It’s been an amazing week for Chinese cuisine in the GVRD. The Critic’s Choices were finally revealed for this year’s Chinese Restaurant Awards, and the first of Chowtimes’ “Eight Great Traditions of Chinese Cuisine” dinners took place at Alvin Garden, featuring the food of Hunan.
As full disclosure, yours truly was part of the organizing team behind the latter. There’s a good synopsis by local legend “Fmed” on the regional fare over at Chowtimes, so I’ll spare you the details here and defer to his expert opinion. Instead, I’ll draw your attention to what he starts with: if there’s any one ingredient that characterizes Hunan cuisine, it’s the chili pepper.
Of the double-digit dishes Alvin Garden dished out that night, all but two or three featured chili peppers in some form. This isn’t food for the faint of heart, and certainly what those travel sized rolls of Tums will come in handy for. Instead of relying on numbing Sichuan peppercorns, this fare features fire-breathing heat balanced against sweet, sour and savoury counterpoints, making it an interest array of contrasts.
The feast started out with an assortment of cold dishes, including the pork heart with five spices, which garnered a gold medal in the best appetizer category in the Chinese Restaurant Awards. Eating heart isn’t a lot different from eating tongue, both in terms of texture and in terms of courage: those willing to try it out are in for toothsome treat holding all the richness of its braise, each small mouthful yielding a concentrated depth in flavour that melts that initial trepidation away. Once you’re through with that, the pork ear isn’t that much of a leap away; those turned off can start with the Hunan pickled cabbage, where sourness plays off spice with an interesting balance, and the spicy dried bean stick (think rolled bean curd sheets) with celery, where each spicy bite ends off with a refreshing crispiness.
This somehow led to the tea-smoked duck, Alvin Garden’s other award-winning dish. Lighter than its more heavily braised counterparts found in Shanghainese restaurants, this duck is also a fair bit smokier, with a more tea-infused aroma. It’s not immediately obvious why this dish is served as an appetizer, apart from its room temperature: course sequence yields way to an all-at-once approach. A pork broth soup with corn and carrots followed, a somewhat folksy dish that wouldn’t be out of place in many Chinese households, and an equally folksy Hunan pork belly, braised in dark soy sauce and star anise, a dish so comfortably familiar that it can almost be considered populist.
What ensued was a chili pepper hellride in all its forms. The descriptor “Donting boiled fish in soup” can’t quite do the technicolour feat justice: a white fish drowned in chilis, oil and Sichuan peppercorns, and probably the most visually intimidating dish to the spice adverse. Alvin Garden’s version isn’t too different from that found at Sichuan restaurants, so focus on the ling cod head instead, which is steamed underneath a brick-layer of chili peppers. Duck is braised in beer and, yes, doused in chili oil as well. In a stark visual contrast, chicken giblets are stir-fried with Hunan white chili peppers, which take on a clear colour and blend into the overall brown of the dish, disguising them to the eye, despite their well-deserved reputation as being one of the hottest chili peppers around.
While most of the other dishes were equally as spicy, each had a balancing counterpoint, giving these dishes the most interesting flavour profiles for the night. Sweet garlic bolts were stir-fried with chili peppers and Hunan smoked pork (or, as the server liked to gentrify it, Chinese bacon), which gave this seemingly simple dish a complex sweetness, spiciness and saltiness all at once. Chicken was served in a hot pot with yet more chilis, but also with a dose of vinegar for a mix of hot and sour. Pork slices were stir-friend with jalapenos, which, after an entire evening of other more fear-inspiring chili peppers, seemed sweet and quaint. Eggplant was braised with chili peppers and ground pork for what many deemed a favourite of the night, with the eggplant slightly crispy on the exterior but gooey and soft on the inside. Spicy and sour potato shreds were just that, served slightly undercooked for the desired crunchiness. This was finished off with lamb stir-friend in cumin, the only dish that didn’t connect with the others in an obvious way.
While I gorged out on the spice heavy dishes early in the night, in hindsight it may have been these latter dishes that were my favourite, each juxtaposing spice against sour, sweet or savoury flavours in a delicate balance. There's more than just monotheistic spice worship going on here, and there's real soulfulness to be found under that chili peppered surface.
4850 Imperial St.