouver restaurants, which used the promotion to lure diners back during the lull after Chinese New Year.
But then the Chinese economy roared to life, the burgeoning entrepreneurial class developed a taste for “clean” North American seafood and all that sell-off crab we so enjoyed began demanding higher prices and got shipped overseas.
The festival died. King crab was still available in Chinese restaurants, but who knows where it came from. And it was extremely expensive – starting at $68 a pound just a few weeks ago (closer to $100 a pound in Western restaurants).
Then came coronavirus. With most North American flights to China suspended until April, the Alaskan suppliers had to turn back to their closest neighbours when the fishery reopened this week. The first shipment arrived on Tuesday and prices are going down – retailing for about $38 a pound.
At New Fishport Seafood Bistro, a six-month-old restaurant on SE Marine Drive, it costs $48 a pound. You can definitely find it cheaper because some desperate restaurant owners are swallowing a loss to fill seats.
But you won’t find better quality. New Fishport owner Wendy Dong, one of the main local seafood distributors, has cultivated her connections with the Alaskan suppliers over the years and is acquiring the biggest stash.
Ms. Dong wouldn’t tell me the name of her seafood company. “It’s a secret,” she said through a translator this week.
She did, however, say, that she is expecting to receive 400 Alaskan king crabs each week until the middle of April. The majority will weigh seven to eight pounds, which she’ll sell to other restaurants. But the most prized crabs – those that weigh nine to 10 pounds, offering a better shell-to-meat ratio – will be reserved for this restaurant.
New Fishport has another secret weapon: master chef Sam Leung, formerly of Dynasty Seafood Restaurant, who quietly re-emerged here after a two-year retirement.
Typically, it’s served two ways: steamed legs slathered in garlic, egg-white XO sauce or ginger-soy sauce; and deep-fried knuckles tossed with crispy garlic and chili sauce. For an additional $5 to $10, the kitchen will usually toss the juices from the steamed leg platters with noodles or pick the meat from the body and turn it into a creamy, Macau-style coconut curry with fried rice.
With Mr. Leung, whose avant-garde creations vaulted Dynasty to crossover success – it was Vancouver Magazine’s restaurant of the year in 2017 – you never quite know what you’re going to expect.
But this four-way Alaskan king crab feast could not be faulted.
First course: Money bag dumplings filled with cold crab leg, cream and crunchy apple; accompanied by a spicy seaweed salad wrapped in cabbage leaf.
Second course: Creamy crab and black truffle “pot pies” covered in sweet pineapple-bun pastry. So rich, so French.
Third course: Crab leg shabu shabu, carefully cooked over low heat in a milky seaweed broth, until the white flesh flowered into thin, feathered nodules.
Fourth course: Crab “blood” (otherwise known as the creamy, egg-white-like, collagen-rich proteins that juice from the meat when steamed) set into a wobbly Italian-Japanese custard bursting with basil, subtly slicked with olive oil and anchored by chewy air-dried oysters.
As we lingered over dessert, a show-stopping XLB (xiaolongbao) dumpling stuffed with black sesame, enclosed with candied rose petals and moored in a warm pool of double-boiled ginger milk, I turned to Vicky and asked if she wanted to stop to pick up a case of canned tuna on the way home.
Nah, she said. Let’s take our chances.
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