Xin Mao wants a Richmond culinary scene for his generation. Mao is a 30-something millennial who has studied culinary arts in Vancouver and worked in the city's fine-dining establishments. He has witnessed the growth of sustainable practices in the restaurant industry and the emergence of a culinary sensibility that is focused on local, healthy and distinct cuisine. Food with a story, recipes from the heart.
Last fall, Mao took over management of one of the most well-known Chinese restaurant names in the Vancouver area. Sun Sui Wah has one location on Main Street in Vancouver and an original dining room in Richmond, a suburb whose population includes more than 60 per cent immigrants -- the highest percentage of foreign-born residents in the country -- and roughly 50 per cent Cantonese speakers. For years, the restaurant was stagnant, Mao says, as Sun Sui Wah and others like it catered to an older clientele.
"It can be hard to try new things because there's a risk involved. But I know there are a lot of young people, my friends, people my age, who don't only want to have the same dining experience that their parents had," says Mao, who worked at Vancouver's Cioppino's, among other kitchens. "We're making changes to update the kitchen, the menu and the dining space."
At Sun Sui Wah, the rejuvenation process has started with dim-sum options that demonstrate Mao's dramatic shift. Blended in with the saucy, deep-fried dishes for which Chinese restaurants are famous are Mao's fresher, simpler and more enjoyable creations.
They include a bamboo container of root vegetables that have been steamed and served with no accompaniment other than a ramekin of white sugar.
"Farmers celebrate occasions like new year with steamed vegetables, with only a bit of sugar in the middle," Mao informs. The root vegetables include yam, corn, taro and various potatoes. "I love this dish. I love serving it. It's what I grew up eating all the time and I still have it whenever I can. This to me is real Chinese food because it has so much cultural importance."
Another item he is happy to feature is a taro cake, an earthy and flavourful treat that is made with only natural sugars. Even staple Cantonese dishes like shrimp dumplings and pork buns are getting a refresh as Mao aims to improve the quality of ingredients and food-service providers.
"We're starting with the Richmond location first, working with more local farms. I'm at the farmers' markets all the time, searching for the kind of products that I think we should be serving to bring new customers in," says Mao, who adds that the restaurant had noticed a slip in the number of diners during the past several years.
Although Sun Sui Wah is still packed on weekends for dim-sum lunches, Mao thinks more competition has kept some patrons away during the week. Richmond is full of Chinese restaurants and standing out from the pack is Mao's chief goal. A renovation is underway to update the dining room -- which, like many in Richmond, resembles a banquet hall -- bringing some modernity as well as additional seats to a restaurant that can already accommodate more than 150 diners.
"The food scene here really hasn't changed and I want to help bring that change forward because I think there's more to Chinese food than what most people realize," he says.
I visited Sun Sui Wah last month during Chinese New Year celebrations. It was one of a handful of Richmond restaurants I dined at. Here are some thoughts on others worth visiting:
MOMA CONTEMPORARY BISTRO: Co-owned by Xin Mao and Henry Mok, MoMa is not at all your typical Richmond experience. It is young, hip and European, despite the Asian heritage of its chef-owners. Mok has worked at Vancouver's well-regarded CinCin and at the defunct Ensemble, which was owned by Top Chef Canada winner Dale MacKay (who has since moved on to open one of the nation's best restaurants, Ayden in Saskatoon). At MoMa, the dishes are made with fine cooking techniques and include menu items that are French and Italian, with an Asian twist. The highlights are the crispy pork belly ($12.50) served with a delicious taro root puree and the sous-vide duck ($27) -- tender, flavourful and worth the trip to Richmond. Sourced from Quebec's famed Brome Lake farm, the plate comes with kumquat, lentils and vegetables.
"I really enjoy Italian cooking and Henry has that French training and experience, so we are blending the two here but also drawing upon our backgrounds when we come up with the flavour combinations," Mao says of the little bistro that seats about two dozen.
MoMa is in a location that's easy to miss, because it's in a small strip mall a few blocks away from the Aberdeen Centre mall and the Golden Village, where Richmond diners and shoppers usually congregate.
Seek it out, though, because Mao and Mok are passionate about presenting a fine-dining experience in a city not known for such high culinary aspirations.
HOI TONG SEAFOOD RESTAURANT: It's the kind of hidden gem that can attract foodies from all over -- and that's what has happened to Yiu Tong Leung's humble restaurant. Hoi Tong has ranked among the Vacay.ca Top Restaurants in Canada Guide for two consecutive years, placing 81st in 2013 and 46th in 2014. Leung, the 70-year-old owner and chef, creates Cantonese dishes based on decades-old recipes. The flavours are fascinating and different from other Chinese dishes you've probably tried. For example, the winter melon soup -- dipped out from a silver chalice and containing bits of crab and seafood -- is eye-opening comfort food.
"Hoi Tong is the absolute epitome of Hong Kong-style, cultured Cantonese cuisine," says Lee Man, an expert on Chinese food who writes for Vancouver Magazine and is a member of the Vacay.ca Top Restaurants Voting Academy. "The flavours are pure and tight -- with technique that brings forth the natural sweetness of top-notch ingredients."
SUHANG:I visited Suhang in 2014 for a Chinese New Year celebration and couldn't wait to return for this year's occasion. Suhang has two dishes I adore: the xiaolongbao, also called "soupy buns", and the eight-treasure duck. Famous in Shanghai, the xiaolongbao feature ground pork or crab swimming in soup broth and contained inside a pocket of steamed dumpling-like dough. Suhang does them exceptionally well.
The duck, meanwhile, is a traditional new year's dish. It is stuffed with dates, ginkgo nuts and sticky rice seasoned with Asian flavours. The dish is usually available during the week of new year celebrations, but Suhang also regularly serves Beijing duck, which you can pre-order.
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