Chinatown’s Sai Woo has been open not quite a year, and what a year it’s been.
The modern Asian eatery is one of the many reason’s Vancouver’s Chinatown is enjoying a new sense of identity and purpose, and the restaurant has drawn raves, including being a contender for the 2015 Best New Restaurant in Canada. They’ve opened their cozy, energetic, late-night downstairs lounge, endured the aftermath of a massive fire a couple of doors down, and are right now in the throes of the City’s work on Pender Street.
Recently Sai Woo brought on a new head chef who has put his signature touches on the menu. It’s a tight selection of refined dishes that, by design, allows the kitchen staff to execute it impeccably with each order. What remains is Sai Woo’s focus on the exciting meld of Chinese and Chinese-inspired flavours with local, high quality west coast ingredients.
Not only does Chinese food offer a dizzying array of regional cuisines and flavours, but it also can be credited as having a widespread influence on several aspects of other Asian culinary traditions. Sai Woo takes this one step further, and applies those influences to more Western ingredients and dishes, and the result is often a well-thought out dish with an equally fascinating back story.
Chef Keev Mah, whose background is Malaysian, brings to the table a sharp knowledge of Chinese food, but is also happy to veer from the expected to bring together tastes from regions that would otherwise never share the same table, let alone plate.
In Mah’s hands, the typically banal beet salad is amped up and taken to a funky, fresh, sour, spicy place thanks to the addition of fermented grapes, which, as they give way offer up an almost fizzy, grape soda gone wrong tang that has a strange allure. To balance the funk, the dish includes the mellowing factor of yogurt and the vibrant herbaceousness of plentiful fresh dill.
Like many of the items on the updated Sai Woo menu, this is a big dish masquerading as something small.
And still, small things, like a scallop crudo, become almost theatric, thanks to their housemade Nori “chips” that drape the plate like a trio of batwings. Beneath are the pearlescent ocean gems that are ever so lightly cooked, and draped on top of something called “fried milk.”
While fried milk might evoke some kind of culinary experiment from one of the many TV shows where chefs are urged to push the envelope, as Mah explains, it actually has its roots in the south of China, where milk is mixed with egg white and wok fried to create something that’s much like a milder and more supple cottage cheese. Though those briny nori chips provide a good crunch, doing the heavy contrast work on the dish are slivers of tart apple and earthy pine nuts.
Meanwhile, the sablefish is served so tender it’s hard to keep it from sliding off your fork before it makes it to your mouth. Crowned with curled scallion ends, this beautiful piece of fish is paired with brussels sprouts and cauliflower florets bearing a gorgeous char, chewy cassava cakes, and a cheery yellow curry sauce.
Nowhere is the study in geographic impossibilities given a better chance to show how well the flavours play together than in Mah’s robust lamb dish. Taking a braising method from Southern China, the lamb neck is made tender and flavourful, then pulled and pressed, and seared with a spice mix inspired by the street food of north-western China.
To give the globe another spin, the lamb is served with local seasonal squash prepared two ways; a silken puree and gratin-style, both a nod to classical French food. The dish is punctuated with the sharp notes of shallots and crispy shards of kale.
These unexpected twists of culinary worlds, along with the use of modern cooking techniques, is in part what Mah says makes the work interesting for his talented and eager staff. He and his crew are excited to take what they’ve learned from other jobs and studies and share it with Sai Woo’s diners, who may or may not even notice the subtle shift in the menu, because so much of it is in the method.
Sai Woo has also brought on pastry chef Oona Lucille Arellano, who has managed to create desserts that mirror the savoury side of the menu in their ambition and experimentation with flavours. The seasonal pumpkin tart plays on the expectation of fall flavours but twists things up a notch by using a sticky burnt-sweet molasses and creamy chocolate as a sauce, and with bright hits of candied ginger for heat, and a crisp pumpkin seed and cranberry tuille for crunch.
Even more delightful is the panna cotta, which is dotted with poached pears and sprinkled with honeycomb crumbs and fresh licorice mint. It’s a delightful marriage of fruity, floral, and crunchy, with the pears hinting at the season’s coziness and the mint an herbal reminder of the fresh vibrancy of the season we left behind.
It’s exciting to watch a restaurant like Sai Woo evolve, adapt, and expand, all while setting up roots in a historic building in a historic part of town. Chef Mah’s new menu is territory worthy of exploration for diners seeking a bit of spice, a lot of imagination, and big, bold flavours.
Address: 158 E Pender Street, Chinatown