When Nine Dishes, the cult East Van restaurant styled after a Beijing beerhall, suddenly and lamentably shuttered a couple of years ago it left a big void in Vancouver’s underground eating and drinking scene. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the place, Nine Dishes was a Chinese restaurant on Kingsway that served inexpensive street food and (perhaps more importantly) $2 bottles of Yanjing in a boisterous, tiny room.
This combination proved to be potent as it created a loyal following amongst young Mainland Chinese students and many of the city’s adventurous eaters. Its frenetic energy and a DIY ethic made the Nine Dishes experience unique. Mandarin rap music from Beijing played over the sound system. You served yourself rice from a rice cooker in the back. And each table was supplied its own opener so you can uncap your own bottles (which you order by the six-pack). All together, it was a recipe for long nights of eating and drinking (often well past closing time, just between you and me).
The new location couldn’t be more different from its original Kingsway hole-in-the-wall setting. Set behind the Richmond Costco, it is the restaurant equivalent of a McMansion. It is huge. It sports a coffered ceiling, wood laminate walls, wrought iron railings, limestone tile floors, crystal chandeliers and an over-sized stained glass window. It has a full bar and a dance-club grade sound system and lighting. In the back is a covered patio. (Some of you might remember this place as the former location of fusion-y restaurant Starry Night).
The menu concept from the original location – a three panel laminated triptych with nine dishes on each section – is gone. Replacing it is a bound and laminated photo album similar to the ones you see at many other Chinese restaurants. All the dishes are inspired by the food available at the drinking parlours that dot Beijing: cumin lamb skewers (“chuan’r”); menacing looking “water boiled fish”; lotus root “burgers”; spicy “husband and wife lung slices” (which contain no actual lung). Despite its well-stocked bar, you can still order $2 Yanjing beer by the six-pack. Alas, you can no longer serve yourself rice.
Yves cures his own Sichuan sausages. At the old place you often see a bunch hanging in the hallway by the kitchen. Roughly chopped pork, Sichuan peppercorns, chili flakes, salt and sorghum wine are mixed together and stuffed into natural casings. He then gives the sliced pieces a quick fry before serving.
Peanuts in Black Vinegar and Deep Fried Broad beans are great appetizers to peck at while waiting for your mains to arrive. As are the lotus root “burgers” – sliced lotus root discs that are stuffed with ground pork, battered and deep-fried.
The array of hand-pulled, cut and sliced noodles stand out. The dan dan mian is a Sichuan-style rendition wherein wheat noodles are dressed in a spicy sesame sauce instead of the more familiar “tan tan noodle” peanut butter base. The Xian knife cut noodles (dao xiao mian) were tossed in a simple chili vinaigrette. Beijing “wheat balls” dumplings (chao ge da) were cooked in salty sweet bean sauce.
Laziji (Thousand Chili Chicken) is a classic beer-drinking food. Traditionally, these are small, bone-in chunks of chicken deep fried (with Sichuan peppercorns and a frightening amount of whole dried chilies) until the bones are so crispy you can eat each morsel whole. Yves uses a modified technique where he dredges the chicken in flour prior to frying. (I much prefer the results of the more traditional method.)
The volcanic-looking Water Boiled Fish (shui zhu yu) is brought out to your table by the head cook where he proceeds to theatrically remove the majority of the dried chiles that float on top.
The skewers – considering their association with cheap Chinese beer – are perhaps the most popular items on the menu. The impressive selection includes lamb kidney, chicken cartilage and beef heart, but the chili-cumin lamb (chuan’r) is my favourite.
Yves Sheng, the chef-owner, is a large part of the Nines Dishes charm. Those who know him describe him as a former hippy from Beijing – a world traveller and self-taught Sichuan cook who somehow ended up here in this city to open his own restaurant. He flits from table to table dropping philosophy and six-packs of beer. When he closed Nine Dishes 1.0, he opened another restaurant called “Ga La” in the Old Orchard Shopping Centre in Burnaby while he looked for a new location for Nine Dishes 2.0. He snapped up this place a few months ago and did some minor renovations to get it up and running.
I doubt the new location can match the unique ambience and the intimacy of the old place. It’s just so different. And to be perfectly honest, even back then, the food was inconsistent. Some dishes were sometimes excellent. Sometimes they were just OK. And really, Yanjing beer is the Molson Canadian of China — barely worth $2 a bottle. But the truth of it is I never had a bad night there, and that fact extends to the new location too.
Nine Dishes | 778-246-1199 | 9231 Beckwith Road | Richmond, BC
Sichuan Sausages ($6.99)
Dan Dan Main (tan tan nooldes) ($5.99)
“Thousand Chili Chicken” (or “laziji” $12.99)