Sunday, December 14, 2014

Gluten Free and No MSG Chinese Food at The Change Dining and Bar

The Change on Urbanspoon
One of the problems with Chinese restaurants is that often, things are sort of samey -- everything looks like it was done in the same wok because it's got the same sweet-salty glaze over it. There are a few specialty ones, like 3G Vegetarian Restaurant, which has a vegetarian menu complete with simulated meats and seafood, but the food looks odd. So whenever someone asked me for a Chinese restaurant recommendation, I end up telling them that I grew up on the stuff and mom makes it better. Not any more!

The Change is new to downtown Vancouver in the black-hole location that has seen the Crime Lab and Sol Sun Belt Cookery and others come and go despite what appears to be a beautiful location and sort-of-monopoly of the local highrises simply because they are the closest dining place around.
Of particular interest to those who like Chinese cuisine will be the commitment to no MSG, a focus on being gluten-free for most items, and not being afraid to have some chili-spiciness to zing some dishes.
Plus, the chef (Jing Ze Hu) the chef is reckoned to be famous -- but you can decide based on his bio. It's JiangSu cuisine and includes specialties such as Squirrel-Shaped Mandarin Fish and Nanjing Salted Duck.

On Saturday, Ronald Lee of Eat Marketing arranged for us to have a $24-per-person nine-course at The Change Dining & Bar, so we got to try a lot of mostly excellently-prepared dishes. He did NOT ask us to write reviews, and this was certainly not a free meal (came out to $30 per person after tax and tip) but the price was very good for what we got. The power of bulk purchase, I suppose, since there were about 30 of us in total spread over four tables.

Deep Fried Bread with Condensed Milk
  • Some of the best bread I've had. Not too porous on the inside, yet surprisingly pillowy-soft. Not oily on the outside. And the use of condensed milk as a dip is both simple and delicious. Crazy but true -- at our table a few people raved about it (have they never had condensed milk?).
Sliced Pork
  • Not exactly sure what the first item was. This was a cold appetizer of sliced pork. Nothing special, just tasty in a simple way.
Xiao Long Bao 小籠包
  • These small steamed "soup buns" have meat inside (of course) but also some soup. If it doesn't have soup, it's goofed up (like mine was, sadly). Don't poke it if you can since you'll lose the soup. Instead, try to bring it to your mouth and nibble it to get the soup out, or if you want to risk the contents being hot, you eat the whole thing in one bite.
  • Nothing wrong here, nothing too special either. Overall nicely done if everyone else's soupy dumplings were any indication.
Deep Fried Spicy Tofu 椒鹽豆腐
  • This was surprisingly excellent. The probably-rice-panko crust was very cripsy and not oily. The tofu was cut quite thin (maybe 4mm-5mm) so tofu-haters will hardly get any of the yucky slightly-bitter tofu flavour and can instead concentrate on deep-fried goodness. The crust was on the salty side and contended nicely with the use of chilies. If you're not lucky you might be a larger portion of chili and fire in your mouth, though. But for those who like and are not afraid of spiciness, this was a very nice dish. I hate tofu, but I actually really liked this one.
Spicy Chicken Breast 大千雞
  • Not-too-salty savory slices of chicken, firm enough to have a bit of "crunch" to it. Very tasty without being so salty that you reached for water or were inclined to ask for rice. Taste and feel in the mouth made this dish lovely to eat. Also another winner with our group.
Mongolian Cumin Slice Lamb 蒙古孜然羊肉
  • Served with some sort of token fried vegetable and deep fried vermicelli. Not so heavy with the spice that it overwhelmed the dish. Try to get at more of the noodles so you don't end up with just that on the plate.
Squirrel-Shaped Mandarin Fish 松鼠魚
  • Couldn't find this on the little take-out menu brochure, but we definitely had this item and it was really tasty. The middle of the fish is filleted, scored into cubes to look like scales. The head and tail were still there. The whole thing was deep fried to a non-oily crisp but the head and tail weren't drenched in sauce, so you can pinch off the large fins and eat them like crackers (which strangely, no one except myself and the one Peruvian in our group did).
  • Do not simply pick at the meat but have someone cut the middle meaty part all the way through into strips as preparation of this dish typically involves leaving the skin at the bottom, keeping the fish whole.
  • Watch out for bones if you take the head or tail piece but the meaty middle should be fine.
  • Different restaurants do this differently so online pictures will vary if you are trying to research it. There's also an interesting story behind the name and the presentation. If you can eat fish, I definitely recommend this item for both taste and interesting plating.
Shanghai Fried Rice 上海炒飯
  • The final non-dessert item. Rather disappointing after everything we had. Also the first time we had rice all night. Surprisingly fluffly and beautifully done rice, but otherwise the ingredients added to it didn't do anything for it at all. Came in a hot stoneware bowl that remained hot for a long time -- so be careful with this one when moving it about.
Fermented Rice Balls in Wine Soup 酒釀小丸子
  • A disappointing end to the dinner, unfortunately. It's probably a cultural difference issue but I really didn't caree for this dessert. It tasted like rice and gelatinous chunks in sugar water. Nothing fermented or wine-like here for me.
Instead of automatically getting pots of tea, the possibly not-trying-to-be-like-every-other-Chinese-restaurant approach was to ask what sort of drink you would like. You could, of course, ask for tea and it comes in a big coffee press. Short tumblers are the norm so if you want a hot beverage, they have to get a mug with a handle for you -- therefore do not be surprised if they take a count of how many people want hot water or tea. This can be a bit odd and awkward for some -- jus' sayin'.

There are square tables as well as large round tables (but without lazy susans on the night we were there, which made for a lot of reaching across the table). I recommend going for the square tables if you are sharing, even if your party will be 8-10 persons.

Overall, the dishes were mostly nothing really special to write home about (except the deep fried spicy tofu!) but what made The Change special for me was how different it was from every other Chinese restaurant I'd been to. And maybe that was due to the absence of MSG combined with how tasty everything turned out anyway. If you're in Vancouver or Burnaby and don't want to run out to Richmond for more upscale Chinese dining, give The Change a try.
If you can't speak Mandarin or Cantonese to save your life, also give The Change a try: They are on OpenTable, so reservations are convenient and automated. There was at least one caucasian staff member (helpfully, that person was one of two front of house hostesses), so there is a clear effort to be convenient for non-Chinese speaking clientele.

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