Big Chef -
As I mentioned in my Michigan Noodle Restaurant post a few days ago, I got cold feet the first time that I planned on visiting Big Chef. But after reading the positive review of the restaurant that commenter Crispy Lechon pointed me to (along with a few other equally positive reviews), I decided to finally give the place a try. I visited the restaurant for lunch on a Sunday, since it was the only day and time-slot of the week that all four members of my family was available to travel all the way to Richmond for a meal.
I had no idea that their lunch menu was different from their dinner menu until I arrived at the restaurant. I was more than a little disappointed when I was given the lunch menu which had limited choices; they had none of the mouth-watering dishes that I read about in the online reviews. Because they did not have the dishes that we had originally planned on ordering, my wife and I simply ordered items we usually order at Cantonese restaurants while also soliciting a few suggestions from our server.
This dish was the first to arrive, and it was a great start to the meal. The clams were sweet and fresh, while the broth really did have “superior” flavours. Not only did the broth contain the sweetness of the clams, it also had the aromas of the de-alcoholized wine and the perfectly complementary flavours of the ginger, cilantro, and scallion garnishes. This clam dish was probably one of the best clam-based dishes that I’ve had in the past twelve months.
The second dish that we received was another one with soup: the soaked rice with oysters , watercress, meat, and garnish.
Soaked rice is one of my wife’s all-time favourite dishes, and she always orders it if it is offered by a restaurant that we visit. We have been on a rather unlucky steak of too-salty and too-heavy-on-oyster-flavour soaked rice dishes of late. We really hoped that the one we ordered at Big Chef broke us out of our slump. It did. The dish was enjoyably light. It was not over-salted and the oyster flavours were only noticeable as one of several harmonic flavour components within each bite. The combination of the watercress, cilantro, and crispy-fried shallots gave the dish a freshly crispy textural dimension that provided the wet-yet-firm soaked rice, squishy-firm chopped oysters, and properly-firm meat with a beautiful textural contrast. The only negative with this dish was that it was way too much for the four of us to finish; we would’ve easily been satisfied with half the portion size.
The third dish that arrived was the blanched fatty beef.
Although not as delectably good as the first two dishes that we recevied, the blanched fatty beef was still a good dish. The thin slices of fatty beef were well-blanched. They were fully cooked yet not too tough, not too dry, and not too chewy. The unctuous slices of beef were helped out with the crunchy, slightly spicy strips of scallions on top and the juicy, crunchy bean sprouts on the bottom. The soy/red chili/scallion/cilantro dip also added a spicy-herby saltiness that added a kick in flavours to the delicate slices of beef.
After the blanched fatty beef came the rice rolls and spare ribs with XO sauce in a clay pot (the name sounds much shorter in Chinese).
As good as the clam and the soaked rice dishes were, I thought that this rice roll and spare rib dish was even better. The rice rolls were silky smooth and enjoyably multi-layered. The spare ribs had the perfect ration of fat to meat. They were also squishy, unctuous, bitey, and irresistably delicious. The XO sauce was as it should be, with the flavours of conpoy, dried shrimp, and spiciness shining through. The combination of these three components with a lighter and thickened sauce, cilantro, and just the right amount of MSG created an ultra-delicious dish that stood out among all of the dishes we ordered.
The quality and tastiness continued with the next dish that arrived: the pea shoots sauteed with minced garlic.
Prior to having this dish, I thought that all pea shoots sauteed with minced garlic dishes looked and tasted the same. This dish was a revelation. I was shocked at how evenly distributed the carmelized-but-not-burnt bits of fried garlic were among the pea shoots. I was equally surprised with the thin layer of thickened sauce that came with the pea shoots. The sauce and garlic gave the shoots a savoriness that I have never experienced with a fried pea shoots dish. The pea shoots themselves were fresh, crispy, and juicier than usual. I could see and taste the attention to detail and culinary excellence of the kitchen in this dish.
After the amazing pea shoots, I had no doubt that the sweet and sour pork we received next would be an extremely well-exectued dish.
I was correct to assume that the sweet and sour pork would be well-executed. The pork spare ribs had the same enjoyable fat-to-meat ratio as the spare ribs in the previous rice roll dish. The breading of the deep fried spare ribs were still crispy-crunchy despite being doused by the sweet and sour sauce. The sweet and sour sauce itself was enjoyable but rather ordinary. It was way more sweet than sour; I personally would’ve preferred the sour component to be a little bit more noticeable. The pineapples, red peppers, and green peppers were also pretty standard for a sweet and sour pork dish served in an authentic Chinese restaurant.
The final dish that we received was the second and last dish recommended by our server: the crispy tofu with “golden sand”.
This dish was our least favorite dish of the meal. The crispy salted preserved duck egg yolk “golden sand” did not add much flavour to the the deep fried tofu. It only accentuated the dryness of the crispy tofu skin. The tofu itself was well-fried. The skin was nicely crispy without being greasy while the tofu was soft and tender. The problem I had with the tofu was its non-greasiness. The lack of oiliness gave the breading a dryness that I did not particularly enjoy. Perhaps if the tofu was no so well-fried it would’ve been greasier and more enjoyable. This was the one dish that did not benefit from the highly-skilled kitchen.
I really wished I had maned-up and visited Big Chef earlier and disregarded concerns about it being a hot pot focused restaurant. If I did, I would’ve discovered its amazingness and would’ve no doubt have already enjoyed more meals at the restaurant by now. After my visit yesterday, I have zero doubt that I will make Big Chef a destination restaurant. Crispy Lechon was right. Big Chef offers the same high quality of food as Hoi Tong at almost exactly half the price.