Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Tasting Menu at Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie - Part 1 of 3

Meet The Neighbours - Tannis Ling, Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie from This Space on Vimeo.

Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie on Urbanspoon
This is the first in a three-part blog post about Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie and my experience of their tasting menu. In this first part, I'll talk about the restaurant in general. In the second part, I'll go through some of the smaller plates that were part of our tasting menu experience. In the last part I'll go through the larger plates and remaining dishes.

Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie can be a confusing place if you go in with preconceptions and expectations. A brasserie is "a type of French restaurant with a relaxed, upscale setting, which serves single dishes and other meals". Bao Bei is NOT a "Chinese restaurant".

Of course it depends on what you think a "Chinese restaurant" to be. Chinese (and North Indian) restaurants have very strong stereotypes going for them that can be hard to shake. In a "typical" Chinese restaurant, you'll get a menu with 100+ items, most of which will be a heap of noodles or veggies smothered in various tasty soups or sauces. You get large portions (especially for stuff like chow mien), and it's actually hard to find a place where it turns out badly. Even "posh" Chinese restaurants can be considered to serve up similar fare, but in nicer surroundings and with pricier seafood on the menu.
And then there's dim sum, of course, where you get time-tested recipes of interesting small plates and $20 can defeat you with the sheer amount of food, depending on where you go.

By these stereotypes, Bao Bei is not a "typical Chinese restaurant" and just a look at their Saturday night Yaletown-ish clientele -- in a very Chinese district of Chinatown and with the Chinatown night market literally on their doorstep on Keefer street -- should tell you more than anything that this is a boutique place for non-Chinese people who didn't grow up eating Chinese food. Except for the owner, Tannis Ling, the floor staff isn't Chinese either. Which really doesn't mean anything since the waitresses aren't manning the woks, but if you're looking for "ethnic", having culturally aligned servers tends to give a more comforting vibe.

That said, before I continue with the review of our tasting menu experience, I should say I grew up on Chinese food in Singapore and at home with mom's cooking. Many things on the menu look familiar or have familiar components, and it's hard to mentally turn off the biographical critic that immediately says "this isn't the way it's made".
For example, the "Chinese donut" is based on the "youtiao" ("you char kway" in Singapore) but is clearly more donut than Chinese. However that's really just because we don't have another word for it. Calling it a youtiao when you're using the same shape and style (it's still deep fried long strips that easily tear off from one another) is probably the easiest way of describing it. If you can turn off your cultural preconceptions, it's just an item on the menu and the restaurant can prepare it anyway they want.
It's not what I had growing up (more porous and chewier in a fun way, though also a bit oilier, sad to say), but there's nothing technically "wrong" about it. I think it is this biographical read (and maybe also a menu that isn't in Chinese) that pulls a different crowd into Bao Bei. It's a small restaurant that's busy enough to have to disallow reservations, so there's something good going on even if their immediate neighbours might not seem to eat there.
Interestingly, the decor might be "more Chinese" than most generic Chinese restaurants, and it's worth a quick peek at the vintage ornate knick-knacks that give it the sort of ambiance you see in old Chinatown photos. Glasfurd & Walker handled the branding for Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie -- identity, signage, print, and web design.

The one time Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie will take reservations is for their "family table" at the far back of the restaurant if you give them a credit card to hold the table. There are two seatings, at around 6pm (out by 8pm) and around 8pm. It seats about 8 in booth style seating. Two stools can add another two. A third stool and a tight squeeze all around will fit in 12 and that's really the limit. At 10 the servers already have a hard time accessing the table, and in any case someone will need to pass the dishes down and empty dishes back up. Our dining group this past Saturday was 12, and I wouldn't recommend that size of a group again.

Their $30 tasting menu is very flexible and more or less done on the fly. Even on the day of our reservation, they were ready to adapt the menu to whether we wanted safer choices or "more adventurous" menu items. It covers a good selection of the menu, and after 12% tax and 18% tip (automatic for parties of 7 or more), it works out to basically $39 before drinks.

Another bonus to this flexibility is in how they can accommodate tricky diners who might have restrictions or allergies. We had one person in our party with a shellfish allergy, which I had miscommunicated to the restaurant as a broader "seafood allergy". The kitchen pulled out their "tofu" (cold soft tofu, black bean, green Sichuan peppercorn ground pork, shimeji mushrooms, garlic chips, and jade radish) to make sure she had something to eat and wasn't missing out because she had to pass on too many things.

In our next two posts, we'll go through the food that came to our table as part of the tasting menu. The restaurant estimates 80% of their menu is covered by the tasting, and approximately 2 plates of orders per person in terms of food. Also, depending on how a group handles the plates, what one gets in a big share-fest like this might not be the same as ordering a la carte. For example, I completely missed out on the steamed dumplings as I somehow got missed with the stacked trays were being passed around. And there were bowls with noodles and some greens on top. Contrary to server instructions, the initial persons who got this didn't stir it up thoroughly enough and many of us didn't discover the tender duck chunks way at the bottom.

The food came quickly except for the final two items, and we were done in a mere 90 minutes or so out of the two hours booked for our early seating.

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