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review

Chef Tony’s black truffle, pork and shrimp dumplings is a must-try specialty. The the stuffing is hand cut with such precision it melts in the mouth. Black truffle, pork and shrimp dumplings at Chef Tony in Richmond, B.C., on Wednesday September 3, 2014. DARRYL DYCK FOR THE GLOBE AND MAILDARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

It's not often you see a dim sum restaurant packed with customers at 2:30 p.m. on a weekday. But Chef Tony is no ordinary restaurant. This is a flashy beacon of the new Chinese economy with boldly flavoured, exquisitely prepared Guangdong cuisine to match.

From the outside, Chef Tony looks unassuming. The signage is subtle. Everything changes when you walk through the doors. Elaborate crystal chandeliers hang from scalloped recesses in the ceiling. There's a glowing blue floor-to-ceiling pillar in the middle of the dining room. A jumbo TV screen takes up an entire glossy white-panelled wall. There are four private dinning rooms, some equipped with their own kitchens.

In the front foyer, you'll undoubtedly find some disappointed would-be customers without reservations being turned away. Even those who did call ahead might still have to wait 20 minutes for a table, as we did. (It was a public holiday, granted, but lineups are apparently quite common.) Chef Tony is one of the the most pricey, yet popular, dim sum restaurants in Richmond these days.

You'll also find a showcase of framed photographs featuring chef Tony He posing with movie stars and politicians. In China, the e-commerce magnate is a minor celebrity who owns four Yi Dong restaurants in Guangdong province. He also owns Sea Harbour Seafood Restaurant in Los Angeles and Shanghai, but is no longer associated with Richmond's Sea Harbour, which recently moved to the River Rock Casino. Rumour has it that there is a sordid love story tied to the change in ownership.

The prices, the alleged scandal, the tacky decor – it all screams nouveau riche. Yet Chef Tony's modern cooking is supremely elegant. It's a reflection of Guangdong – the wealthy southern province that neighbours Hong Kong on the Pearl River Delta – and its new economic and cultural clout.

In Canada, when we think of refined Chinese cooking, we tend to think Hong Kong Cantonese. Yes, we have plenty of other regional restaurants, including spicy Sichuan and full-bodied Shanghainese. But subtle Hong Kong Cantonese has long reigned supreme as the most elegant of Chinese cuisines.

Guangdong Cantonese is similar, but different. It shares the same finesse, paying close attention to intricate cutting and carving. But it's more ostentatious, with dishes that incorporate lots of foie gras and truffles. It's also more worldly and open to other regional influences and innovations.

The service is definitely different. In a high-end Hong Kong restaurant, the dishes are typically staggered and served in a progressive order from light to rich. At Chef Tony, the dishes arrive all at once in no discernible order.

Which means you might as well throw tradition to the wind and eat the desserts before the savoury courses because the desserts are best devoured when warm. And the desserts here, such a rarity in Chinese restaurants, are divine.

Steamed egg sponge cake is light, airy and impossibly tall, yet anchored with a deep, dark molasses note because the kitchen uses brown sugar instead of white. Egg white custards are a textural marvel. How does the pastry chef keep the custard so silky and jiggly while browning the buttery pastry to a beautiful golden flake? Baked egg-white buns are pillowy soft with a hint of coconut in the creamy paste.

Savoury pastries are just as impressive. Mixed mushrooms in baked tarts are finely slivered by hand. The pastry is so buttery it leaves a glistening sheen on your lips. If you're a sucker for barbecue pork buns, choose the baked variety over the steamed ones. Again, the butter in the dough is so rich it creates a succulent counterpoint to the char siu tang.

Must-try modern specialties include the black truffle, pork and shrimp dumplings. The truffle, although jarred, isn't overwhelming. And the stuffing is hand cut with such precision it melts in the mouth.

Pan-fried chicken wings stuffed with goose liver and sticky rice is another sterling example of exquisite technique. The wings are carefully deboned without any tearing or mangled edges. The crispness of the skin complements the creaminess of the warm foie gras stuffing.

As a friend explained, the booming Chinese economy means that there is a lot more cross-pollination as workers and business people travel between regions into larger urban centres. So the new Guangdong cuisine incorporates regional flavours.

At Chef Tony, you'll find curiously addictive Sichuan-style radish sticks soaked in spicy vinegar. The sweet, sour, hot and crunchy combination is a perfect palate cleanser for the richness of the other dishes. Marinated chicken is trimmed with a bright tangle of radish and red onions pickled with hot English mustard. Meat cookies, a specialty from Macau, are as chewy and buttery as Florentines. Sticky rice rolls from Shanghai, a rarity in local restaurants, were a childhood favourite for one of my guests and almost brought tears to her eyes.

As in any restaurant, there are some dishes that aren't worthy. Skip most of the noodle dishes, especially the shrimp dumplings adorned with frozen vegetables. The thick noodles with diced meat and garlic are overly thick. Bitter gourd rice noodles are the one exception. The green gourd is built right into the dough, leavening the bitterness while still giving the flavour a bold finish.

When it came time to pay, I learned something new. If a Chinese restaurant takes the tea off your bill or offers a 10-per-cent discount, you're supposed to pay cash. I didn't have cash, so the staff adjusted the amount and allowed me to pay with a debit card.

I'm not sure if that's a new Guangdong tradition or long-held etiquette. But I can tell you that I'm anxious to go back to Chef Tony for dinner and keep learning.