One of the challenges of this gig is finding the time to return to those places that impress the first time around. It takes no shortage of smarts to open a restaurant right, to hit the ground running and not miss a step. I’m convinced that Sai Woo (160 East Pender St., 604-586-1117) more than belongs in that group. And I can’t wait to go back.
Sai Woo: The location
I think it’s exciting to watch Chinatown’s re-awakening, after too may years of being eclipsed by Richmond’s brash “nouveau richesse.” Maybe a few people wrote off Chinatown a bit too hastily. Those inevitable condo towers are starting to pay off, or so it would seem. Yes, people really do want to live downtown, or close to it.
An anecdote: back in 2012 I checked out the Union Bar. Aside from the good bites and drinks, what struck me in particular—on a Tuesday night—was that the place was packed; and the bartender and I were the only males in the place. It was at that point I realised that this newest of old neighbourhoods was very much about to happen.
Sai Woo Who?
Sai Woo delivers a smartly stylish, softly modern emporium that balances its contemporary fare with a healthy serving of subtle nostalgia. It’s the latter which plays into that sense of Chinatown’s revitalization.
There’s some interesting background here that also offers up some clues as to why this newbie has it right. And why it’s the sign of things to come.
Sai Woo is the brainchild of forward thinking restaurateur Salli Pateman—who you may remember (when Yaletown was still in diapers) was obliged to rename her Yaletown De Niro’s Supper Club, after the the actor threatened to sue.
Just as de Niro’s—later Section (3)—was the harbinger of Yaletown’s blossoming food scene, so too, it would seem, is this new venture, which is already playing to full houses.
Sai Woo: The Space
The name is an unabashed and inspired nod to the original Sai Woo Chop Suey, located here in the 20s. It serves as the perfect muse for this expansive space, which has been transformed by transformed by Falken Reynolds and Anna Walentowicz of Domain Creative.
While the front of house—with its long bar, cosy booths, gorgeous ‘button’ lights, ironwood trees, tiled floors and high ceiling—is truly beautiful, I doubt there’s a chef in town who wouldn’t be jealous of chef Douglas Chang’s kitchen. Truly capacious and flooded with daylight during prep hours, at night its bustling, open activity becomes the end focal point of the establishment.
I love the way the designers have retained the feel of the old interior while capitalizing on the building’s bones. Downstairs boasts some of the most spacious (and beautifully appointed) washrooms anywhere. Not to mention an entire additional bar and potential private room, scheduled to be open shortly.
On the Menu
Chef Doug Chang (who cooked previously at Bambuddah and West) seeks out and achieves a fine balance between influences of east, west and occasionally elsewhere. His dishes are inventive without being precocious—and sometimes truly dazzle. Chang’s background spans Canadian, Chinese and Jamaican heritages, all influences comfortably brought into play.
‘Cheek to cheek’ combines morsels of pork jowl with impossibly delicious pea angolotti with classic Chinese Jinhua ham broth, and herb and fennel salad, that adds up to one truly tasty salute to spring ($19).
More showstoppers range from perfectly, just-baked sablefish with lotus root, Chinese radish and Kombu broth ($25), and cleverly textured vegetarian ‘sausage’, with crispy tofu and charred eggplant, respectably bumped up with chilli oil. ($9)
In a city too long under siege from ‘also ran’ pork belly plates, Chang’s extraordinarily tender offering comes glazed with fermented red tofu, with a delicious taro purée ($19). It alone is worth a visit. Oh, that and the impossibly gooey and marginally addictive “Cola wings”—Coca-Cola chicken wings on shredded lettuce. ($13).
There’s plenty more on this menu which, while broad in scope, contains nothing superfluous: whether you fancy a night at the bar (under Justin Anello) for a few shared plates (try salt cod fritters and Meyer lemon cream) or a full blown romp including a platter of Chinatown Jerk, there truly is something for everyone.
The same goes for bar manager Justin Anello’s list, which sports a ‘Sai Woo Sour’ and and a ‘Beijing Sling’, with green apple and melon liqueur. Some smart wine picks (with everything available by the glass) include Feudi San Gregorio Falanghina ‘Albente’ 2013—a good match with many of these tastes. Not to mention a tall and refreshing 05 Kombucha, from the town’s only Kombucha tap.
See you there, soon, I hope!
Sai Woo, 160 East Pender St., 604-586-1117. Open Mon-Sun, 5pm-12am.