163 Keefer St Vancouver, BC V6A 1X3
Tastiness Factor: 5/5
Locavore approved? YES- seasonal produce used in the dishes (had no idea bamboo was in season?), nightly feature dishes made with fresh and available ingredients, local and sustainable seafood)
I was fortunate enough to celebrate Valentine's Day twice this year. Since Valentine's Day was a Thursday, I had booked Bishop's for the Saturday (see next review) and then, at the last minute, myself, my husband and a few of our "couples" friends decided to go out as a group on actual Valentine's Day. We had tried to get into Bao Bei before on a Saturday night, but we were told it would be a 2-1/2 hour wait and we were just too hungry to stick it out. So we figured that we would try on this Valentine's Thursday instead to see if we would have better luck.
And thank goodness, luck was in our favor. There was only a 50 minute wait when we arrived at 8pm so we happily went to the Keefer Bar (also a fun spot) for drinks next door while we waited.
The location of Bao Bei is such that you would likely never stumble upon it if you were not intentionally searching for it. It is located in Chinatown, which tends to be a slightly sketchy neighbourhood especially in the night (we were approached quite boldly several times by people begging for money on the way in and out of the restaurant). When you walk inside, however, the atmosphere is great- very eclectic and fun, with a video game machine as you walk in the door. The 6 of us were seated right at the back at a round table around a banquette. It was the perfect table for a group our size, and very cozy.
Our server (I wish I could remember his name) was phenomenal. He was very laid back, while still being attentive to our requests. We decided to do a tasting menu (an option for larger groups) so that we could taste as many dishes as possible, and he diligently took the many food restrictions at our table (pescatarian, no pork, severe nut allergy) and helped create us a fantastic tasting menu (we got every single dish I had spied beforehand!). He seemed like one of the crowd before the night was out.
Food at Bao Bei is meant to be served family-style in the form of sharing plates. I HIGHLY recommend going with a group of friends and ordering a tasting menu as we did, as you will want to taste as many dishes as possible, I can guarantee you. The tasting menu may also lead you to eat dishes that you would not have ordered yourself, some of which may surprise you with how good they are (this happened to me more than once!). Here is the lowdown on our custom-designed tasting menu:
Schnacks (assorted pickles, marinated eggplant, sichuan cucumbers)- These little bites were the perfect beginning to our dinner. Each had a very distinct taste and texture, and were amazingly spiced, giving a little taste of what was to come for the rest of the evening. Of the three, the eggplant was my favorite (perfect texture), but the cucumber came a suprisingly close second (so crisp, awesome spicy vinegrette).
Petit cadeaux (vegetable potstickers, steamed prawn and chive dumplings, steamed truffled pork dumplings)- I must admit that my husband and I are not usually big Dim Sum fans so were not expecting a lot from the dumplings, but we were in for a very pleasant surpirse with Bao Bai's version. The filling of the prawn and chive dumpling was superb and plentiful, with big chunks of prawn and the zing of scallion. My husband and my other pork-eating friends adored the truffled pork variety too. I was also a big fan of the potstickers which I would have never ordered had I chosen my own dishes. These fried dumplings were not the least bit greasy and had a mild filling. This is a great choice for all tastes- those that do not like spice can enjoy them as is and those that like it hot can add a few drops of Bao Bai's amazing homeade hot sauce (I added it to everything!).
Vegetables (king pea tips, lotus root)- It is no secret that I LOVE vegetables and the dish that I was most looking forward to after reading the menu and previous reviews was the king pea tips. It is therefore not surprising that I LOVED the king pea tips (the garmlic flavour was out of this world), but of the two veggie dishes, the lotus root was my favorite (the unique curry flavour was incredible). Everyone at the table agreed that these veggies were some of the best of the evening. Trust me, even if you normally avoid this food category, you must try Bao Bai's veggie offerings. They may just make a veggie lover out of you after all.
Petits Plats Chinois:
Crisp Pork Belly- My husband specifically requested that this dish be added to our tasting menu since he loved pork belly and heard that Bao Bei's version was a "must-have". And fortunately he was not let down. All of the "pork-eaters" at the table drooled over the crispiness of the pork as well as the anise sauce in which it sat. This was a resounding hit.
Kick Ass House Fried Rice- Wow, this one left me speechless. This dish, which, according to our server, takes 2 whole days to make is like no fried rice you have ever tasted before. The rice has the most wonderful light, almost fluffy texture and is complemented by a great variety of meaty mushrooms. The rice, with a few dashes of housemade hot sauce, are a little taste of heaven.
Sticky Rice Cake- This is a very unique dish that was enjoyed by the whole table (sans-pork due to multiple food restrictions). It is presented as a pasta dish but the "pasta" is actually sticky rice formed into oblong "noodles". The texture is very appealing, and the sauce is a lovely accompaniment. I was happy to get a taste of bamboo, which is currently in season (I learned this from our very wise server!).
Salmon- This was a steelhead salmon coming from Vancouver Island. It reminded me a lot of Atlantic salmon (which, being a Newfoundlander, I still prefer to the Pacific variety) and was perfectly cooked. It was surrounded by the most beautiful green pistou (oil, herbs) and topped with an Asian chili paste that, when eaten alone is quite pungent but together with the fish and the pistou worked magically well. This chef is an absolute miracle worker!
Although I expected Bao Bei to be good, I could not have predicted it to be THIS good. I would go so far as to calling this one of my new favorites in Vancouver. I was shocked at the complexity of flavour and the originality of the dishes- a true steal for the $30 we paid for the tasting menu. I really cannot day enough good about it. The next time (and yes, there will certainly be a next time, and hopefully soon), I may even be willing to wait the 2-1/2 hours...Bao Bai is just that good.
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