Vancouver has a surplus of Chinese restaurants, many of which serve Southern (Cantonese style) Chinese food. While you may not know what separates Southern and Northern Chinese food, they do differ a fair amount.
In the North wheat and millet are the staple foods, while in the South rice is the staple food. The staple foods are determined by the climate as in the North they have long, cold winters that limit rice production. The Northern winters also force locals to preserve their meats which can sometimes produce an “odd” taste, often masked by “hot and spicy” dishes.
Northern foods are usually boiled, braised, stewed, steamed, roasted, glazed, deep-fried, or stir-fried. More oil is used in stir-frying in Northern cuisine and the use of vinegar, garlic and spices are commonly used to develop the aroma and taste. In Southern cuisine they are blessed with an abundance of rice, fruit, vegetables, poultry and seafood, so they tend to emphasize the original flavors and aromas of the fresh ingredients.
Last week I got a taste of China’s North with a slight “modern” twist and a West Coast freshness.
Chef Ru-Lin Zhang recently opened his second restaurant Sen Bistro at 1788 West Broadway. While his other restaurant, Lin Chinese Cuisine and Tea House, has been offering traditional Northern Chinese fare for seven years, Sen serves Northern Chinese dishes infused with a little personal flair.
While staple items such as hot and sour soup and ginger beef are still on the menu, they also offer some unique dishes such as salmon flambé with oyster mushrooms and homemade hot-pepper sauce, and pulled pork and daikon stew.
At a media dinner on January 30th I sampled a variety of Chef Zhang’s new menu items, leaving the restaurant stuffed to the rim and with a slight buzz.
Upon entering the restaurant we were offered a glass of St Hubertus Rose VQA as we snacked on the curry beef spring rolls and cumin lamb cubes. We had the opportunity to mingle with other guests while checking out the venue and getting to know the the kitchen staff, the managing team and the “quick on their feet”, friendly, bilingual servers.
Beef curry spring roll
Cumin lamb cubes
As we took our seats we were treated to a hefty amount of food that came in every texture and shape you could think of, some of which I had before, many of which I hadn’t. I sat with fellow food lovers, Mijune Pak (Follow Me Foodie), Cara Payne (Foodists.ca) and Brian Smith (Urban Diner). Despite having a group of individuals with hearty appetites we were still unable to finish everything we were served.
To quench our thirst, the food was paired with Cono Sur’s 2011 Viognier, Yellow Tail’s Pinot Grigio and Lucky Star’s 1011 Pinot Noir.
Celery and dried scallop, chicken salad with spicy peanut dressing, pickled lotus roots
Broad bean and sherchai mash
Salt and pepper crunchy tofu
Chicken, enoki and shitake soup
Lormi xiaomai – sticky rice-filled xiao mai riffs on Cantonese-style dim sum
Salmon flambé with oyster mushrooms
Braised pork with pumpkin in soybean paste
Golden honey mustard prawns and wok-fried prawns with garlic-chili sauce
Wok-fried seasonal vegetables include eggplant, mushroom, snap peas, and carrots
Steamed buns and crepes
When it was time for dessert we were poured some of Jam Jar’s 2011 Sweet Shiraz.
Pumpkin stick in a yellow yam pudding with purple yam ball coated in coconut
Lormi-zhi – sticky rice balls filled with sweet black bean paste or crushed nuts
My favorites of the night were the flavorful beef curry spring rolls, the irresistible honey mustard prawns, the uber saucy wok-fried vegetables, the tender braised pork and pumpkin, and the cleansing chicken, shitake and enoki soup.
On their own the steamed buns were bland but like any starchy substance if you stick it with flavorful meat you’ve got yourself a tasty snack. Many people reached for the saucy braised pork to put in the middle, and of course I followed suit, ever so happy that I did.
My love for fire was aroused as the Chef came to each table and flambéed the salmon. It was seared nicely on the outside, cooked medium and juicy in the middle, and coated with a delicious sweet and spicy in-house made hot pepper sauce.
The tofu serving that I received was not crunchy as it claimed to be, something that would’ve changed the dish incredibly. The simple salt, pepper, chili flake coating was delicious though and made them easy to pop in to my mouth without it burning from too much heat.
The semi-sweet yam pudding didn’t quite hit the spot for me as I was craving something sweet, so I opted for the very sweet Jam Jar as dessert instead. That said it seemed to be a crowd pleaser so I can only imagine that it was prepared as it should be and just wasn’t for me. Of the plate of lormi-zhi I favored the pink one because of the sweet black bean paste inside (and because I never get to eat pink food). I did however like the textural contrast that the nut-filled ones offered.
The presentation of the entire meal was immaculate and I loved the addition of rose carrots and leaves as garnish, adorable soup bowls, and varied plates, baskets and hot plates for ever dish.
Sen Bistro offers daily lunch specials for $8.95, with items on the dinner menu ranging from $5.29 to $16.99. The restaurant also offers sukiyaki, a Japanese-style hot pot with beef or pork, tofu, vegetables, udon noodles, and broth for $24.99.
To check out their menu, click here.
For more high resolution photos check out my Sen Bistro set on Flickr.