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The Globe and Mail

Parq Vancouver’s ambitious 1886 misses the mark

Despite the polished setting of the new 1886 restaurant at Parq Vancouver, shaky service and inconsistent food quality mar the experience.

Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

2 out of 4 stars

Name
1886
Location
39 Smithe St., Vancouver, British Columbia
Phone
778-370-8500
Website
parqvancouver.com
Price
Appetizers, $14 to $52; evening dim sum, $11 to $22; Peking duck, $90; tasting menus, $78 to $88 a person; vegetables, rice and noodles, $15 to $29; seafood, meats and poultry, $26 to $99; Cantonese specialties, $32 to $180.
Cuisine
Chinese fine dining
Additional Info
Open daily, dim sum from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. (10:30 p.m. on weekends).

Well, isn't this grand?

After more than a decade of controversy and delays, Parq Vancouver opened at the end of September amid widespread fears that the $640-million casino resort would erupt in a festering blight of lowbrow kitsch. But the Las Vegas-inspired import is actually a tastefully designed multiplex of understated opulence.

The soaring ground-floor lobby, awash in natural light, brushed gold and pearly marble, doesn't even look like a casino. Reception desks for the two luxury hotels can be accessed through corridors on either side. The eight restaurants and lounges – accounting for 846 seats and making this the largest dining launch in the city's history – are scattered throughout.

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Up two escalators to the third floor where the high rollers play and next to the high-stakes baccarat tables and private VIP rooms, you will finally find 1886 – named, somewhat ironically, after the year Chinatown emerged as a racially segregated ghetto in the newly incorporated City of Vancouver.

Of Parq's seven food-and-beverage outlets currently in operation (Victor steakhouse launches in mid-December), this upscale restaurant is the most ambitious and outwardly impressive.

This most elegant Chinese dining room is a dark, glossy sanctum of watery ocean mirages woven into plush carpet, silvery fish scales embossed against cove ceilings and majestically glowing faux-abalone-shell panels imbedded in stately dark wood. There is a wall of private dining rooms discreetly hidden behind gold-and-glass screens and a windowside row of round, navy-velvet booths.

Yet for all the care that went into this polished setting (courtesy of New York's Celano Design Studio), no one thought to add a coat rack. The coat check, or lack thereof, is just the first of many weird incongruities.

Here is a fine-dining restaurant where no conspicuous luxury is spared. Reserve wine list full of grand cru Bordeaux? Check. Table-service trolley carts laden with rare cognacs (Rémy Louis XIII, $388 an ounce) and yellow tea buds painted in 24-karat gold (TWG's Meng Ding Huang Ya, $52 for a one-person pot)? Check, check.

And still, the shaky-footed servers continually miss the mark when trying to extol the restaurant's genuinely elevated assets. A live-seafood tank, for example, is not a distinguishing highlight for a Chinese restaurant in Vancouver. It's par for the course.

So instead of just pointing out the tank, why not remark on all the uncommon creatures within – Australian barramundi, European turbot and enormous Alaskan king crabs so feisty they appear to be either mating or auditioning for a cameo in the next sequel of Alien?

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Likewise, seven-day dim sum is not a novelty or in any way exciting for Vancouver. But evening dim sum is. Mott 32 is the only other Chinese restaurant serving dumplings at night. So why not talk up those crispy prawn-and-cuttlefish delicacies and their fragile, chrysanthemum-like, phyllo-string quills dotted with pollen seeds of caviar? These are truly memorable.

House-made XO sauce, again, is not a big deal. Most Chinese restaurants of even middling repute make it themselves. But it is often chunky and overwhelmingly fishy. Rarely will you encounter one so sharply spiced and delicately diced with a silky, broth-like consistency.

Sago is not the Chinese word for soup. It is the starch from the pith of palm trees used to make the bubble-tea pearls that add such textural delight to the mango cream poured over one of the restaurant's many innovative desserts.

It feels as though no one on the floor has ever worked in a Chinese restaurant before. They do not understand the nuances of service – that dirty plates need to be changed frequently, that bowls should be offered with rice and soupy dishes, that half-eaten sharing platters need not be immediately cleared.

Parq hired 600 food and beverage employees in a market with a labour shortage for those jobs. That's as many servers, bartenders, cooks and dishwashers as the casino has slot machines. The least Parq could do is train them properly.

It also seems strange that the consulting culinary director Richard Chen (who in 2007 opened Wing Lei, the first Chinese restaurant in the United States to earn a Michelin star) is content to send out so much inconsistent, occasionally substandard food.

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A $90 Peking duck has lost its puff; the lacklustre meat is grey and the pancakes are cold. Crystal lobster dumplings fall apart on the plate. One night, the signature barbecue sampler is overcooked. The roasted duckling is dried out; the soy chicken is flatly glazed and lacking flavour; the Iberico pork is dark, shrivelled and chewy. The next week, the Iberico pork is lusciously fatty and tender, its honey glaze loose and perfectly balanced.

This is the only Chinese restaurant in Vancouver to offer an individually plated, seasonal tasting menu. The fall menu starts with an excellent sampler plate that includes moist slices of fresh Australian abalone and brightly spiced jellyfish, followed by Mr. Chen's signature Peking duck salad. But the choices of main courses include steamed sea bass in a dark soy broth that seems to be sweetened up for Western palates and Hunan spicy braised short ribs that are decidedly not spicy, with none of the salty, sour and smoked counterpoints that typically lend Hunan cuisine its distinctive depth and intensity.

If the tasting menu is intended to showcase the restaurant's greatest hits, it might better include the standout Szechuan-style sturgeon, an excellent use of a locally raised fish tenderly braised in an exquisitely clean and clear chili broth. Or any of the vegetable dishes – the thinly sliced egg-poached bitter melon, crisp pea tendrils smothered in creamy egg whites and Alaskan crab, and crackly fried asparagus with minced Iberico, are all terrific.

While there is definitely room for another expensive Chinese restaurant in Vancouver, especially one that tries to stay true to Cantonese traditions and offers such a sumptuous setting, it feels like 1886 has underestimated the sophistication of the local market.

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About the Author
Vancouver restaurant critic

Alexandra Gill has been The Globe and Mail’s Vancouver restaurant critic since 2005. She joined the paper as a summer intern in 1997 and was hired full-time as an entertainment columnist the following year. In 2001, she moved to Vancouver as the Western Arts Correspondent, a position she held until 2007. More

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