Street Auntie Aperitivo House
Location: 1039 Granville St., Vancouver
Prices: Tasting menus, dinner $59 and lunch $38; takeout sets $28; Sunday afternoon tea, $88.
Cuisine: Modern Chinese fine dining
Hours: Wednesday to Monday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Additional information: Reservations and prepayment required. Strict COVID-19 safety compliance.
Without the usual horde of club kids crowding the sidewalks, the grubby side of Vancouver’s Granville Street entertainment district has been thrown into stark relief.
On a quiet Friday night, we strolled past empty storefronts, stepped through pot-smoke clouds and soaked up the stench of urine before stopping at a dark doorway where we had to ring a bell for entry.
Behind the frosted glass, a petite woman bent down to unlock the floor latch and greeted us with bare arms laced in delicate tattoos and a flutter of fluffy eyelashes.
Leading us toward the back, beyond a partition screen custom-illustrated with a risqué self-portrait in garter belt and stockings, chef-owner Yuyina Zhang sat us down at a sleek, L-shaped kitchen bar ringed with buttery leather stools separated by red plexiglass.
And for the next two hours, she regaled us with stories while serving an elaborate procession of innovative small plates, exquisite pu’er teas and playful desserts, which included a roll-your-own joint with edible rice paper and a mint-chocolate weed leaf.
The decrepit Granville Strip might at first seem an odd location for a modern, fine-dining Chinese restaurant. But it’s actually a perfectly edgy spot for bending conventions, which Street Auntie Aperitivo House does with great panache.
Opened in November, this is a smart pandemic-era restaurant that has covered all its bases. The weekly changing tasting menus must be booked online and paid in advance – a practice I fully support, especially now when a couple of no-shows can turn a barely profitable night into a loss.
There is a separate menu for takeout, offering more casual rice and noodle dishes that travel better, but still ambitiously plated in three-course sets with salad and a dim sum trio, plus small desserts (chocolate truffles or glitter-frosted fortune cookies) and handwritten notes.
And launching next week, a luxurious afternoon tea every Sunday, replete with bird’s nest three ways.
While there are many reasons to commend this restaurant, the degustation menu is what really makes it modern. These are proper tasting menus – with themes and fully composed dishes that are part of a cohesive experience – not just sharing plates divvied up into individual portions.
Each course has its own story (dinner might start with a ghost chicken salad or other nod to Ms. Zhang’s Yunnan heritage), a place in the progression (the flavours build from lightly steamed dim sum to seared foie gras in sticky whisky-orange sauce), optional tea or mocktail pairings (while the restaurant waits on its liquor licence) and thoughtfully conceived presentations (fried rice, not usually served by itself, is made with two types of grains for softness and bounce, served in a steam-capturing mound crowned by bitter broccolini and double XO sauce).
There is no other Chinese restaurant in Metro Vancouver offering this type of elevated service. Not even Mott 32 (now temporarily shuttered), which was the height of modern luxury.
The most successful in recent memory was Richmond’s Zen Fine Chinese Cuisine, whose “audacious” tasting menus made it the greatest Chinese restaurant outside Greater China, according to The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, a book by former New York Times reporter Jennifer 8. Lee. But that was in 2008 and Zen closed a couple of years later.
Street Auntie might not have made Ms. Lee’s cut. At the time, she was searching the world for restaurants serving authentic Chinese cuisine (nothing pan-Asian or too fusion-y) that offered “some kind of twist that would hold up on the global stage.”
But times change. The Michelin Guide now covers China. And Street Auntie, definitely pan-Asian and often fusion-y, is an authentic reflection of Ms. Zhang’s own larger-than-life globetrotting adventures.
Briefly (and unjustly, because Ms. Zhang’s story sounds wild enough for a book of its own): she split her childhood between a small village in southern Yunnan (where she was born) and Cambodia (where her father was a realtor for the Chinese military), went to private school in Australia, design school in Vancouver, and spent eight years in Beijing, where she was disowned by her father for running out on his new pharmaceutical business, returned to become partner in a luxury spa chain until the customer-investment business scheme was shut down and began a tumultuous romance and high-end catering business with English celebrity chef Brian McKenna.
After a detour to Saipan, where she and Mr. McKenna began building a casino-resort with ties to Donald Trump, he suffered a stroke, she stood him up at the altar and they both walked away from Richmond’s International Trade Centre (a development with its own controversial connections), where they were designing the food and beverage outlets.
Street Auntie’s tasting menus are definitely Chinese. And they frequently showcase the tropical flavours of Yunnan, a province that borders Myanmar and is not well represented in Vancouver, through ingredients such as poached chicken marinated for three days in lemongrass and crunchy buckwheat noodles added to sweet and sour pork.
But the dishes stretch further afield, with offerings such as Hainanese chicken and salted duck-egg-yolk fish skins with fried curry leaves. These Southeast Asian dishes cooked with tight technique come courtesy of veteran Cantonese chef de cuisine Stephen Ho. Ms. Zhang recruited him from Singapore for the International Trade Centre, then hired him for Street Auntie when he was laid off during the COVID closures.
The cooking doesn’t shy away from a Chinese palate: poached chicken skins are soft and dimpled, double-fried calamari is chewy and the dumplings with cooked sea urchin have a metallic bitter flavour – often referred to as “golden”, but might be described as “off.”
It also embraces old-school French technique to an almost cloyingly sweet degree. Ms. Zhang says she is heavily influenced by the legendary Paul Bocuse. But her foie gras and sweet-and-sour pork could honestly be brightened and brought into the modern age with splashes of acidity.
Dim sum is the restaurant’s weakest link. The dumplings are impressively stuffed with great ingredients, including local scallops and morels, but are all too big for one bite and encased in wrappers that fall apart.
The desserts are phenomenal. Every tasting menu includes a tray laden with puddings, chocolates and candied grapes (a play on Beijing’s tanghulu hawthorn berry sticks).
Then she usually rolls out the mint-chocolate weed. Or giant jasmine-tea mousse cakes filled with housemade strawberry jam, powdered with yellow-bean crumble and shaped like giant fortune cookies.
“It was a mistake,” she explains.
The cake moulds she ordered were too big – but perhaps perfect for shaping the future.
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