David Wong is no stranger to Olympic pressure. The Vancouverite cooked at the international culinary Olympics in Switzerland in 2006, where, as part of Team Canada, he took home a gold medal. Last year, he represented Canada at the Bocuse d’Or world cuisine competition in France, placing a very respectable ninth in the world.
So opening a new restaurant during an extremely high-pressure period—just days before the Winter Olympics began—didn’t faze him.
Wong is the executive chef at Oru, a pan-Asian restaurant in the brand-new Fairmont Pacific Rim hotel. “I’m looking out the window and I see hordes of people—we’re just the eye of the storm,” Wong says on the line from the hotel, which is near the Olympic flame at the Vancouver Convention Centre. But despite the craziness around him, he hasn’t felt overwhelmed. His team has been testing dishes for months, and they’re happy to finally be cooking.
Wong oversees all of the hotel’s culinary operations, which include Oru and Giovane. The latter is an Italian-inspired counter service café that’s so stylish it’s likely to become a favourite with the office-worker crowd. The modern, white lobby bar is also primed to see its fair share of happy-hour action. And Oru is poised to shake up pan-Asian dining in the city.
Normally, I view any restaurant that calls itself “pan-Asian” with suspicion. The term is usually code for Asian food that’s dumbed down for western tastes. Vancouver has so many authentic restaurants to choose from—Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Korean, and so forth—that I prefer to pick one type of cuisine and let the specialists do it right.
But Oru’s menu is different. There’s no fusion confusion, just local ingredients prepared with authentic methods and sophisticated flavours. Witness tandoor-roasted B.C. spot prawns; sizzling Korean bibimbap; seared Qualicum Bay scallops with chawan mushi, a Japanese egg custard; Vietnamese pho made with Pemberton beef brisket and bánh mí¬ subs with house-made headcheese; and a whole arctic char cooked Chinese-style with soy sauce, ginger, and scallions. To top it all off, Oru claims to have the largest sake cellar in the city.
That the restaurant makes its own ramen noodles and tofu is an indication of something special. What other Vancouver restaurant does that?
The restaurant’s design emphasizes clean lines and it has a spacious, airy feel. The name, Oru, comes from the Japanese word meaning “to fold”. A 54-metre-long origami light sculpture by local artist Joseph Wu runs the length of the ceiling. The whole place positively gleams with a trendy, casual elegance. Cool marble tables and warm blond floors balance yin and yang. Each section in the expansive restaurant offers a different feel, from people-watching views at the windows to bright energy near the open kitchen, especially at the two elevated chef’s tables.
Since I dined during the first week of service, I cut the restaurant a lot of slack in terms of my expectations of a polished experience. Inevitably there were kinks. But our server was exceedingly gracious, went out of her way to ensure that we left happy, and was already surprisingly knowledgeable about the menu. Dishes are meant to be shared but vary in size; appetizers run $9 to $14 each, noodle soups about $15, and mains $15 to $38. At lunch time, there’s a build-your-own cross-cultural “Square Lunch” for $24. (The restaurant also serves standard western breakfasts.)
Some dishes were winners and others needed tweaking. The homemade tofu was lovely and silky, with a mild, nuanced flavour coming from a sauce of maitake mushrooms, fresh Mongolian truffles, and braised daikon. The Peking duck faltered on flavour and texture, with popcorn-like crisps of skin rather than the luscious sheet the dish is famous for. The smoked fish in the sablefish clay pot was gorgeous and buttery, but there wasn’t nearly enough of it. And the clay pot itself was MIA (it came in a bowl), so the dish was really just a mass of Chinese-sausage fried rice and didn’t have that crunchy clay pot touch. (Wong explained in a subsequent phone interview that the Peking duck may be modified, and that he’s still awaiting the clay pot shipment.)
But the shoyu ramen showed how good this restaurant can be. This is easily the best ramen in Vancouver. With firm, chewy noodles and juicy pieces of Berkshire pork belly braised for 24 hours in a rich pork-and-chicken broth, the flavour is enough to make a Japanese businessman weep.
Authenticity is important to Wong, who developed the recipes in close collaboration with his team of cooks, who hail from Vietnam, China, India, Malaysia, the Philippines, and elsewhere. (Wong has Chinese roots and grew up in Nanaimo.) He relates that all the cooks have eaten Asian food widely in Vancouver and know the high standards the city demands. He laughs as he describes their conversations in the kitchen: “ ”˜My mom doesn’t do it that way’; ”˜Well, my mom does it like this.’ ”
I’ve barely scratched the surface at Oru, but I’ll be back for more. I’m willing to bet all the cooks will do their mothers proud.