Primal Eats Vancouver Chinatown: The Keefer Bar and Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie

March 27, 2013

Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie Lotus Root

I tend to shy away from Asian food. I tried going to Kirin once, which is one of Vancouver’s nicest Chinese restaurants. I left before being seated because they readily admitted to using MSG. So, between the MSG and the heavy use of soy, I generally opt out. But, I’ve been eyeing Bao Bei for a while.  It’s a modern take on Chinese cuisine, influenced by Taiwan and Shanghai, as well as the Sichuan province. Food is served family-style – small plates meant to be shared. What makes this restaurant different for me, and much more inviting, is something quite simple: their FAQ page. There they address my two main concerns: 1) they don’t use MSG, ever; and 2) they have a few dishes that they are able to make gluten and soy free. In a world of “modifications politely declined”, I appreciate this gesture of hospitality.

My experience at Bao Bei was fantastic. And the night started with an almost obligatory stop at the Keefer Bar, practically next door…

The Keefer Bar

The Keefer Bar Almond Nog The Keefer Bar Rosemary Gimlet

Bao Bei doesn’t take reservations, and is continually packed. The Keefer bar is a few doors down from Bao Bei. I don’t know the Chinatown area well, but there doesn’t seem to be much else around. So, everyone waiting for a table at Bao Bei is pointed in the direction of the Keefer to wait it out. Which is fine by me, as it’s also been on my list to check out. Although if I ever go back to Bao Bei, I hope I luck out and am able to snag a seat at the bar – I wasn’t overly impressed with the Keefer.

Don’t get me wrong, the place was totally happening. Packed even more so than Bao Bei. To the point that they set up these little temporary tables for you – it’s a round piece of board that attaches to the wall behind the bar patrons, and you literally stand there while you wait for a table. The concept is actually pretty ingenious. The vibe’s lively, and it’s a sexy space with lots of interesting artwork and design features.

The Keefer Bar also serves food, but it’s their lengthy drink list that’s especially unique:

“The intricately designed cocktail program focuses on Apothecary style drinks created to soothe ailments and balance one’s mood. Ingredients for the Asian influenced small plated food and specially crafted drinks are sourced from local Chinatown markets and herbalists.”

That all sounds quite promising. So, my friend tried their top selling cocktail: the Rosemary Gimlet (Gin, Rosemary Lime Cordial). Unfortunately, neither of us liked it. My friend thought the rosemary was overpowering, whereas I thought it was too heavy on the lime cordial, making it overly sweet. Either way, the drink lacked any sort of complexity or sophistication.

I tried the Almond Nog (Appleton VX, Almond Milk, Eggs, Sugar, Coconut, Ginger, Sichuan Pepper, Vanilla, Anise, Nutmeg, Orange Zest). We both thought that it tasted very much like egg nog, which is a good thing. But I should’ve listened to the server when she hinted that the drink’s rather sweet. It was okay, definitely better than the rosemary gimlet, but nothing to write home about.

After those two drinks, we were both unenthused about trying more, or trying the food. The service was good. Ambiance was great. I’d consider going back to try a couple of the other cocktails just in case we happened to pick the wrong ones. But considering the rosemary gimlet is their top seller, my hopes aren’t too high. Great place for a night out though, and worth stopping by for the vibe alone. And really, if there’s nowhere to sit at Bao Bei, you may as well check it out.

The Keefer Bar Interior The Keefer Bar on Urbanspoon

Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie

The wait was well worth it. First of all, I am so very impressed with the service. The hostess was super nice. And our server exceeded my expectations. At the very beginning he asked if there are any allergies. I told him that I have a preference for no gluten. And then he walked me through the entire menu. He knew how every single dish was prepared and which ones could be done completely gluten-free. Then he explained which of the other dishes were gluten-heavy (bread, pastry, flour, etc.) versus which ones just contained soy. I wish more restaurants took this welcoming, helpful, and accommodating approach.

I decided to veer off the straight and narrow slightly, and compromise by ordering some dishes with soy, mostly for the benefit of my friend since the food was meant to be shared, and because I figured once in a blue moon it wouldn’t outright kill me (though since this is a health-related blog, I must admit that I did end up paying for that decision, since I hadn’t had any gluten or soy for a very long time.. I’ll spare you the details).

Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie Chino Margarita Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie Scotch Drink

Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie Pina Colada

But first, the cocktails. The Keefer’s got nothing on Bao Bei’s drinks. I had a very pretty Piña Colada. Random, I know. But absolutely delicious – the best Piña Colada I’ve ever had, made with fresh pineapple. The menu describes it as “The best frozen sissy drink you’ll ever have…” So very true.

My friend had their top selling Chino Margarita (Tangerine peel infused reposado tequila, ginger, lime, egg white, chili salt/sugar rim) which was done well, and a very good drink whose name I can’t remember and doesn’t show up on the online menu. It was a Scotch-based drink and the name sounded something like “Nam”. Fantastic depth of flavours and complexity.

And now for the food. We ate a lot. What was meant to be just grabbing a bite to eat turned into a bit of an epic feast. But when everything sounds so good, it’s hard to resist.

Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie Pickles

SCHNACKS: Assorted Pickles (carrots, beets, daikon, etc.). They were awesome – flavours that I’m not at all used to, dancing around in my mouth. I could snack on these day in and day out.

Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie Beef Tartare

PETITS PLATS CHINOIS: Beef Tartare (Pemberton beef tenderloin, preserved mustard root, crispy shallot, ginger, quail egg, watercress, burnt scallion oil and taro chips). The beef tartare is typically seasoned with soy, but you can opt out, which I did. The tartare was ground quite fine (I prefer my  tartare a little chunkier.) It tasted great though and you could tell the meat was high quality. They left off the crispy shallot to make it completely gluten-free. The taro chips were fantastic – crispy and great for dipping into the tartare. And the watercress nicely balanced the dish. Me + raw beef = happy.

Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie steamed truffled pork dumplings

PETITS CADEAUX: steamed truffled pork dumplings. These smelled divine, thanks to the truffle. My friend quite enjoyed them, but wished that you could taste more of the truffle. Otherwise they were done well and the dumpling had good texture.

Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie Steamed Truffled Pork Dumpling

Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie Shao Bing

PETITS PLATS CHINOIS: Shao Bing (sesame flatbread with cumin lamb sirloin, pickled red onion, green pepper, cilantro, and salted chilies). I just ate some of the lamb (probably with soy), which was very tasty and strongly seasoned with cumin. The only small quibble is that the heat/spiciness wasn’t uniform throughout – there were pockets that were wildly spicy. The sesame flatbread looked quite good – it was nicely toasted, crispy on the outside, and soft on the inside.

Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie Sticky Rice Cake

PETITS PLATS CHINOIS: Sticky Rice Cake (pork, salted mustard greens, wood ear mushrooms and bamboo shoots). This dish could’ve been made completely gluten and pork-free (the pork gets marinated in soy), but I opted to pick around the pork and leave in the soy, as it seemed the dish would be rather plain without it. I’ve never had sticky rice cake before, so there was an element of novelty for me. It’s made with rice flour and has a texture of thick noodles.  The mushrooms and bamboo shoots were very tasty. The portion size was generous. I quite liked this dish.  

Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie Lotus Root

VEGETABLES: Lotus Root (curry paste, black beans, salted chilies,
white onions). This dish was completely gluten-free. It did have black beans (non-paleo) – but that seemed to be a small component. This was my favourite dish of the night. Probably partly because I’ve never had lotus loot before. I was smitten by the crunchy texture, and all the other flavours melded perfectly. Also a generous portion.

The dessert menu was rather limited, with only 3 choices: donuts, pots de crème, and ice cream. I know dessert isn’t a major component of Chinese cuisine, but I was expecting a few additional options.

Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie Youtiao Chinese Style Doughnut
DESSERT: Youtia (Chinese Style Doughnut) (chestnut pastry cream, black sesame pastry cream and brittle). My friend liked this dessert, but commented that the donuts were a little too dense (they’re typically lighter with more air pockets), and that the chestnut cream was a little bland, the flavour could’ve been stronger). I tried both creams – the chestnut was alright, but I was surprised by just how much I loved the black sesame pastry cream. I could’ve eaten a whole bowlful of just that. The crunchiness of both the sesame seeds and the brittle provided a great contrast to the cream.

Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie Pot de Creme

DESSERT: Pot de Crème (Osmanthus flower and pumpkin seed tuile, which I didn’t have because it was made with flour). I cannot believe how amazing that pot de crème was. The texture was divine – so silky smooth. And I absolutely loved the flavour. I had never even heard of Osmanthus flower before, but now I want more. Very fragrant. Apparently it’s commonly used in Chinese cuisine for both desserts and tea. I don’t even know how to describe its unique flavour, other than floral and gently sweet. And the presentation was charming.

Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie Interior

Perhaps that’s not the best picture to showcase the décor, but it was lovely inside. Bao Bei had a very homey, welcoming feel to it. It’s well worn-in, with much character. The crowd was pretty grown-up, with a few families. It had much less of a “hipster” vibe than I had braced myself for.

Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie Entrance

I kept eyeing this wall of serving platters near the entrance, thinking that they’d make terrific souvenirs – great props for my images :P

Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie Family Photos

At the end of the meal, you’re given these two postcards with pictures of the owner’s family. A very nice touch.

I had a fantastic time at Bao Bei. Exemplary service, delicious, well-executed food, and warm, inviting ambiance. The bill can also be reasonable  (if you don’t order half the menu). Next time I’ll stick to only gluten-free versions, which I’m grateful they provide. Looking forward to going back.

Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie 寶貝小館 on Urbanspoon

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