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Chang’An: Fine Chinese dining, but beware the inattentive service

The spicy dungeness crab with roasted vegetables is seen at Chang 'An restaurant in Vancouver, B.C., on Monday February 9, 2015.

DARRYL DYCK/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

2.5 out of 4 stars

Name
Chang’An Restaurant
Location
7-1661 Granville St., Vancouver, British Columbia
Phone
604-681-1313
Price
Noodles and vegetables, $15 to $22; specialty plates, $28 to $98
Cuisine
Northern Chinese
Rating System
fineDining
Additional Info
Open daily for lunch and dinner. Reservations recommended.

Even before stepping inside, you can tell Chang'An is different than most Chinese restaurants in Vancouver and Richmond. The parking lot is filled with Range Rovers and BMWs. This new waterfront restaurant is a pricey import from Northern China. And the clientele it attracts is obviously very wealthy.

Fine Chinese dining is back in vogue. Vancouver has not seen such expensive menus and exquisite settings since the glory days of Dynasty Restaurant in the old New World Harbourside Hotel. In Richmond, Chef Tony Seafood Restaurant gilds its private dining rooms with truffles and foie gras. At the Peninsula, customers order $100 plates of abalone-laden fried rice for the ostentatious show. Unlike the Cantonese restaurants of old, these are Northern restaurants that cater to affluent newcomers from Mainland China.

Now there is Chang'An, the first of several high-end Chinese restaurants set to open downtown in the next couple of years. It is on False Creek under the Granville Street bridge in the space formerly occupied by Nu. The room is unrecognizable, having been completely renovated from front foyer to kitchen. The chandelier lighting is dim, the tablecloths are high thread, the chopstick holders are ornate little birds embedded with crystals.

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Peking duck is the house specialty. The golden-skinned fowl are roasted in-house, in a custom 1,800-kilogram stone oven that takes pride of place inside the front entrance. Two cooks work the station, hand-torching the hanging birds to a crispy finish. You'd be wise to order your duck in advance when making reservations. Even at $88, they sell out quickly.

Why so expensive? (Most restaurants charge $44.) Your guess is as good as mine. They're just regular, local ducks. When I called later to inquire, I was told that the executive chef has 20 years of roast-duck-making experience.

The restaurant does offer an elaborate, and unusual, table-side presentation. A cart is rolled up between the widely spaced tables that give the servers plenty of room to manoeuvre. With a thick-bladed knife, a cook gently pries off the crispy skin and carves it into small rounds. It's served on a platter with raw sugar on the side.

Yes, sugar. This was new to me, but apparently common in Beijing. You dip the fatty side of the skin into the sugar. The grains have to be large or they'll melt and you'll lose the crunchy texture. And it really is quite a sensual sensation. The sweetness of the sugar heightens the umami richness of the fat, while the tiny crystals crackle and pop against its buttery softness much like finishing salt.

For the second course, large cuts of meat are served with tissue-thin dough wrappers and two condiment platters: a typical hoisin sauce with cucumber and green onions (finely sliced into threads); and a decidedly nouvelle strawberry jam with slivered Asian pear. The latter was an overpowering assault of sweet on sweet. But I guess that's how they roll in Beijing.

The empty carcass was rolled back to the kitchen and used for a strange tomato soup, which was very thin and bland. Chang'An does not offer the usual stir-fried lettuce wrap course.

We did not get the chef's name, but he apparently comes from Xi'an in north-central China, a region on the old Silk Road trading route with a heavy Muslim influence over its cuisine. His signature dishes are traditionally spiced with lots of Sichuan chili and oil. There are several types of lamb and lots of hand-pulled noodles.

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Duck might be the restaurant's signature dish, but I think the noodles are its best assets. The silky dough is very light, thin and not too floury tasting. We tried spicy hand-cut noodles and dry (without sauce) ground-lamb dumplings. Both dishes were excellent.

Lamb belly was rustic and heavy, served "encroute" with a light flour crust. It came with cumin, red pepper and salt on the side. The meat really needed the salt to sharpen its fattiness.

Dungeness crab was fried with tons of Sichuan chilis (we ordered extra) that gave the lips a nice mentholated buzz without killing the palate. The legs were served on a bed of roasted vegetables – taro, lotus root, cauliflower – almost like a home-style Sunday dinner roast. For $57 (market price), it was a generous, nicely balanced special.

We also had a fresh, vibrant peanut, red onion and cilantro salad, along with asparagus and mushrooms, lightly cooked in soy sauce and red bean paste.

Our main quibble had to do with service. If a restaurant is going to splash out with table-side carving, it might want to pay more attention to clearing plates. Especially with flavours this bold. In Cantonese restaurants, it is common for the servers to offer a clean plate with each course. They are sometimes changed up to half a dozen times in one meal. The servers here changed the plates once, and only when we asked. Nor did they keep up with transferring half-eaten dishes to smaller plates.

The Cantonese attention to service is a British influence. I'm told that in Mainland China, the service is generally lacking. So perhaps Chang'An's Chinese customers won't mind. Westerners and people from Hong Kong, well, that could be a tougher sell, especially at these prices.

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