Red Star (Vancouver) –
Which restaurants would you choose if you only had two meals to showcase the local Chinese food scene to out-of-town visitors? This was the dilemma I faced for my sister-in-law and niece’s visit.
There were also several conditions to the meals: one of the meals would have to be Taiwanese food while the other Cantonese; waiting any amount of time would be out of the question (we also had to fit in some of my daughter’s previous-scheduled engagements/activities); and there must be Beijing/Peking roast served at one of the meals.
The choice for the Taiwanese restaurant was a rather easy one. Dinesty was what I considered to be the best local Taiwanese restaurant and waiting for a table there could be bypassed by making a reservation beforehand. Unlike most Chinese restaurant- where they take down your name and put you at the top of the waiting list when you arrive- Dinesty actually sets aside a table for your reservation so that you can walk straight into the restaurant and sit down at your reserved table when you arrive.
Our lunch at Dinesty turned out to be rather lackluster (hence the ‘was’ when I attributed it the title of the best local Taiwanese restaurant) and I really needed a memorable dinner to show my guests how good the local Chinese food scene is. I was originally thinking of taking them to one of the branches of Sun Sui Wah or Kirin, but I really couldn’t think of a dish at each of the two restaurants that would impress them (since my sister-in-law was buying, I wasn’t about to suggest that we go for broke by ordering the Alaskan King Crab at their current per-pound prices). Both restaurants serves generally well-executed and tasty Chinese food, but I just couldn’t think of a dish that I could “wow” them with.
My wife and I did a little brainstorming (yea, I know…brainstorming for restaurants…) and came up with Red Star. They served an exccellent Peking/Beijing roast duck and we could even make it a duck-themed dinner by ordering their equally excellent Cantonese roast duck. Those two dishes combined wouldn’t cost half of what an Alaskan King Crab would cost and they would be twice as filling. Red Star seemed to fit all of our criteria and it looked to be our best choice. So I immediately called the restaurant to make a reservation.
I was relieved to find available tables at the restaurant when we arrived (If the restaurant was full, we would’ve had to wait even with a reservation). We got a table at the far end of the restaurant and we were assigned a rather young server in a vest (instead of an older one in a suit). I have found that the level of service tends to be proportional with a server’s age in Cantonese restaurants, thus I was didn’t really have any high expectations for the service we were going to receive. Surprisingly, I was wrong. Our server was very attentive, friendly, and responded to all of our requests promptly. When I asked for water, I got water within 3 minutes. When I asked for suggestions on portion size and dishes to order, our server did not beat around the bush be giving us unclear, diplomatic answers. He gave us precise recommendations and even took our cost-considerations into account when suggesting portion sizes for the blanched spot prawns that we wanted to order.
The spot prawns, needing only a quick trip into some boiling water, was actually the first dish that arrived at our table.
I’m not going to wax poetic about how great the execution was with the spot prawns because there really wasn’t a lot of skill involved in blanching spot prawns. I’m just going to say that the kitchen did their jobs by not undercooking the prawns. Blanching is all about letting the great flavours of the product itself shine and I definitely was able to taste the great natural flavours of the spot prawn. For me, the most enjoyable part of the spot prawn was it’s head. I got beautifully sweet, briny ocean glory form the liquified guts contained in the heads of the prawns. The sweetness of the prawn heads had such enjoyable flavours that they almost approached uni territory, stopping short only becauce there was so little of the liquified goodness contained in each head compared to each sea urchin.
I thought that the flavours and textures of the spot prawn body was rather meh compared to it’s head. The body of the spot prawn had flavours that were not that much different than other types of blanched shrimps and prawns. The body of the spot prawns were definitely sweet, but not any sweeter or more flavourful than other blanched shrimp. The texture of the spot prawns were also no different than other prawns. They had a typical blanched fresh prawn texture, which was more fibery and firmer than the snappier pre-frozen shrimp.
The next dish that arrived at our table was the first course of our beijing roast duck duo: The crispy skin with pancakes.
This dish was as good as I remembered it to be. The skin was crispy, just-right-oily, and unctuous-like-it’s-nobody’s-business. The pancakes were as teeth-bouncingly elastic as ever. I could probably stretch out the pancake a couple of inches and let go with one hand to have it bounce back and hit my other hand. Put the crispy unctuous skin, some of the included sweet sauce and green onion stems on the pancake, and the result was one heck-of-a-delicious Chinese sandwich. The sweetness, the unctuousness, the spiciness (green onions), the crispiness, the juiciness (green onions), the doughiness, and the elasticity all combined to create a symphony of flavours and textures. Forgive me for being both repetitive and profane, but it was hella good! It was The S#@T!
Straight after we had the Beijing/Peking roast duck, we were served the Cantonese roast duck.
Unlike the 90-99% skin Beijing roast duck, the Cantonese roast duck was 90% meat and 10% skin. The skin on the Cantonese roast duck was no less crispy than the skin on the Beijing roast duck, but the meat was the main attraction. The duck meat was dense yet juicy, gamey yet aromatic. Every bite was intensely flavourful and immensely enjoyable. Adding the sweet and sour plum sauce brought another dimension to the duck. Instead of the rich, full-bodied taste of the plain duck, the sauced duck became lighter-bodied, brighter flavoured, and more sophisticated with a longer finish. If I were to compare it to wine, the unsauced duck would be a full-bodied California Cabernet while the sauced duck would be an aged French Burgundy from a regional aggregator. Both tasted amazing in their own right and each deserved to be treated as it’s own entity. I can’t help but salivate when I think back on the excellent Cantonese roast duck I had.
After the two roasted ducks, we were served blanched fatty beef on pea pod stems.
The beef was blanched in water without any seasoning, and it was meant to be had with the spicy soy sauce that came in a separate little bowl. I had a few slices of beef without sauce just to see what they tasted like and I like what I tasted. The beef was perfectly blanched. I could actually feel them bounce while holding the slices with chopsticks. Once they entered my mouth, I could immediately feel their tenderness while at the same time feeling the familiar textures of thin-sliced beef. Every slice was suitably fatty that I could feel a slight but not overly exaggerated unctuousness. Adding the simple spicy soy sauce to the beef gave it all the flavours it needed. The saltiness and spiciness did a great job in enhancing the existing unctuous beef flavours while also adding a moist component to the already tender beef.
Whereas the pea pod stems underneath would normally be an afterthought, the pea pod stems in this dish were as prominent as the beef. They were also cooked perfectly. The leafs were not limp and had a crispiness to them while the stem was neither too fibery nor too stiff. The also added just enough oil to fully cover both the stems and the leaves to give them a smoother texture as well as a richer flavour. The pea pod stems were so good that we finished it before we finished the beef, which marked the first time that I’ve ever seen a blanched fatty beef with vegetables dish being devoid of any greens and containing only beef.
The last dish that we were served was the stir-fried duck meat with lettuce wrap.
As is always the case with this dish, it came at the end of the meal when everyone at the table was already full. So no one, including me, had really any desire or appetite to even scoop up some meat onto a piece of lettuce. Since I wanted to at least know if the wrap tasted any different from my previous visits, I powered myself to make one of the wraps and to eat the finished product. I can confirm that the wrap tasted as good as it has ever tasted. The lettuce tasted fresh and juicy while the stir-friend duck and all the rest of the ingredients combined to create a very pleasant amalgamation of textures. There was crunchy, firm, crispy, soft, and even some teeth-bouncing elastic textures mixed in. The sweet sauce also added a nice sweetness that went well with the flavours of all the chopped up pieces of duck, vegetables, and other ingredients of the dish. I think I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again: Although good, this dish would’ve tasted much better if it was served earlier in the meal when we were hungry.
After all our savories were cleared off our table, we were served complimentary red bean sweet soup and Chinese petit fours.
The red bean soup was a very nice end to our meals. It was warm, rich, and flavourful. It was not so sweet that you felt guilty for having a dessert after such a filling meal but sweet enough to remind you that you were indeed eating a dessert. It not only had red bean flavours, but it also had an additional citrusy flavour that came from orange peels. The additional citrus flavours added to the illusion that the sweet soup was lighter than it really was.
The petit fours came in the form of a pacman-like sesame crusted solid-state dough fritter and a shortbread-like nut (almond?) cookie. Both were nicely made and quite tasty. Both were not too sweet and both were as crispy and thick as a cookie could be. Their sizes were also adequately petite that you could eat a piece without feeling like you’ve added too much calories to the already calorie-filled dinner.
Once again, I have nothing but praises for the food at Red Star. Every dish was expertly prepared and perfectly executed. Every dish was supremely flavourful with very enjoyable textures. The two roast duck dishes were as good as ever, and the other dishes were also standouts among similar versions of the same dishes that I’ve had at other restaurants. The service was also surprisingly good, with our young server being as attentive to our requests as older managerial types in black suits. I don’t even know what I can conclude about another great dining experience at Red Star except this: I will definitely be back again and again to enjoy the great service and the amazing food…For once I’m satisfied with the status quo and do not want a thing to change about the meal experience. Everything should stay just the way it is.