Seafood boils are making a resurgence our food landscape with a few popping up around town. I first spotted this one by its purple neon lights while walking past at night. And today I was lucky enough to be invited to a media preview hosted by “Chinese Bites”, to feast on a few of their more elaborate dishes. Especially, as I won’t naturally find myself visiting such a place. I don’t like labour in eating and getting my hands dirty with boils and other crustacean dishes, but I would soon learn that there is so much more that they offer.
As a disclaimer, when it comes to a media tasting: plating and portion size may be gussied up and/or paired down, and the service will usually be top notch. Though I can at least paint you the most accurate image when it comes to the food and the setting, as how I interpret it. But as always, these are my opinions and you need not take them as fact. Unless you have my exact background, have lived my exact experiences, and we possess the same tongue. No one can truly taste and appreciate as you do.
I like the novelty and concept of seafood boils, but not actually its application. I don’t like working for the food I pay for. I also don’t like getting my hands messy when I eat. I keep my nails long, and getting anything stuck under them is the worst. During Chinese style family diners I avoid the fancy crab and lobster platters for these very reasons. So being treated to a meal now, I was willing to work for my food today. But not enough to keep cracking until the very end. I did enough to taste and say that I have. Though I was lucky to be seated by Sherman, of “Sherman’s Food Adventures”, and he was willing to cut, smash, and snip his way through a few legs and limbs, so that those around him could share the benefits of his labour. But more on that later.
Given its decor you might not be able to guess what they are offering right off the bat, but the name is more telling. “Nautical 21”, something to do with seafood? Inside, this Taiwanese restaurant spoke to it influences in the caricature prints and their decorative patterns. Illustrations of chibi-sized men and women dawning traditional Chinese wear hanging on the walls, and a few more silk screened on a smattering of their throw pillows. Each chair had its own pillow to ensure comfort and welcome an extended stay.
The swirl of white clouds paired with panels of red, yellow, and purple were the bursts of colour in a sea of bright white chairs and pale green tables. The latter was sturdy with thick curved legs. The gold trim gave them a little bit of glitz that matched the ceiling of gold bauble lamp shades. A cluster of gold orbs strung up by thick black cables, were like UFOs decending. They were memorizing and certainly the feature of the room. They attracted your eyes upwards and towards the second floor balcony.
However the stylized decor, the upbeat pop music, and the seafood boil concept didn’t flow together. Each element worked on its own, and was celebrated for its own uniqueness, but together they seemed confused. For a seafood boil I would expect a more causal setting befitting of a bib and the necessity of eating with your hands. Here the decor was better suited to a night club with its purple glow and coloured spot lights when the sun set. But the music said fast food joint with the bubbly stylings of “Justin Bieber” and “Maroon 5”. Though the decor and the food did start coming together when we got into their more traditional Taiwanese style dishes, and the music eventually become background chatter as our voices rose in gleeful dining.
Each table was prelaid with a lengthy sheet of parchment, and each seat was equipped with a disposable plastic bib. The bib was not only a fun accessory to sling over our heads, but it helped to keep our clothes clean and clear of the carnage of ripping seafood from out of its shell and devouring it with our two hands, which were shielded in plastic gloves.
To help you in your meal you also get your own wooden slab and matching mallet. The mallet is smooth on what end with textured rounded spikes on the other, it gave you the flexibility to crack with a gentle tap, or pound with some furious force.
The gold handled scissors were best used to cut through the crab legs. With a snip lengthwise you free a whole leg of its meat, intact in one piece. And you need not worry about getting too messy, you do finish your session with wet napkins to mop up.
We were treated to all four flavours of their seafood boils, each one grew progressively spicier. They are made to order in large metal bowls, then poured right on to the table, over the parchment. Then in you went. You claimed what you liked and ate from which ever pile you wanted. I only took from the garlic butter and black bean boil, fearing for my tongue with anything spicer. My fellow bloggers reassured me that it was indeed much spicer towards the other end of the table. The assortment of seafood in each regular order includes BC Dungeness crab, selva tiger prawns, blue mussels, clam, corn on the cob quarters, and whole nugget potatoes. We had the add on of Alaskan King crab, lobster tail, and snow crab; and you can too for an additional cost. Each portion is meant to be shared, with a minimum order for two and a cost per person.
Here is a behind the scenes look at the work that each food blogger and Instagram influencer puts in to giving, you, their readers and their followers, the perfect photo. The best shot out of dozens that get snapped, that incapsulates and captures the experience and food in the best way, in the best light. All to get you closer to them and their views, behind your own screens. Dishes get staged, plates get brought out doors for natural lighting, and food gets cold while everyone takes their turn.
And then there is me, with my iPhone 6. I appreciate the beauty of their photos, but am a little too lazy and a lot more practical for that extra work. I snap as I see it, and don’t edit any photos for this blog. I am a regular joe coming in for a regular meal. I want my photos to reflect the same lighting and the same food you would feel and taste when you visit.
Everything was plenty flavourful, drenched in sauces that permeated the shell. But if you needed more taste, you only need to dip meat in the pools of sauce that gathered on the parchment. Globs of butter or drips of hot sauce. There was no shortage on tasty. In fact, you felt like you needed a side of bread, some baguette slices, or even corn bread to have something different for those in between bites.
The “garlic butter” was definitely favoured by the group. It was not only one the one that wasn’t spicy, but who can say no to butter.
I couldn’t get any more spicer than the “black pepper”. Although I enjoyed its flavour over the garlic butter, my burning mouth warned me not to take on too much. If you can tolerate the heat, this is the one I suggest. I don’t like spicy foods where all you can taste is burning, it masks the natural flavour of the food, and all their fresh Oceanwise seafood is definitely worth tasting.
I didn’t try any of the “Xi’an spicy” for fear of my tongue.
And avoided the “House spicy” which was on a scale of 5/5 in heat. Although you are given the option to customize your own heat levels when you order with them.
They also have their seafood fried with their “wok fried spicy”. As it was quoted, “the beauty of this dish is the seasoning on the outside”. There was no flavouring past the shell, you either had to lick the exoskeleton clean of its crispy fried crumbs, or eat the crustacean shell and all. The latter was no problem to do if you grabbed one of their tiger prawns to maw on.
We transitioned out of the first flavour-full portion of our meal with the bussing of our table, the discarding of the parchment, and a palette cleansing soup.
The “Kung fu soup” won me over in name and presentation. It was served in a traditional, individual tea pot and cup. The soup was abalone flavoured. For those unfamiliar with Chinese broth soup, don’t let the grey murky colour dissuade you from giving it a try. It was light, yet full bodied, it well complimented all the seafood we have had and all the seafood that we yet to have. Definitely my favourite flavour of the evening. However not the best to cool a burnt tongue with or cool down on a hotter day. I could imagine coming here for winter and starting my meal with this soup, to warm me up inside and out.
The “stone cooked scrabble eggs” had us reminiscing of the children’s storybook, “Stone soup”, but without actual soup. Hot stones in a clay pot, within a wicker basket is first brought to the table. Then a blend of egg, shrimp, and green onions is poured right over them. A lid is placed over it to allow the eggs to cook. When the liquid is boiled to a solid, and the texture of the eggs is a fluffy yellow, you know they are done. The intention of this dish is that you cook this yourself at the table, with the help of the staff. Definitely one for those who like a little dinner theatre.
But then there is the issue of scooping servings out. Even with the narrow spoon provided, it was not easy to scoop eggs while avoiding rocks, my solution was to tedious separate the two before we began eating. Maybe have a strainer or some sort of wax paper between rock and egg? Although you don’t get the same presentation that way. This was simple in recipe, yet one of the best scrambled eggs I have ever add. Salty with the shrimp and fresh with the onion. I would have this brunch, although I can’t say the same for dinner or lunch; and they don’t do a breakfast service.
The “grilled oysters” were topped with a mound of minced garlic and it was too much. It gave things a slightly bitter taste, which was easily rectified when you simply pushed all the garlic off, but you had to learn that lesson the hard way. Like with raw oysters, it needed something pickled and tangy to give the natural base of the oyster some acid.
The “chicken wings” were just as deceiving. They looked like regular fried chicken wings, but their preserved plum flavouring made them sweet. If there are such things as dessert wings, this would be it. We didn’t hate it, we just couldn’t understand it. We speculated the inclusion of honey and peanut butter, or even maybe they used sugar instead of salt by accident. This was definitely one of a kind. I would have liked some actual plum sauce for a dipping sauce to balance out the sweetness, and have the sugar as more of an accent, then the dominant flavour profile.
We the. went back to spicy with the “Sichuan style boiled fish” with dried tofu and noodles. This portion is traditionally set at a maximum 5/5 for heat, but once again, you had the option to customize the heat to your preference. It was a slow burning fire, that grew and crept up on you. As a whole the flavour was one toned, you grew tried after one serving. And the noodles used were harder, they didn’t soak up any of the flavour. I would have preferred a chewier strand like udon, or bean thread, as I expected. Rice would have also been a better base, helping to tone down the spice. As for the fish it was as gentle and flaky, and the tofu was chewy and light. But they were too similar in texture, here I would have preferred the use of squid over fish. But at this point I have suggested too made changes, thus not having the dish as it was originally intended. I guess this one is not for me, but this IS a traditional Taiwanese dish for a reason.
“Beef and lamb skewers” flavoured with cumin. I liked the use of the thin metal sticks instead of the typical wood. They made each serving light weight and easy to a wield. Despite being flavoured the same, there was a big difference between the two proteins. The lamb was the favourite, it being more tender and thick, you could tell just by looking at both comparatively. The beef was on the drier side and more shrivelled from an over cooking. It would have been nice to be giving a dip to enhance both with. Untraditionally, a creamy sour cream or dill to cool it down, or a sweeter peanut butter sauce that would give it the same effect.
The crawfish tower was a crowd pleaser. Any time you add liquid nitrogen to the mix and get yourself a smokey fog, people swarm. This specialty designed metal tower was built to impress. The base was further divided into four troughs, each filled with crawfish seasoned in the same sauces as our boils above: garlic butter, black bean, xi’an spicy, and house spicy. And once again, all spice levels were adjustable. At the centre of this was where the dry ice lived. When the smoke dissipated, our server was able to pour some water over it and cause the reaction to begin anew. He did it until I got my unobstructed shot.
The second and top tier had some sides to help balance the salty and spice of the shellfish: edamame beans and cucumber chunks. Given how tedious cracking meat from shell from such a tiny marine mammal is and how little yield there is, I can’t imagine myself ordering this one. However, I imagine it being a great snacking opportunity for a group of friends. Something to keep you busy as you talk and drink, like eating more complicated peanuts at a bar.
And they saved one of everyone’s favourite dishes for last. “Blue crab in chef’s special sauce”. Blue crab, chicken wings, chicken feet, potatoes, and carrots; in the chef’s secret recipe sauce, all the way from his hometown of Xi’an. The heated pan it was served on ensured thing would stay warm to the last bite. The sauce was buttery and rich like gravy. More savoury than spicy, like a hearty stew. Everything was tender to the tooth. This would be another warming dish to come back in the winter for.
To end our meal, I was craving something cooling and sweet to finish on. And they had just the dessert for us. Their “Mango thousand layer millie crepe” was flown in all the way from Taiwan. Served with whipped cream, vanilla bean ice cream and a berry compote; this was exactly how I wanted to end this meal. And judging by everyone else’s clean plate, they would agree. Soft spongy cake and sweet sheets of mango, delicious.
They are not the first place that would come to mind when thinking of spicy food, nor is the area one I would gravitate towards for Chinese food, dressed up or not. But if any restaurant could operate within that criteria, this would be the one.
However if you are looking for a great setting to drink at this would be one I could recommend. I would like to come back for drinks at night. From the side walk, the glow of their purple lights reflecting off the gold orbs draws you in. It’s more romantic in this shade, and their second floor balcony offers a more chill experience, over looking everyone else.
I didn’t get a chance to look over their cocktail list, to deem it worth a trip or not. But we did get to try their wine that attracted flies into our open mouthed glass. The staff were more than accommodating by giving us fresh servings the two times that happened. But what got me excited was the beer dispensed from their tower. It was globe-like gumball machine with a tap. A tip down allowed the table to pour and drink at their leisure. Now this table top mini keg is worth the novelty at 3 litres.
Would I come back? – Yes.
Would I line up for it? – No.
Would I recommend it? – Yes.
Would I suggest this to someone visiting from out of town? – No.
I definitely recommend trying their seafood boil, as the only one in Vancouver. And staying late to enjoy their traditional Taiwanese finger foods and snacks with drinking. But we warned, wear baggy and floaty clothes, because by the time you leave, you will be full and bloated from salt. Don’t deny your cravings.
21 NAUTICAL MILES
1257 Hamilton Street, Vancouver BC, V6B 6K3