“The Prince” was the chosen destination for our family’s Chinese New Year day dinner. A restaurant that was in the neighbourhood I grew up in and a convenient stop for everyone invited.
Despite making our reservations 12 days ahead, we came in a couple of minutes late to discover management trying to give our table away. It was a busy night, understandably the stress was high and they overbooked trying to make as much as they could on the festive occasion. They felt justified in their decision as they tried calling us and was unable to reach anyone. The hostess had taken down our number wrong when placing the reservation, so when they tried to call us to come in earlier for our 6pm reservation, and couldn’t reach us, they saw this as reason enough to give the table away, assuming we wouldn’t show up. And when we were fighting to get our table back, instead of approaching the mix up apologetically, they blamed the error on us, that we had given the wrong number. When was the last time you gave out your number incorrectly, after reading it out twice, to the one taking in down?
What’s worst is they wanted to give our table to a family who decided to stroll in on one of the busiest Chinese dining out days, thinking they could get a table without the need to wait. And the restaurant’s manager was willing to reward this lack of planning. Sadly, for similar places, this is Chinese restaurant service in a nutshell. Here it is all about the dollar, sales and money is king. A point that was more so visible in the pricing compared to what we had below.
Sadly our time here did not get any better. The argument that began our service continued to sour the experience. Everyone was upset. We were high alert when it came the service, and it only got progressively worse.
The restaurant’s full menu was not available this event night. Due to the higher traffic and the need to feed more faster, they had only few set menus that you could choose from. Having dined here previously, my parents were aware that the prices of all their regular dishes have been increased by $2-5 for the occasion. Considering the extra traffic and the additional staff needed to service them, the math made sense. However, what doesn’t is the fact that dishes were listed promising certain ingredients, but instead what showed up were cost cutting substitutions. For example, our delicacy of black chicken soup was no more than old short rib soup, yet we were not only paying the premium price for the promised premium ingredients, but were doing so at the elevated Chinese New Year price.
It is worth noting that my mandarin skills are weak and all these facts were given to me as second hand information, as translated by my father, (who is very proficient in both mandarin and English). It is a similar case with the name and descriptions of the dishes we had below.
The restaurant is deceivingly large. A pull out wall creates the illusion of privacy with smaller rooms holding several different tables within. We were given a table in the rowdy main room. But besides the additional bodies, you really couldn’t tell that everyone here was celebrating an occasion. The restaurant wasn’t decorated. They were lacking much of the traditional red and gold accents typically used to usher in a new year of luck and prosperity. Disappointing. It is like having dinner at a fancy restaurant during December without tinsel and a tree.
When it came time to order my dad did it for the group, he choose one of the only 4 set menus available tonight. All 8 dishes that came with it was printed on a receipt and brought back to our table for the servers to cross off as they delivered them. This also gave us the opportunity to count off what we were still waiting for. Something that proved especially helpful, as we found we had to spot check the staff, to ensure everything we hand coming, actually came. A point we had to police a few times, when our server and the manger (you can always tell who they are by the full suits they wear) insisted dishes came when they didn’t. Instead of looking at our table at what dishes we did have, they immediately decided to argue that we were mistaken, and we thus had to argue are case. On both the occasions that this happened they were able to find our dishes, a point that was obvious given how they arrived at room temperature. No apology given, just our food cold. It was clear our meal was being rushed, they wanted us out to be able to seat and charge another family.
But sadly the culture at many such Chinese restaurants is to accept all the above as the norm, and to not defend your time and your money by bringing up any errors made. In this case, we ate our cold food in silence. Something that I thought silly considering how much more we had to pay just for being here on this day. But this is the ways, and who am I to attempt to start a movement?
Our meal began with a cold appetizer platter (intentionally cold). A starter that buys the kitchen some time. This version came with fresh but rubbery calms, shrimp, beef shank that tasted more like ham, slightly warmer chewy fish paste wrapped in bean curd skin, and spicy jellyfish trimmed in shorter strips. The garlic chilli chilled prawns were my favourite, but they required a little more work than I could give to get into it.
Next came the soup course. When the serving bowl arrived I read the receipt claiming it to be black chicken, but was corrected by the manager as being pork rib soup instead. Yet we were charged for the more expensive ingredients at the jacked up event price, without the actual conch or black chicken listed. This was just papaya and ribs in a clear broth. A sweeter soup, but nothing memorable.
The clay pot with mushroom and sea cucumber was not for me. It was a bowl of rubbery pieces, flavoured with the strong taste of wilted lettuce in a thickened corn starch gravy that I do not like. I tried the large caps of mushroom and they surprisingly easy to chew through. As for the sea cucumber, it was once a delicacy I enjoyed as a child, but now in my adult years, a texture I avoid. It is like a more gelatinized version of cartilage. Not bad, but knowing how the actual marine creature looks like and likening it to a slug, really puts me off of them.
Deep fried crispy whole chicken is a family favourite. However, this would be the worst rendition of it we have ever had. The chicken was dry and bland. The crackers that sat above it extremely oily, and instead of its expected light and crispy texture, biting into it was more like chewing through styrofoam. A fact we would have brought to the attention of the staff, had we thought it would make a difference. They did after all hear us complain as we bit in to a few, having to pull with clenched teeth.
The preserved meat with cauliflower dish seemed like a cheap and easy filler. It was certainly the most modest, and the most lack lustre dish, given the special occasion. This is the type of dish you make at home when there is nothing else in your fridge to work with. It was more cauliflower than salty and fatty chunks of pork. But notable, as it was my first time trying Taiwanese wild cauliflower. It has the stem of broccoli with the florets of cauliflower, more green than white.
For live seafood dishes, the freshness of your catch is proven by first bringing you your fish, crab, or lobster table side for you to inspect. This isn’t something my parents particularly enjoy, so we don’t put much stock into it. However both our fish and lobster were sharing a tub, turned upside, unmoving. At least they were fresh out of the tank. Though I almost feel better believing they were brought to us table side, already having died in the tank.
The tilapia steamed in a soy sauce is trimmed table side. The spine is removed and the inside sauced by the server who delivers it. It is a gentle fish with a light seasoning. A typical staple at these set Chinese dinners.
The lobster dish was the most impressive and instantly my favourite of the night (not that it had much competition. It was one dish I didn’t have any issue with, except for the price. Chinese New Year prices had us paying $29 per pound, and this was a 2-3lbs lobster.
It is served whole in a giant steamer, lined with lotus leaves, overtop some sticky rice. It was tasty buttery lobster and sweet corn rice. Luckily the lobster meat was relatively easy to remove flesh from shell, as we were only given our picks and cracking apparatuses after finishing half of the serving. We quickly gave up trying to call a staff member over, knowing they were avoiding eye contact.
My second favourite dish was the braised eggplant with jumbo prawn, seasoned in a mild black bean flavour. The prawns were an impressive size, but a tad over cooked. This was a dish that would have been tastier had they served it to us right away, instead of insisting that we had it and quickly bringing us this cooled off portion almost immediately after.
For dessert there were the usual bowls of red bean soup. Not a favourite of mine given its grainy texture.
Luckily as a little extra perk for being here during Chinese New Year, we were given additional sweet snacks for dessert. Sesame seed cookie balls and coconut covered glutinous rice cake filled with custard. I preferred the latter with its soft and chewy texture, than the hard and dry texture of the former.
When we finally wanted to leave, it was hard to track anyone down. First for take out containers and after to pay for the bill. We had what remained of our fish dish taken in the back to be doggy bagged. This was with three dishes left to go. However our fish never returned. It wasn’t until we asked that they thought to track it down and bring it to us.
All this grief, all this heartache, the sourness of a would and should be festive occasion turned horrible experience. And worst still my father insisted on giving a full and good tip. I understand the need of servers to supplement their wages with tips, and that our society deems it an expectation. But I believe they should at least try to do a good job to earn some of it. There were no pleasantries exchanged, no care given tonight from servers and the manger’s alike. Our plates weren’t even bussed between dishes, so that by the end we were eating dessert on top of chicken and fish bones, and lobster and shrimp shells. My parents didn’t want to make a fuss, but if we don’t bring any of this to the restaurant’s attention, or fight for our right to the quality of food and experience that we pay for, nothing will ever change. And I will have to continue writing bitters blog posts like these.
Would I come back? – No.
Would I line up for it? – No.
Would I recommend it? – No.
Would I suggest this to someone visiting from out of town? – No.
This was not a good way to ring in the new year. I can make excuses for the restaurant and allow them to hide behind the fact that it was a busy service. But I don’t think it excuses the lack of quality in the food that we had, and the lack of care displayed towards us by the management. This was an all around bad dinner, made worse by the price we had no choice but to pay for it at. This experience was so scarring that my partners started a pack with our extended family then and there. Starting next year, we will not be visiting a Chinese restaurant for Chinese New Year, we will dine at a western one and avoid another bad and expensive meal. Looking back “White Spot” would have yielded better results. Don’t deny your cravings.
2881 Grandview Highway, Vancouver BC, V5M 2E1