By ALEXANDRA GILL
Special to The Globe and Mail
Saturday, July 13, 2019
VANCOUVER -- THE DISH New Mandarin Seafood Restaurant 46 50 GLADSTONE ST., VANCOUVER, 604-336-9388 Cuisine: Cantonese Additional information: Open daily, dim sum from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Rating system: Casual dining 2 STARS
The orange-skinned xiao long bao at New Mandarin Seafood Restaurant are filled with hot-and-sour soup, come in a set of three for $8.98 and are plated on long-handled baskets like Lilliputian pumpkin purses.
If they were folded from supple leather rather than carrot dough, they might be called knockoffs or unbranded luxury.
At Mott 32, where the original designer version contains a richer broth made from Iberico pork and costs twice as much, they're called hot and sour Shanghainese soup dumplings.
Here, at this new and notable fast-fashion Chinese restaurant of sorts, they're called steamed special hot and sour meat in soup dumplings.
Executive chef Tony Zhang comes by his homage honestly. Or at least as honestly as culinary imitation gets in the age of social media, when a single recipe on Facebook can launch a thousand copycats.
Before New Mandarin, he was the head dim sum chef for 31/2 years at Mott 32 in Vancouver's Trump International Hotel & Tower and spent many months in Hong Kong training with executive chef Lee Man Sing. Before that, he was the head dim sum chef for eight years at Jade Seafood Restaurant, which, during his tenure, was one of Richmond's best.
Mr. Zhang doesn't deny that a few of his menu items resemble signature dishes from his previous employer. "It's like Apple, Samsung, Huawei," he shrugs during a later dinner service.
"Who does it best?" Well, since he asked ... New Mandarin's hot-and-sour dumplings are nicely done, especially the petite and perky wrappers, which don't rupture when squeezed between chopsticks. His broth is not as lip-smackingly gelatinous as the Mott 32 version, but it has a pleasant brightness from extra ginger.
His quail egg shui mai topped with black garlic (Mott 32 uses black truffle) are not as impressive. This is a tricky dish. The steaming must be timed precisely so that the bouncy pork filling cooks thoroughly, but the tiny egg buried inside stays soft and runny until it reaches the table and explodes in the mouth at first bite.
At New Mandarin, the yolks were all hard.
Still, for diners who are either boycotting the Trump Tower for political reasons or reluctant to pay Mott 32's high prices, New Mandarin does offer a more democratic entry into the realm of modern dim sum.
Mott 32 isn't holding a grudge.
"Replication is a form of flattery," says food and beverage marketing manager Melanie Peng. "If we could copyright our recipes, it would save us a lot of hassle, but we always knew this day would come. It's part of Vancouver's culinary evolution." And what's most interesting about New Mandarin is that it really does offer a snapshot of all the latest trends in a place you'd least expect to find them.
The decor - huge LED television screens, floor-to-ceiling marble, spacious private dining rooms, QR scan codes for mobile ordering - is a pastiche of several splashy new mainland Chinese restaurants in Richmond.
But this isn't Richmond. It's Norquay Village on Kingsway, halfway between Main Street and Metrotown. The Chinese restaurants in this neck of the woods are so old school, one of them still has dim sum pushcarts.
So, New Mandarin certainly stands out. Unfortunately, the cooking is less distinctive.
Har gow, the litmus test for any dim sum restaurant, has a juicy filling with crunchy pieces of whole shrimp. But the steamed wrappers are too thick, a consistent fault across the board. You might want to try the crispy shrimp dumpling instead, which I've only ever seen at Chef Tony Seafood Restaurant. The stodgy skin actually stands up well to deep-frying. And the oil is clean.
The wild mushroom dumpling, a twist on an award-winning dish Mr. Zhang developed at Jade, now contains wild rice - which you see on many "healthconscious" menus that cater to moneyed mainlanders (Peninsula Seafood Restaurant in Oakridge Centre is really big on this trend).
The chef's steamed honeycomb cake - bouncy, deeply striated and darkly caramelized with burnt sugar - is as delicious as he made it at Jade.
But the nouveau pastry swans, currently all the rage in London and Hong Kong, are filled with purple yam that tastes more of sesame seed than anything else.
Showcase beef plates, which also seem to be trending locally, play prominently on the menu. At dim sum, almost every table had an order of pan-fried vermicelli with bitter melon and sliced beef in black-bean sauce. It's an extremely photogenic dish, with its crispy piecrust-shaped topping.
Perhaps that's why everyone is doing it.
At dinner, there is a sinewy Angus beef short rib, served on the bone in black bean sauce. It's similar to a dish from Jade that won a Critics' Choice Chinese Restaurant Award this year, but originated at Mott 32, with a version that's triple-cooked and crispy.
You get the picture. The chef is chasing trends and replicating dishes found elsewhere. This is great for diners who want to sample all the greatest hits in one place. But for a critical palate, it's kind of boring, especially when none reach high notes.
Much more interesting is a whole Sichuan fish, perfectly steamed and expertly sliced around the bone, covered in fresh green peppercorns and deseeded bird's eye chili in place of dried chili. It's a toned-down, Cantonese play on grilled Chongqing fish, which really is everywhere these days. Mr. Zhang's version isn't ethereal, but it's original and clever.
The best dish of all is a Chiu Chow oyster pancake, which is rare and difficult with its slowcooked potato-starch filling that takes on a sticky, mochi-like texture and golden-yellow omelette ringed around the centre.
It's the only dish that wows and reminds you that Mr. Zhang is extremely talented and could be great - if only he stuck to his own vision.
New Mandarin Seafood Restaurant's pan-fried vermicelli with bitter melon and sliced beef in black-bean sauce, above, is one of the restaurant's most popular dishes, as its pie-crust shaped topping is extremely photogenic. The eatery's nouveau pastry swans, left, which are currently very sought after in London and Hong Kong, are filled with purple yam that have a strong sesame flavour.
PHOTOS BY JIMMY JEONG/ THE GLOBE AND MAIL