Dinner and a history lesson at Sai Woo.
Today I was invited to Sai Woo for a chance to taste their spring menu. It has been a while since my last visit and today I was curious to see if my original assessment and thoughts could be turned around. And with a new chef and their new management team this was definitely the case.
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 was pleased to see that the boarding and the necessary tunnelling to get to the restaurant’s once blocked off entrance was now clear. A welcoming walkway led your eyes and your feet to their threshold. A red “brick” road protected by a dragon. But it is their LED rooster that attracts attention and marks their location, with his red and yellow wings spanned. We would later learn that this was an exact duplicate of the original sign that once graced the original “Sai Woo”, the restaurant and the name that this second generation establishment was modelled after.
This has got to be my most informative and interesting dinner to date. We got to sit down with the owner Sally, and boy howdy did she know her Chinatown history. With it and her storytelling, @eatwithmao and I engaged. She has been a restaurateur for over 18 years, beginning her tenure in Yaletown. She got in early predicting that the area would boom, it did. Now this was her next premonition, and once again she got in early as one of the first new restaurants in the evolving Chinatown landscape. Her goal was to bring back the neon dinner and dancing era that made it so “glamourous”.
The building was originally in bad shape when she purchased it in January of 2013. Previously it was the old “New Town Bakery” and restaurant, which has since moved one store down. A lot of work went into making this new restaurant “old” again. It began with peeling back layers and revealing the original wood, cement, and high ceilings with skylight. All that existed when it was “Sai Woo Chop Suey” from 1925 to 1959. In fact the same wood that you would have walked on in 1925, from threshold to the isle between tables, has been uncovered and revitalized.
They continued to build on the history by adding found items to their decor. Sally managed to salvage art pieces from the historic centre above then. Wooden cinema seats, traditional drums used in parades, calligraphy framed into art, stone guardian lions, etc. Most notable was the “Wooden Phoenix” carving that once hung in the “Marco Polo” night club. It was originally commissioned to advertise the club’s “china dolls” drink service. Who knew it would eventually get back to the neighbourhood it once came from.
My favourite were the props from Bruce Lee movies. The prayer papers hanging above the staircase that took you down to their basement, and from the ceiling of the communal washroom space. The carved wooden moon gate also came from a Bruce Lee movie. It is currently being used to frame a projection of the very Bruce Lee movie it was originally a prop in.
All these restored artifacts gave the place so much more history, and they made the spot all the more special. I just wished there was a way for the restaurant to showcase this better. I was lucky to be able to chat up the restaurant’s owner for the background information; but for all those who didn’t get the chance to, they are missing out on so much interesting knowledge and history. Knowing all the above makes me love “Sai Woo” more. It makes me want to talk about it. It makes me want to recommend it to those visiting from out of town. To be able to take friend down here myself and to teach them these tidbits.
Although, aside from these artifacts, the restaurant is less outwardly Chinese inspired. This speaks to their menu of Asian staples made more approachable to the Canadian appetite. It looks and feels like a wine bar, which was perfect given we were here during happy hour.
The “Coco Harvey Lowe” is a freshly tapped young coconut shaken with dark rum. After the drink has been drunk, borrow the “Coco Jack” from the bar, to be able to get every last morsel of that young coconut meat within. It is a sickle shaped hand tool that you use to peel the flesh within the coconut, much like peeling fruit, but backwards.
The end result of their “Smoking Gun” cocktail looked and tasted much like an old fashion. Except here literal smoke was added to it, for a smoke flavour and aroma. El dorado 12 year old rum, bitters, brown sugar, oak, and tea smoke. The drink is assembled before you. The mixed cocktail is poured into their skull shaped glass, bottled up with smoke. A few tips back and forth to infuse the essence of the smoke, before the finished product is poured out over a giant square ice cube,
As for the food menu, it is helmed by Chef Isaac, who has made “Sai Woo” his residency for over five years. His creativity has cause the menu to evolve, so for those who have have’t visited recently, doing so will give you a whole other experience. He takes inspiration from all over Asia; picking flavours and techniques from Korea, China, Vietnam, and Taiwan; but putting his own defining spin to things. His take on Asian fusion is as bold in flavour as it is in its presentation.
We started with a “Smoke beef tartar” made with fermented garlic, fukkake, and bonito flakes. The tartar is slightly torched and spicy with a wasabi mayo dressing. The hiccama topping it is pickled with a Vietnamese fish sauce for a vinegary tang. And the crispy cracker topping it offered a neutral base and some crunch. All together this covered all the textures and tastes that I was looking for. You break everything up, then bring it back together for the prefect bit. It was one of the more creative dishes that we had this night, but sadly it is not on the menu regularly.
By contrast the “Beat Terrine” made a great palette cleanser; something more mild and refreshing to have in between plates, in order to refresh. Shame, we only got one such dish to fulfill such a role; especially given how punchy everything else was below. Szechuan spiced beet terrine, goats cheese espuma, honey beet purée, and shaved vegetables.
The “Taiwanese Pancake” was an item that was still on the drawing board, another one we got to taste that isn’t on the menu. Instead of using the traditional green onion pancake that is typical of this wrap, here they fold their Chinese five spice pork and mozzarella with a house made roti. I wanted to taste the cheese, to have more of it to help balance out the stronger spices seasoning the pork. I also wanted a cream based sauce to bring it all together, instead what was here was the same watery and tangy sauce that flavoured the tartar above. The extra liquid made the roti soggy, if you didn’t inhale it. Here, a thicker bread product or a 2:1 ratio of it and the filling would have help to dull the overwhelming flavour of the wrap, furthered by the overly fragrant herbs. This was my least favourite dish of the night.
By comparison, was their “Korean garlic chicken” served with a gastrique, pickled vegetable, and scallions. There is good reason why this is their best selling dish. This crunchy white meat chicken nuggets would have been ideal with the roti above. I find such strong flavours need a carb heavy base to sit atop of, or else invest in more cocktails to balance out the saltiness.
The “Saiwoo lettuce wrap” was a great carb alternative, and a better balanced dish. There was plenty of vegetable and sauces laid out to craft your perfect bite. Fermented soy bean paste, shallots, pickled vegetable, house made kimchi and leaf lettuce brought together to support the feature protein of the week. Today it was a spicy korean pork so good, that I could have eaten a plate of it as is.
The “Vietnamese noodle bowl” is one that I could enjoy any day, at any time. Sous vide chicken, pickled vegetable, fresh lettuce and house made spring rolls over a bed of vermicelli. I found this a great up scale version on the classic bowl, with the perfectly crispy spring rolls being my favourite part.
For dessert we had their “Lemon pavlova”. What looked like luscious cream was starchy and hard, with a chalky finish that sticks to your teeth. The flavour is nice enough, but we left it wondering if this was the intention: chewing through it like gum and having to pick your teeth clean after. Instead, ate the strawberry compote, matcha crumble, and mango purée as it. All three would have gone wonderfully with a nice oil based sponge cake instead.
The “Grand mariner semi fredo marquee” is for chocolate lovers. A decadent brick of mouse given some brightness with strawberry gel and meringue.
After the meal above, I wanted to end in something much lighter. An angel food cake, jello, something to cleanse the palette, and not eat like another meal. There is a reason why after Chinese food majority of the desserts available at a Chinese restaurant is simple and not sweet. Red bean soup or orange slices. The desserts are good if you came in just for them, but to finish on them was a little much.
Overall, each dish held up on its own, but all together like this, we found it a little overwhelming. Many of the flavours of what we had ran parallel to one another. So much so that you tired of the taste of Korean spices and Vietnamese fish sauce. If we had balanced out our order with one of their fried rice dishes and/or another vegatable platter, it would have been different and ideal. But as a customer wanting to order a few dishes and trying them for the first time how would you know? Especially if the servers are not trained to guide you on this culinary journey. If they haven’t tried much of the menu themselves or have the know-how to suggest and recommend, your experience with “Sai Woo” could very well be tarnished.
Therefore I recommend the menu being arranged like a grid of four. Where you choose an item from each “box” to craft the perfect pairing between dishes. Something from the “spicy” box, one from the “tangy”, one from the “refreshing” category, and one from a group that would/could serve as a “base” for each of the above. And even what dessert to order if you are feel like a “sweet” or “refreshing” tastes to end your meal. A fool-proof way to complete your meal.
Another thing I would change is the lighting. It is a shame that the restaurant is kept so dark. I understand it is to foster the night life vibe, but they have a great lounge space down stairs where you could cultivate this at instead. A red room with curtained ceiling, seat cushions and benches that allow you to literally lounge. There is even a sliding door equipped with an eye slot that allows you to assess who it is you were letting in, before granting them entry. This was the ideal setting for many of their customer who came in after dinner else, looking for a space to sip cocktails and keep the night going. Although after speaking to restaurant management, I do think they see this opportunity themselves. They disclosed the possibility of introducing a lounge menu with $8 drinks and plates.
And instead I would make the main dining area more like a restaurant, giving each table better overhead lighting to full appreciate the beauty of the dishes above. We were lucky to have come in early and to snag the only table by the window; but the deeper into the restaurant you go, the darker things get, and it is no wonder that much of their clientele this friday night only came to drink. “Sai Woo” feels more like a social bar once the sun goes down.
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? – Yes.
This is my favourite type of restaurant to write about. An establishment with plenty of character, run by people with so much enthusiasm and heart. There was nothing easy about what they were doing, nothing about their decor or menu spoke to an “easy win”, they were taking dining to another level and willing to take the risks necessarily to set themselves apart. With a little more finesse and continuos improvements, like they have been doing, I can clearly picture their upward trajectory. After all there is no other restaurant in Chinatown with this much history, that alone is worth coming in to see. Don’t deny your cravings.
158 East Pender Street, Vancouver BC, V6A 1T3