On the surface, Peninsula Seafood Restaurant does not look particularly impressive. Oh, but it is. And for anyone remotely interested in the seismic cultural shifts shaking up Vancouver via the gold-veined fault lines that connect us to Mainland China, this is a fascinating room to dig in and explore.
How can one tell this is a nouveau-style Cantonese restaurant catering to rich new residents from Mainland China? The first clue is its location in a quiet corner at Oakridge Shopping Centre.
This is not Richmond's glitzy Aberdeen Centre with its cheap Daiso dollar store and Vegas-style musical water fountain. This is Oakridge Centre, where the pathways are lined with luxury jewellery stores and the parking lot is nestled against the tony streets of Shaughnessy – the upscale neighbourhood where wealthy immigrant investors have been paying in cash for multimillion-dollar mansions. The new Chinese community's residential hub is moving north, and its most important restaurants are following.
Peninsula's main dining room, tastefully decorated in white marble and dark mahogany, is not terribly expansive. But take a second look. Do you notice how the large crystal chandeliers glint off a glass-cased cellar filled with rare bottles of cognac, first-growth Bordeaux and aged baijiu?
Now listen. Do you hear the clinking of glasses and celebratory buzz muffled in the background? The action is not in the main dining area. It is discreetly secluded in four private dining rooms that have become known in the Chinese community as the place to gather when big business deals are sealed.
"We are not just running a restaurant," executive director Alex Wang says later at a downtown café. "We are building a club."
Mr. Wang is from Guangzhou, also known as Canton, the cultural and financial capital of Guangdong province in South China. He was one of those rich Asian kids who came to Vancouver to study geography at SFU, fell in love with the city's natural splendour and decided to stay, have children and settle down.
The hospitality industry was a natural choice for him. His family owns and operates more than 200 restaurants in China under the Peninsula Holdings Group.
Opened in 2013, Peninsula has won several Chinese Restaurant Awards for its fine-dining setting, high-end service and pricey signature dish, a deconstructed version of the traditional Buddha Jump Over The Wall soup. Later this year, Mr. Wang will open a second Peninsula restaurant at Marine Drive and Cambie Street. It will be three times larger than the original (12,000 square feet) with seven private dining rooms.
"It will be different from what you think of as a restaurant," he says.
"You'll see," he laughs.
Mr. Wang also has plans to open a private club. Did I mention that he is only 26?
All Chinese restaurants have a signature, must-order dish. At Peninsula, it is the rarefied version of Buddha Jump Over The Wall, a Fujian soup traditionally made with shark fin and named for its ability to entice vegetarian monks to indulge.
The Peninsula rendition is a braised dish ($88) presented with all its luxury ingredients intact (to better see and appreciate them). As with any fine French stew, the large pieces of abalone, sea cucumber, fish maw, scallop and trumpet mushroom are braised separately. They are served in a clay pot filled with a rich golden sauce, a clean reduction of the abalone braising liquid (no added salt, starch or MSG).
Shark fin is omitted, not because of ethical or environmental concerns, but because it is often high in mercury and processed with toxic chemicals. Also, for people from Mainland China, shark fin does not symbolize wealth and prosperity as it does for people from Hong Kong.
"It's not necessary for 'face,'" Mr. Wang says as he tries to explain the nuances required to impress or show respect in a business setting. At Peninsula, you gain face by ordering a lot of abalone – preferably fresh, from Australia (not the canned Mexican variety that is in the $68 version of Buddha Jump Over The Wall).
Abalone is also apparently good for its magical sponge properties.
"We drink a lot of alcohol when celebrating business deals," Mr. Wang explains. "If you eat this at the beginning of the meal, you can drink more." This may come as a surprise to Western restaurateurs, who often bemoan the Chinese tradition of ordering hot lemon water with dinner. Perhaps they are not stocking the right baijiu. (Moutai, a popular brand of the white, fermented-sorghum spirit, ranges from $63 to $1,580 a bottle at select BC Liquor Stores.)
Peninsula also serves abalone in a fried-rice dish for $108. You probably would not lose face by ordering the caviar fried rice for $26.80 instead. It has a very nice crunch and is served with a pungent, house-made XO sauce.
You must, however, order Kung Fu soup ($38). Made from rehydrated fish maw, the clear, glistening, deeply concentrated consommé takes a full week to prepare. It served in teapots cast from Yixing clay, highly prized for its mineral content. Healthy, nutritious foods apparently chalk up a lot of face, which is why Peninsula also serves a wide range of sushi. Unheard of in traditional Cantonese restaurants, raw fish is becoming more common in high-end Chinese restaurants around the world, including La Chine in New York.
You must also order many dishes at once so the table looks full and abundant. (In traditional Cantonese restaurants, this type of service would be considered rude and uncouth.) May I suggest fork-tender trotters, sticky foie gras buns or bamboo shell cod, a whole fish served barely steamed and lightly touched with soy and Sichuan pepper.
Bamboo shell cod, not to be confused with bamboo shellfish (another name for razor clams), is a rarity. Its pale, velvety flesh looks and tastes like sablefish. You might find it at the Four Seasons in Shanghai, but nowhere else in Vancouver. I have no idea if it is sustainable or Ocean Wise-approved. But among a certain set of well-to-do Vancouverites, it will certainly earn you a lot of face.