- Name: Nine Dumplings/Nine Dishes
- Location: 204-1610 Robson St., Vancouver
- Phone: 778-246-1199
- Cuisine: Sichuan and Beijing street food
- Additional Info: Open daily, noon to 9 p.m.; counter service.
- Rating: Cheap eats
The first tip came from an unaffiliated stranger, via Instagram.
“Robson Public Market has a delicious new dumpling place,” @jess_my_own_pace wrote in a private message, accompanied by a photo of several framed awards hung on a subway-tiled wall. “Hope it stays busy.”
I couldn’t read the awards or identify the establishment, but no need. A few hours later, my Instagram feed began blowing up, thanks to an exuberant post – “NINE DISHES REBORN” – from @dennisthefoodie, who was tipped off by the same source.
“Yves is back!” one friend rejoiced. “Or is it Ives?”
The cult figure widely known as Yves is actually named Yuen Shen, but goes by “If“ because it reminds him “life is full of possibilities.”
For this latest venture, a food-court stall in the ghetto-fabulous Robson Public Market, the eccentric, self-taught chef has bounced back like a cat with nine lives – this is the restaurant’s fourth.
As I wrote in a column 2½ years ago, Mr. Shen is a former hippie and electronics engineer who worked at an optical-research institute developing laser technology. After years of travelling around the world, he landed in Vancouver and opened the original Nine Dishes on Kingsway in 2010.
The casual Beijing-styled beer hall was as famous for its spicy water-boiled fish and $2 bottles of Yanjing as it was for its owner. Some nights, he’d pick up his guitar and strum the blues. Other nights, he’d play solitaire next to the cash register and shrug off his customers, making them serve their own rice and uncap their own beer.
After the building was sold (real estate is a topic he will excitedly rant about to anyone who asks), Mr. Shen briefly opened a small stall in Old Orchard Shopping Centre, only to later resurface in a Richmond McMansion.
Located on the main floor of Café 1029, a Mainland Chinese crowdfunding club, that last rendition of Nine Dishes felt similar to a Mad Hatter Twilight Zone: dark and cavernous with dance-club strobe lights bouncing off massive crystal chandeliers; oversized mauve sofas elevated on pedestals next to a floor-to-ceiling karaoke machine that blared sugary Canto-pop between pre-recorded NBA games.
“I was hidden there,” Mr. Shen now reflects, going on to explain how he felt unsatisfied catering to a predominantly Chinese clientele. “Vancouver is multicultural. I needed a bigger stage.”
That last statement sounds ironic when you glance around the glass-domed Robson Public Market, where rusted freezers and empty produce stands are clustered like plastic tumbleweed down the hollow centre of the main floor.
When it opened in the mid-eighties, the 2,300-square metre, two-storey building was a thriving neighbourhood hub filled with live musicians who strolled among 39 merchants. There was a high-end butcher, who sold then-exotic sweetbreads and brains; a fishmonger who introduced the city to shark steaks and skate wings; fresh pasta makers; and even a pickle emporium.
Today, the busiest vendors sell umbrellas and warehouse liquidation luggage.
The upstairs food hall was once home to 13 stalls. Now there are three: Hida Takayama Ramen (which specializes in a rare sesame broth, but is currently closed for renovations and under new management); Nam San Korean Cuisine (the signature blood sausage in spicy broth is popular among language students who use the tables on the food court’s empty side for speed-dating-style conversational classes); and Nine Dumplings, also known as Nine Dishes.
These three hidden gems are not easy to find, located in the back corner, far away from the stairwell. Nine Dishes doesn’t even have a website or any social-media presence. Yet lo and behold, the change of venue worked and Mr. Shen’s old fans are now practically banging down the door.
When I arrived at noon on Saturday, one month after receiving the tip, Mr. Shen was still switching on the lights and getting ready for service. Fifteen minutes later, he and his wife were running dumplings and complimentary bowls of red-bean soup to 10 tables scattered around the second-floor atrium.
A limited menu offers many of the greatest hits from the Nine Dishes back catalogue.
Szechuan spicy boiling fish ($25.99) is tenderly poached and served in deep steel tureen under an oily mound of dried chilies. Surprisingly, the silky filets are neither greasy nor scorching hot, but tightly calibrated with just the right amount of mentholated peppercorn lip-tingle.
House-cured sausages ($5.99) are rustic, dry and fatty with a spicy bite. Lamb skewers coated in cumin ($12 for six) are rare and juicy (the chef uses leg rather than shoulder, so the golden-charred morsels have a denser chew and stronger flavour). Skip the stodgy green onion pancake ($15.99), which is slick with grease.
The Beijing-style dumplings, however, are brand new and highly recommended. The nine-flavour sampler ($9.99) comes in a rainbow assortment of naturally dyed skins that are slightly chewy and flatly pinched. The blue is infused with butterfly pea flower, yellow with ginger, black with squid ink. Each colour contains a different filling – five types of pork (with cabbage, chives, cilantro, kimchi and green pepper) and four rarities, including a mildly gamey lamb with zucchini and velvety scallop. To best savour the natural juices, order them steamed. The boiled and soup variations get a bit bloated with water.
Mr. Shen, who seems pleasantly surprised by all the attention, says he is hoping to obtain a liquor licence by the time the rooftop patio opens this spring. Although that might require investment from the market’s management, which doesn’t exactly appear proactive based on all the vacancies and the dated decor.
The Robson Public Market is privately owned and does not receive any government subsidies, at least not according to the no-loitering signs posted on the tables, reminding patrons that this is “not a community center.”
Maybe I’m overly optimistic and perhaps I’ve been swayed by If’s philosophy on life, but I really do see the potential for this food plaza.