Food critics, bloggers, enthusiasts, etc. are, for better or for worse, constantly obsessed with questions of ‘authenticity,’ and thus suspicions were raised when Terracotta, a recent Gastown addition, opened its doors. Taking over the previous space inhabited by Le Marrakech, the lounge/restaurant initially struck fear of dubious Chinoiserie, having based its name and design features on the namesake statues that decorate its multiple rooms, and having added the words “Modern Chinese” to its signage.
Expectations were not high when we approached the door. With its doors facing Alexander Street, Terracotta receives little of the street traffic that the now bustling Carrall/Water intersection sees, and if there is one warning that Chinese people take to heart, it is that provided by a quiet restaurant (there is no guarantee of such tranquility on Tuesdays, when $2 draft beer is offered).
As though on cue, however, Terracotta’s head chef – an elderly Chinese gentleman – rushed past us towards the kitchen, a positive sign to end early trepidation. Though the room – a modestly renovated room, dimly lit, spread over multiple floors, with a VIP area and slightly dated house music – has no obvious signifiers of your typical North American Chinese restaurant, the man has crafted a genuinely commonplace menu, generally a good thing, with familiar dishes covering pan-regional Chinese fare, slightly ‘updated’ to reflect its environment.
It’s all moderately Cantonese and Taiwanese at Terracotta, fare from Chinese regions prone to outside influence, a smart move for a place that straddles the lines of restaurant and lounge. Scallop and shrimp are stir-fried Cantonese style. Szechuan green beans, the name more a signifier of an idea than of the region, are dotted with pork, sesame, and the ubiquitous spice. A black cod comes bathed in black bean sauce. The Beijing fried rice is named for its inclusion of roast duck rather than the city. These dishes are good, relative to their unexpected presence; these dishes are shocking, but only in their familiarity.
Conversely, Terracotta is disappointing in its familiarity when it strives for the unfamiliar. Creative license is always appreciated, but does it always have to come in the form of spring rolls or sliders? The former are stuffed with tuna, mango and peppers; the latter feature a hoisin-braised shortrib, slighty lacking in salt, but sandwiched with green onion between two halves of a fried mantou bun. Both are perfectly fine and well-executed, but join the endless crush of novelty spring rolls and sliders on the city’s collective digestive system.
All of this, of course, is beside the point, particularly at Terracotta, where context is everything. The food is not the main feature at Terracotta, but a small part of the overall experience. It does well for those craving standard Chinese fare without the trappings (or benefits, depending on your leanings) of a standard Chinese restaurant. The restaurant caters to those in mood for the same experience as Bao Bei: one for the hipsters, the other for the younger club set (you can debate which is which and betray your own preference). Both places make that much more sense when you’re having cocktails alongside your meal (try the Chivas and green tea at Terracotta), though Terracotta’s got a slight leg up on those craving a canned authenticity.
To that end, the New York Times food critic Sam Sifton recently gave a good summation on this odd issue of authenticity:
We never have these debates about European cooking. There’s never any question about whether Daniel Boulud is cooking authentic Lyonnaise food. He’s not. He’s making his food. It’s informed by his childhood in Lyon and by his experience as a chef. We never get tied up in whether Whitey McEuropean is making authentic Whitey McEuropean food. It comes up all the time with so-called “ethnic cuisine” and I think that’s really, really unfortunate… The same is true of music, particularly in the rap world, which is obsessed with questions of authenticity. And does it matter? Probably less than we think.
(Photos by Matt.)
Terracotta Modern Chinese
52 Alexander St.
604 569 3088