Lewis Hart feels the anxiety of an outsider.
Rather than step back from it, he has used that sense of discomfort to keep him focused on doing right by the Chinese community. A traveller, Hart has embraced a place that has both fascinated him and allowed it to become his muse. His adoration for China has driven the British entrepreneur to explore its traditions with scholarly curiosity. What’s resulted is an experience that reveals itself like a Chinese eight-treasure duck.
On the outside facing East Georgia Street is BLND TGER, a casual dumpling shop that has six menu items and seating for 20. Beyond is a speakeasy — accessed with a secret code word — that will mesmerize the eyes.
Named Laowai, a Mandarin word for “foreigner”, the 57-seat space is themed on 1930’s Prohibition-era Shanghai surprises that were discreetly spread through the wild Bund and French Concession areas of that vibrant city. The interior is replete with velvet and the decor includes 50 Phoenix statues that soar above the heads of guests or sit stationed as lamps between tables.
The bar is overseen by Alex Black, a well-known talent in Vancouver’s cocktail scene, and features nearly three dozen varieties of baijiu. If you’re not familiar with baijiu (pronounced bye-joo), it is known for one phenomenal fact: It is the world’s most consumed alcohol. The elixir of choice for a nation of almost 2 billion people will earn you that status. Prior to Laowai, I had only ever tried baijiu — a fermented rice wine — in Guangzhou and Shanghai. I despised it. The stuff tasted like moonshine, with the burn and aftertaste that could instantly turn you off any clear alcohol. Laowai’s team brings baijiu up to the level of appreciation of sake. It’s refined varieties include floral and citrus notes that changed my mind about the liquor.
Baijiu, though, may be what you sample at Laowai, the cocktails are what you’ll guzzle with glee. The cocktail book is a beauty. You’ll pour through it, bedazzled by the pages that feature stories of historic figures from China — many whose tales will be new to Vancouverites. There’s a baseball player, a female soldier, a shipping magnate. All of their exploits are fantastical and they inspire the brilliant cocktails at Laowai.
“We had to be very conscious about who we were and where the space we were coming into is located. Once I met Lewis and spent some time with him, I saw his level of passion for Chinese culture. It was genuine and I said, ‘Okay, I can be part of this,’” says Black, expressing that similar caution that Hart had from the outset of the project to celebrate Chinese culture without seeming like Laowai was a business that would exploit or appropriate it.
The food is key to delivering on that promise. Hart recruited Phong Vo, who instantly connected with the vision for both BLND TGER and Laowai. Each of the six dumplings on the menu honour a different region of China. Momos, typically made from yak meat in Tibet, are prepared with bison that’s packaged into a turmeric wrapper. The famed Shanghainese xiaolongbao requires a three-day process to prepare. It includes cooking the master soup stock of chicken and pork, skimming it off the next day, adding single-malt Scotch once it’s been reheated, and cooling again before folding the pork and stock into the dumpling.
“We lucked out with Phong,” Hart says, praising his chef. “These are such unique foods and we knew we wanted to do something cool with them. There’s such a strong whiskey culture in Shanghai and whiskey goes really well with pork, so we thought that we could enhance the dumplings with the single malt.”
My favourite dishes were the Shaanxi Bianca Biang noodles made with applewood smoked tofu and Sichuan peppercorn sauce, and a seared duck breast that is served with julienned cucumber, sweet honey hoisin, and a “numbing sauce” of Szechuan peppercorn and salt.
None of the menu items costs more than $20. They’re small plates suited for a cocktail lounge, and the concept works amazingly well.
“It’s been five years in the making,” Hart says of his vision. “The pandemic kind of pulled the rug out from under us, like it did for many people. But we refused to give in. We fought tooth and nail to get it here. It feels surreal to be opened and to see the positive reception.”
Euro Flavours at Maxine’s Cafe & Bar
Anyone familiar with the south end of Burrard Street in Vancouver’s downtown will know there has been an absence of quality dining for seemingly as long as there’s been asphalt and pavement in the city. Despite the dense population of the area, residents have had to venture farther south to the waterfront, north to the heart of the city’s financial district or a few blocks east to the Entertainment District and Yaletown beyond that.
So Maxine’s Cafe and Bar is a welcome addition. Although it can be noisy on Burrard Street, Maxine’s is still an oasis of relief for the culinary starved. Named after a 1940’s businesswoman who owned a salon and motel in the area, the restaurant is a European-style bistro with a focus on brunch. A demand from clients recently drove it to also offer dinner on weekend evenings.
Its brunch focuses on big plates of favourites like eggs Benedict ($19) and brioche French toast ($18). But what I truly enjoyed were the European fare that is uncommon on the west coast. Eggs Cocotte ($20) is a tasty one with poached eggs, sourdough, and San Marzano tomatoes. The Dutch Baby ($20) is a beautifully plated German pancake that is topped with a fried egg and shaved ham. Burrata is beautifully plated with slightly poached peaches ($24). The restaurant also has its own decadent specialty coffee dessert: the Jabberjaw ($12), which includes ice cream, coffee liqueur, butterscotch liqueur, and Cabot Trail Maple Cream.
With many options and a bright, inviting space, Maxine’s is a darling spot in a neighbourhood of the city that has desperately needed a restaurant of merit.