Good Vietnamese food isn’t hard to find in Vancouver—it’s served in many hole-in-the-wall restaurants. But while these places fill a niche, they generally aren’t stylish dinner destinations. If you’re looking to go out for a couple of drinks, soak up a bit of atmosphere, and graze on some innovative small plates, Vietnamese food doesn’t usually spring to mind.
Chau Kitchen & Bar caught my attention immediately when it opened at the corner of Robson and Nicola streets in October. It’s a small place, but sleek with personality. A marble bar divides the room into a larger section, flanked by an exposed brick wall, and a smaller section sunken into Robson’s sloping hillside. The vibe is energized Zen, created by mixing soothing potted orchids and Buddha-themed art with red walls and ambient beats. It’s the kind of place frequented by upscale young people in urban Southeast Asia—a spot that combines a bit of tradition with a lot of modern cool.
Owner and chef Maria Huynh grew up in East Van, but was inspired by her Vietnamese roots when she opened the restaurant. She explains by phone from Chau that she was raised around restaurants. Her extended family ran several Vietnamese restaurants, and her parents now own Kim Chau Deli on Kingsway, which makes and wholesales meat products such as beef balls for Vietnamese eateries. Huynh says that her hard-working mother—whose maiden name is Chau-started the deli from scratch after fleeing Vietnam with Huynh’s father in the 1970s. Huynh’s venture honours her mother through its name; on the walls hang sepia portraits of her young parents in Vietnam.
But 27-year-old Huynh isn’t living in the past, and she wanted to create a space that would speak to her generation. “I love the dining experience, as opposed to coming in just for food,” she says. So, she paid careful attention to the décor, the presentation of each dish, and the cocktail selection. Her cooking is anything but old-school. She takes a common dish such as la lot—bundles of minced beef, lemongrass, and garlic wrapped in betel leaves and grilled—and adds crunchy jicama. She matches a sauce made from caramelized sugar and soy and fish sauces with basa instead of the traditional pork.
“At first, my parents were like, ”˜You’re crazy! That sauce does not go with that meat,’ ” Huynh says, laughing. But she quickly adds that “Vietnamese food itself is considered fusion,” as it’s been influenced by China, Thailand, the nation’s French colonial history, and more, and even varies from north to south. After completing a basic culinary program at Dubrulle Culinary Arts, she saw this firsthand when she backpacked through Vietnam, taking informal cooking lessons from whoever would let her watch their pot. “I was blown away,” she says of her experience. “I finally understood where I came from.”
Chau’s menu is pleasingly short, and the dishes are meant to be shared. Our server advised three or four plates between two people, and the people at the table next to us—an arm’s length away—added some friendly recommendations.
I loved the rice-paper rolls ($7), cut in half and stacked on their ends like a cluster of toy soldiers. Unlike many salad rolls, they delivered fabulous texture, stuffed with crunchy lettuce and deep-fried rice-paper shards in addition to rice vermicelli and juicy lemongrass chicken. The accompanying peanut sauce—one of two choices—was overpowering, but the alternative apple vinaigrette, made from fresh Granny Smith apple purée, was a perfect match.
Huynh’s twist on green papaya salad ($8) also worked well. The julienned green papaya, daikon, carrot, and green apple made a delicate mix, but I would have appreciated more of the zippy orange vinaigrette. The cigar-shaped rolls of la lot ($7) made a succulent contrast. So did the 17-spice marinated short ribs ($10). Heaped on a platter of watercress, these thinly sliced, cross-cut ribs smacked with a sticky marinade of roasted black pepper, turmeric, garlic, paprika, fish sauce, and more. Warning: these are not for tackling in polite company. They’re slippery and not bite-sized, so they require you to maintain an iron grip on your chopsticks.
Even our simple beverages were special. Why can’t more restaurants infuse ice water with cucumber slices? Instant spa experience. And my tea, made with dried artichokes steeped with sugar cane and goji berries ($3), was lovely.
Next time, I’d try the chicken and taro spring rolls, or the pho bo, with meatballs supplied by Huynh’s family’s deli. Although these dishes may sound traditional, they’re sure to be spiced with Huynh’s creative touch.