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Alexandra Street is hopping. I see a couple of Bentleys, a McLaren…is that a Ferrari? They all look the same to me — a dozen luxury vehicles driving slow and circling the block looking for parking. Good luck. I feel so smart to have taken the Skytrain.
Eating in Richmond can be an adventure, and Alexandra Street with its dozens of restaurants – mostly regionally specific Chinese – is the centre of action.
The Fish Man is right in the thick of things. It was quite a gamble for Bo Li, who used to run the Sichuan Roast Fish cult favourite Li’s China Grill in Vancouver’s Collingwood area. He sold that operation to new owners last year to open this place.
“It is much more competitive here”, he says. From the looks of the wealthy clientele, however, it is entirely possible that he made a good bet.
The Fish Man is an upscale operation compared to the humble old place. The expansive space has soaring ceilings, elaborate hand-painted murals adorning the walls, and uniformed staff that are well trained. The branding is also on point. Bo’s menu is similar to the one at the old place but with some new additions and specialties that are more in line with the expectations of this more monied crowd. You can order dishes that use premium ingredients like geoduck, clams, and oysters. Bo sources his seafood from some top-notch producers like Fanny Bay Oysters on Vancouver Island. Some of his specialty oysters are flown in from Japan.
But we come for the roast fish, specifically the one flavoured “ma la” – numbing and spicy Sichuan-style. We order catfish with its firm, resilient flesh that matches perfectly with the cooking technique.
The fish is first flamed on a specialized roaster until the meat is cooked through. The skin is blistered, even blackened in parts. The skin makes all the difference; it helps contain the meat like a glove as it cooks. The other types of fish that are available on the menu – rockfish or lingcod for instance – would flake and break apart. (Pro tip: get the catfish or sea bass).
Once the roasting stage is complete, it is put on a table-top roaster, which is basically a steel hotel pan atop an alcohol burner. The pan is first lined with the “toppings” that you select when you first place your order. We chose things like sliced lotus root, stem lettuce, black wood ear mushrooms, tofu skin, and a few other things. The whole thing is then topped with the special Sichuan “ma la” sauce – a signature mixture comprised primarily of dried chilies (providing the spicy “la”) and Sichuan peppercorns (the numbing “ma”). You will spend the next hour or two eating appetizers and skewers, drinking beer or their house-made smoked plum juice, all the while hunting and pecking at the fish to extract every last morsel. (Another pro tip: there is plenty of meat in the head).
They serve six different kinds of fish: lingcod, catfish, sea bass, sole, rockfish, and tilapia). All are sold by size. The catfish is $45 for the small and $70 dollars for the large. Lingcod ranges from $48 to $88. Tilapia is $35 to $48. Sea bass is $66 to $88. You can choose from eight different styles in the “Flavour” section, among them numb-spicy (what we had), savoury-spicy, black bean, and Sriracha (why?).
I suggest you select a few appetizers to complement the fish. Go for the cucumber salad ($5) and the stem lettuce salad ($7). Add a few Beijing-style chuan’r spicy skewers — let’s say lamb, rib eye, chicken heart and pork kidney. The prices range from $1 to $2 each. Best to order four per person to start. Oysters are market price but typically go for around $2-$4 each depending on their provenance. The Stir Fry Spicy Clams ($24) recently won a Chinese Restaurant Awards Critics’ Choice Award and I can see why. Fresh briney clams in a perfectly balanced chili sauce — they hit right in the middle of spicy, salty, savoury, and sweet.
If you still have an appetite after all that, this area of Richmond (often called “The Golden Village”) has a quite a number of dessert joints scattered about. Just a short walk down the road is an outpost of the Korean bingsoo (shaved ice) chain Snowy Village. Or just hop into your McLaren and drive to a random strip mall and get some fancy bubble tea.