There will be no politics in this review. No pontificating on a White House in shambles. No conjecture about U.S. President Donald Trump’s state of mind. No hand-wringing over the ethics of patronizing a restaurant in the new Trump International Hotel & Tower Vancouver.
These are all important issues to discuss – elsewhere.
Mott 32, regardless of its location, is the most noteworthy restaurant to open in Vancouver for many years, perhaps decades. And to be honest, it already has enough problems of its own.
Why does Mott 32 matter so much to Vancouver and, by extension, Richmond? Because, as far as the rest of the world is concerned, our only true claim to international culinary fame (beyond spot prawns and kusshi oysters) is our Chinese restaurant scene. It is often said that we have the best Chinese restaurants in North America. While some would argue that Los Angeles has surpassed us with its vast array of regional cuisines from Mainland China, Vancouver’s Cantonese restaurants are still tops.
That said, Vancouver hasn’t kept pace with evolutions in Hong Kong. Even our greatest Chinese restaurants (Dynasty, Jade, Chef Tony, Yue Delicacy) are dated, dowdy banquet halls with plush carpeting, blaring lights, brusque service and no wine service to speak of. With few exceptions (Sam Leung at Dynasty is notable for his Western influences), there hasn’t been much innovation on the plate. What we have is the Chinese equivalent of Chianti-bottle candleholders – traditional relics trapped in time.
Mott 32, a luxurious import from Hong Kong (with sibling restaurants in Dubai and Bangkok), ushers us into a modern age. It is the first Chinese restaurant in Vancouver to splash out on contemporary design, offer sophisticated service and boldly experiment with techniques, ingredients and flavours. But does it live up to expectations?
‘May I take your coats?’
Saturday night and the Krug corks are popping in the hotel’s sleekly marbled Champagne Lounge. A charming American, who claims to have made his fortune from medical marijuana, swoops in, retreats, then sends drinks – “whatever the ladies want” – from across the room. It’s a buzzy scene.
When our table is ready, the drinks are transferred, but the rest of the bill must be settled first. The bar and restaurant, although connected through the lobby, are separate entities.
Our eyes adjust as we step through gilded doors into a dark alcove. “May I take your coats?” How civilized – and rare these days.
Warmly muted and moody, the room is an opulent melange of industrial fixtures (leaded-glass panels, gold-jointed piping, air-pocked cement) and chinoiserie (abascus wall dividers, rattan caning chairs, calligraphy graffiti). There are elevated booths ensconced in wire mesh to look like birdcages and private rooms set behind sliding doors. The aura is graceful steampunk passed through a British colonial filter.
We are led to a table in the central octagon, a see-and-be-seen courtyard of sorts, with a view into the open kitchen and a small bar tucked into the back. The craft cocktail list is speckled with Asian influences – yuzu, shiso, ginger, chrysanthemum, jasmine tea. An adventurous wine list roams widely beyond the usual luxury-label suspects. Pinot blanc from Oregon? How interesting.
Dim sum at night is one of the restaurant’s most intriguing novelties. Who wouldn’t want to eat dim sum all day long? But these dumplings aren’t the type found anywhere else. The hot-and-sour xiao long bao is a must-order. Served individually in tall-handled baskets, the bright-orange, spice-infused wrappers are filled with a palate-smacking soup spiked with spicy chilli paste, tangy black vinegar and unctuous Iberico ham. Black truffle siu mai (a bit heavy-handed on the truffle) are a marvel of tight execution, timed down to the second so the small quail egg inside bursts with runny yolk when bitten. Lobster har gow is an ostentatious bauble at $18 a piece, the size of small fist and awkward to eat, but densely filled with lobster meat studded with salty Yunnan ham.
The har gow seems like a natural segue into lobster ma po tofu as a main course, but the transition stumbles badly. The dish is cutely presented, with a friendly little lobster head propped up in a bowl of silky cubed tofu swimming in a dark pool of spicy Sichuan-peppercorn sauce. We eagerly dive into what look like thick, fleshy claws – and sink into soft mush. Uh. The meat has no bounce. It tastes muddy and flat.
The $55 lobster is off. We send it back. General manager Eric Yang rushes to our table. We expect an apology. He doubles down in umbrage. It couldn’t be off, he insists. It was alive in the tank five minutes before it was cooked.
Okay, maybe it wasn’t dead. But perhaps the chef should talk to his supplier, I suggest, because that lobster tasted like it had started crawling down the highway from Maine some time early last summer.
We ask him to surprise us with something light. He brings wok-fried broccoli. Plain broccoli, simply dressed with gingko nuts and crispy bean curd. It would have made a clean counterpoint to the spicy lobster sauce. But on its own?
“Are you giving us gwailo food?” I ask.
“You don’t understand Cantonese cooking,” he replies, confirming my suspicion.
Something I’ve never seen before
Sunday afternoon, dim sum goes off without a single hitch. Everything is splendid.
Silky-thin rice sheets, rolled to order and steamed to a glistening sheen, are wrapped around melting tender honey-glazed barbecue pork. More barbecue pork is stuffed into sweetly puffy buns. The skins on water chestnut dumplings are so delicate they’re translucent. Pan-fried turnip cakes flake into meaty chunks. Chewy jellyfish, marinated in aged balsamic, are served intact with frilly edges (rather than being cut into strips), something I’ve never seen before.
We order an apple-roasted Peking duck, one of the restaurant’s specialties. The crackling skin, lacquered to a dark-golden gloss, is carved tableside. We dip the dainty squares into raw sugar granules, which pop against the softly oozy fat cap. The meat is served with pancakes so wispy they cling like Saran wrap. Curiously, the acrid whiff of smoke, dominant when the duck was presented, hasn’t penetrated the dark flesh. The slightly gamey flavour is pure and clean.
The meal is so delicious, the company so delightful, the pacing of the dishes so relaxed, we order another bottle of wine. It’s a gorgeous, honey-yellow Gewurztraminer from Alsace, full-bodied and bursting with aromatic stone fruit.
This is the most leisurely, thoroughly enjoyable dim sum I’ve ever experienced. It’s also the most expensive, at nearly $60 a head, before wine.
Everything was perfect, I tell Mr. Yang, who has been hovering attentively.
“That’s because you ordered like a Cantonese person this time,” he observes approvingly.
Revisiting the lobster: It’s perfect
Late Thursday night and the restaurant is quiet. Perhaps everyone in the kitchen is bored and impatient. Why else would the food be flying out at such a rapid, whip-speed pace?
Double-boiled soup – which should be crystal-clear, especially at $20 a bowl – is floating with meat particles. Brussels sprouts are wok-tossed with unusually large and uncomfortably fiery shards of bird’s-eye chilli.
We’re onto the mains before we’ve even finished dim sum. The table is covered with dishes and no sense of order. If Mr. Yang were here, I would tell him that I know enough about Cantonese dining to know that this rushed service is lacking.
We revisit the lobster. This time, it’s perfect. The flesh is springy, the tofu is silky, the thick sauce gently hums with Sichuan peppercorns that build in intensity at the back of the throat without overpowering.
Before heading out, I go to the bathroom. Unisex bathrooms are the worst. Why do men find it so difficult to hit their target? The first stall has a puddle on the floor in front of the toilet. I try the second one – another puddle.
Really? I just paid $300 for dinner, without any wine, and now I have to mop up the bathroom floor?
I’m sure Mr. Yang will consider it uncouth – and extremely un-Cantonese – for me to mention the messy state of the bathroom. But this final impression leaves a taste in the mouth even worse than dead lobster.Report Typo/Error