A new, fantastically decorated spot in the heart of Yaletown, 21 Nautical Miles is not, as its website claims, Vancouver’s “one and only Chinese-style contemporary restaurant”. (See Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie and Peninsula Seafood Restaurant as other examples.) It is, however, the only one that specializes in seafood boils.
Topped with white paper, your table is already set for the feast of Dungeness crab, snow crab, scallops, mussels, clams, prawns, sausages, corn cobs, and potatoes when you take a seat: there are wooden boards, mallets, crab crackers, and, tucked by your chopsticks, a plastic bib and glove and a packaged wet napkin.
Served on a silver platter for a minimum of two people (at $38.95 per person), the seafood boil “party” is the dish to have. You get to choose the flavour: garlic butter, black pepper, sweet and hot, and “spicy”. These are celebratory, hearty share plates, and they’re what the restaurant does best.
By contrast, pieces of wok-fried spicy king crab, a signature item served in a small bowl of tongue-numbing liquid infused with chili and chili oil, were cold right through to the inner shell.
The king crab was one of a small handful of items on the menu featuring Ocean Wise products. We avoided the “fragrance fish” ($38.95) after inquiring what type of fillet it was; basa, our server said, noting that it is soaked in chili oil before cooking and comes from the frozen section at the grocery store.
It’s possible to source responsibly farmed basa, but when it’s not certified as such, the item is most likely produced via intensive farming in large ponds that are stocked at extremely high densities. Because of the great risk of pathogens and parasites, basa is well-known to be loaded with antibiotics, pesticides, and disinfectants.
The restaurant had sold out of its 21 Nautical Miles seafood with rice, made with “secret” ingredients, so we opted instead for another signature dish, the garlic seafood with rice. Garlic certainly stands out here, and so does oil. The otherwise flavourless plate consisted of tiny, deshelled clams and three prawns that were somewhat slimy at the finish.
Shrimp spring rolls were dark brown from a bit too much time in the deep fryer, and they suffered from an unfortunate presentation, being served on a sheet of brown paper with large oil splotches underneath and beside each one.
Better items come from the dim-sum section of the menu. Served on a soft white bun, the pork in the Chinese burger is sweet, not spicy, though a few greens or even a sprig of cilantro would have lifted up the item’s flavour. XO sauce seasons a salad of cucumber and cold black fungus.
The crunchy, frilly mushroom that’s also known as cloud ear or tree ear is said to be helpful for improving circulation. Like tofu, it absorbs the flavour of whatever it’s served with; black fungus is more about texture than taste. If not terribly toothsome, barbecued beef and chicken skewers are also available.
Other meal options include a crawfish feast ($178) that must be ordered 24 hours in advance, the little crustaceans served in four flavours (garlic butter, spicy, black pepper, and sweet and hot) in dramatic fashion in a tower with dry ice; and Beijing roasted duck, a two-course main with duck skin wrapped in mini crepes and shredded duck-meat lettuce wrap ($62.88).
Service could have used more nuance: a pint of Victoria Driftwood Brewery’s Fat Tug IPA passed awkwardly across two people spilled, with no offer to mop up the puddle. To make room for all of the dishes at our table for four, one plate was shoved halfway up onto one of those aforementioned wooden boards so that it sat at an angle.
The décor in the two-level space is kaleidoscopic. Mauve lighting is projected on walls; tables on the main level sit under what looks like a magnificent jellyfish bloom, several golden blobs hanging from the ceiling. Three large TVs dominate the bar that looks out to the dining area. On the patio, tables are built into two ornately painted Chinese boats, prettily adorned with white lights.
Signature cocktails include a strawberry or apple mojito and a Zombie Strike, with melon and coconut liqueur. Three Chinese rice wines are available. A small but good selection of draft beer includes local brewery Parallel 49’s Gypsy Tears Ruby Ale, while there’s a single option each for red and white wine by the glass.