Name: Nancy Go Yaya Eating House
Location: 265 E. Pender St., Vancouver, B.C.
Prices: Dinner, $6-$29; brunch, $6-$19
Additional Info: Open Thursday to Sunday, 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (counter service); dinner reservations available; brunch takeout through Uber Eats; no patio.
Everything about Nancy Go Yaya, a new Singaporean restaurant in Chinatown, is fun, punchy and bright – starting with the name.
“To go ‘yaya’ in Singapore means to become too big for one’s britches,” as explained on the restaurant’s website, which goes on to describe Nancy’s fictional personification “as everyone’s favourite Asian auntie: fiercely independent, wears fabulous jumpsuits and LOVES to eat and drink all the delicious things.”
It’s very Crazy Rich Asians, right down to the colourful, steamed kueh cakes, which were almost impossible to find in Vancouver until recently. Nancy makes dazzling desserts.
She might alternatively be described as a bratty little cousin to Bao Bei and Kissa Tanto, since they belong to the same restaurant family. Tannis Ling and Alain Chow are co-owners, along with chef Jian Cheng, who has ping-ponged back and forth between Singapore (where he grew up and did his mandatory military service) and Vancouver (where he started at Bao Bei as a culinary student 10 years ago before moving on to Espana, the Michelin-starred Chez Bruce in London, England and Savio Volpe).
But there’s nothing spoiled or indulgent about Nancy. Sure, she’s been getting a lot of attention. You’ve probably seen her highly photogenic brunch dishes all over social media.
The electric-green kaya toast, made with a swipe of coconut jam and a thick pat of cold butter sandwiched between two slices of pandan mochi-flour bread, is the most popular item. Some people don’t even eat it; they just order it with a cup of foamy pulled tea for the ‘gram.
Even better are the terrifically flaky curry puffs with their layers upon layers of laminated pastry dough. And the Katong-style laksa, made in homage to a famous Singaporean noodle shop, with a spicy coconut-milk broth lit up by funky fermented-prawn paste and thick with house-made vermicelli.
Mr. Cheng’s early-pandemic laksa pop-ups were actually the impetus behind this kopi tiam, or Southeast Asian coffee house, which looks like a retro diner from the fifties with quirky eighties-era flourishes. Think spider plants in pink-enamel vases and Cyndi Lauper singing loudly in the background.
But it’s been a tough row to hoe. Despite all the social media love, Nancy has been going through some growing pains – none of her own making – and is now doing everything possible to rectify the situation.
The idea to open a new restaurant in the middle of a pandemic wasn’t planned. The lease for the ground-floor space, located underneath Kissa Tanto, was signed in early 2019, when Ms. Ling still had a newborn at home. The landlord, who was eager to keep them as tenants, offered many months of free rent so they could ease into it. But the grace period expired just as the pandemic hit and then they had to start paying.
A counter-service coffee shop seemed more conducive to the times than a wine and cocktail bar, which was the original concept. On weekends, they introduced “Casuarina Nights” with table service, candles, drinks and the type of late-night snacks that young Singaporeans eat after going to the bar – dishes like sambal fish filets cooked in banana leaf (in the hawker stalls, it’s usually made with stingray).
The split personality confused a lot of Nancy’s customers, who still came looking for kaya toast at night. And the snacks didn’t really gel with Kissa’s regulars, who had higher culinary expectations. Meanwhile, none of it was paying the bills. And with labour shortages being so acute, it became impossible to find and retain enough staff to run both services.
So now they’ve scaled back on brunch (it’s only available on weekends) and are putting all their eggs in a newly expanded dinnertime menu, offered Thursday to Sunday.
It’s all still fun and punchy, but more refined and mature.
The menu is eclectic, ranging from laksa-marinated chicken wings to foie gras torchon served with lychee gel, curried macadamia nuts and green pandan toast – evolved into dainty points.
The flavours are bold. There is a fabulous lamb tartare, bursting with fresh mint in a smoked-oyster emulsion; grilled hangar steak smothered in zesty laksa-leaf salsa verde topped with peanut-anchovy crunch; and fried whole fish, diamond-scored so that the crispy batter puffs into golden nuggets for finger-picking and dipping into sour tamarind curry and jasmine rice, which comes in a red bucket on the side.
There are four types of satay skewers, grilled over charcoal to smoky lusciousness and all of them drool-worthy, especially the tender chicken hearts and pork jerky.
The natural wine list is compact, but alluring, although they could use more selections by the glass. The cocktails are wild, yet finely balanced. The effervescent Emerald Hill, mixed with vodka, Midori and matcha lime cordial, is a good one for pairing and cutting through the spice.
Stirred drinks, such as the coconut-washed cognac Sazerac, come with beautiful, crystalline, hand-cut cubes from the Kodama Ice Company, owned by Ms. Ling’s husband, Jay Browne.
And the desserts, most notably the incredibly moist pineapple upside down cassava cake doused in ginger and lime leaf toffee sauce, are phenomenally good.
Nancy Go Yaya by night is still finding its way. There have been tweaks in the last few weeks and there will probably be more, especially when (and if) the lower-level speakeasy now hidden behind a wallpapered door is opened.
But she’s pretty fabulous and just needs to channel her namesake and own it.
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