February 2010

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Vancouver's Dr. Sun Yat-Sen garden.

Vancouver's Dr. Sun Yat-Sen garden.

I decided to spend my last day in Vancouver wandering aimlessly around Chinatown, beginning at the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen garden were I sat on a damp bench beside a milky jade-colored pond where languid turtles—a Chinese symbol of long life—caught a bit of sun on pitted soapstone rocks. There’s something truly wonderful about the serenity of this garden and its metaphorical nature: the purity of the water lily, courage of the chrysanthemum, gracefulness of the weeping willows drooping over the water. And the many, many blue iris, symbols of fertility, lining the banks of the pond.

From here I just wandered down the street, dropping in at a tea shop where I bought a box of jasmine tea before ending up in a general goods shop where I picked up several bars of fragrant soap, made in China. I bought them as much—or perhaps more—for their beautiful Chinese wrapping paper as anything else.

Rambutan hanging in a Chinatown market.

Rambutan hanging in a Chinatown market.

The fun of Chinatown—any Chinatown—is just being overwhelmed by the exotic smells, the peculiar sounds. Like the old women bickering with the produce man over the freshness of the hairy crimson rambutans hanging from the roof of his stall, or the surprising taste of the sweet and crunchy raw sea asparagus offered to me by a tiny little old lady whose smile lit up the store.

Further down Pender Street I took refuge from a sudden downpour in an apothecary store and wandered up and down the aisle fingering the dried sharkfin and sniffing kencur, an aromatic ginger that smelled, to me, of camphor.

At a fish monger’s on Keefer I watched with fascination as a young boy in a bloody apron lined a row of ling cod, propped up on a bed of ice, that still reflexively flapped their gills as if they were prize fighters just trying to catch their breath. And at the N&S Trading Co., a wonderfully tacky tourist shop with an impressive collection of cheap tin wind-up toys from China, I bought a blue cardboard box that, when you took off the lid, revealed a solar-powered chirping cricket.

Back on the street, the cricket refused to quiet down—even with the lid on. I tucked the box into the pocket of my leather jacket and hailed a cab. The cricket chirped happily all the way back to the hotel as my Asian driver repeatedly glanced at me in his rear view mirror. Can you imagine what people are going to think about my little cricket when I get on the plane tomorrow?

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To the C for dinner

Last night I had dinner at a restaurant homonymously called C, just a block from where the little Aquabus docks at the bottom of Hornby Street. It’s one of my favorite spots in Vancouver, a restaurant dedicated to the fruits of the ocean, a sparkling white eatery on the edge of the water where the only meat on the menu is called the Catch of the Day.

I sat at one of the small linen-covered tables on the south-facing patio, looking across False Creek towards Granville Island. The marina was busy. There were slow cruising yachts and motoring sailboats and pods of sleek kayakers all taking advantage of the cold but gorgeous weather. I ordered a half-dozen royal miyagi oysters, with their crisp cucumber taste, from Cortez Island and a citrusy pinot blanc from BC’s Okanagan Valley and sat there and watched the sky slowly lose its color.

If you are at a beautiful restaurant, like C, and you have some of the best oysters you’ve ever had along with a really great wine and air is brisk and the waterfront bustling, it can make you happy in a way that you will remember for the rest of your life—if you are with someone special. But if you are there by yourself, you can enjoy the clean, briny flavor of the oysters and the crispness of the wine and soak yourself in the beauty of the water and the night, but it will leave you melancholy. Because there is no one to share it with and so you have just had something extraordinary but what is the point if you cannot look at someone else and, even without speaking, know that this is what has taken place.

After I finished the oysters, I ordered a heady fennel-tasting bouillabaisse full of crayfish and king crab and blocks of chunky white fish. It was as good as anything I’ve ever had in Marseilles. No, I am lying; it was better. It was dark now so I took my time both eating and drinking the wine, not wanting to hurry but just enjoying the meal and the setting. It was such a stunning evening.

I looked out across the water to the lights on Granville Island. A party boat—full of revelers in suits and long dresses—was going by. There was a three-piece band, in tuxes, playing jazz music on the stern which was lit by Japanese lanterns swaying back and forth like fireflies. A few couples were dancing. Others were leaning against the railing, staring across the darkness to the restaurant. A woman in a long black dress caught my gaze and waved at me as the boat went by. I waved back. And then the boat disappeared into the darkness.

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So I take the rainbow-colored toy ferry, the Aquabus, to the Granville Island Public Market on Saturday and it is like I’ve been transported to a scene from the days of King Arthur. There are jugglers in jester hats and a large bear of a man noodling Celtic tunes on a fife and everywhere are scrambling children wearing forest-green corduroy pants and knit hats that look like strawberries or bumblebees.

Inside the market, the aisles are crowded, the steamy air redolent of fresh seafood and ripe fruit and fragrant flowers. At Long Liner Seafood, I get half-a-pound of Indian candy—long strips of double-smoked sockeye salmon brined in brown sugar and salt, eating it in little nips and bites as I stroll about admiring the stands selling mounds of hothouse tomatoes and juicy rambutans and crunchy sea asparagus.

You know how it is when you walk around looking at food: You get hungry. So even though I’ve just had breakfast not more than two hours ago, I stand in line to buy a cup of thick oyster chowder at Stock Market, the soup place, and then take it outside on the steps of the landing, watching the buskers and the children rolling around on the grass and the silly little toy ferry, which looks like it should be piloted by Steamboat Willie, as it shuttles back and forth across False Creek.

As I’m finishing my chowder, a young woman comes by handing out flyers advertising a fortuneteller’s studio here on Granville Island. “Let me tell you your fortune,” she says. So I follow her to a green corrugated building beneath the old bridge. A yellow sign in the window says TAROT CARDS & PALM READINGS. I don’t believe in this stuff but I’m fascinated by it. One time in Sedona a wild-eyed hippie who looked disturbingly like Charles Manson read my cards and what he told me was so spot on that it made me nauseous.

Anyway, Chanel (that’s her name; pretty funny, huh) shuffles the cards and rearranges them and then I pick one.

“This is the Queen of Cups,” Chanel says. “She is a visionary and has extrasensory powers.” And then she flips over more cards and starts telling me how I have been here before at a time when I was at a crossroads in my life, that it had to do with two women, both of whom came to Vancouver to sway me, and how a decision I made then has had devastating consequences for one of the women.

“You destroyed a heart,” Chanel says, giving me the stink-eye.

Well, like I said. I just don’t believe in any of this. There’s no way a complete stranger can flip over a bunch of cards and know who you are and what you have done. Which makes it even more disconcerting that Chanel was right about everything she said.

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Just look at the brightly-colored Vancouver Aquabus and tell me you wouldn’t like a toy-size version for your bathtub. I mean, it’s so cool. Saturday I hopped on one at Hornby Street to go over to the Public Market on Granville Island (which really isn’t an island, but you know how those Canadians are) and instead of getting off where I was supposed to, I kept riding—down False Creek (which also isn’t a creek; see above) to Yaletown and all the way to Plaza of Nations and then back. And I was still reluctant to get off. In fact, I think if you had a bottle of champagne and some goodies from the Public Market—like maybe a pint of the wild salmon chowder from the Stock Market, a yummy soup emporium—you couldn’t have a more pleasant outing than tooting up and down False Creek aboard a little Aquabus all day.

But then you’d miss all the fun at the Public Market, which just absolutely screams Pacific Northwest at you, particularly on a cool, misty, foggy morning when all the Vancouverite moms are tooling around Granville in bright Gore-Tex hoodies, pushing their children—costumed in brilliant red or yellow galoshes—up and down the Public Market aisles in strollers.

I’m telling you, I’ve never seen a town so in love with dressing up their kids. They’re just incredibly stylish in their bumble bee toques and pink rain jackets and strawberry-print pants. It’s enough to make you want to have children just so you can have fun accessorizing them.

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Sunday brunch at Floata

The chicken feet at Floata Seafood restaurant in Vancouver.

The chicken feet at Floata Seafood restaurant in Vancouver.

Sunday morning I walked around Vancouver’s Chinatown with Stephen Wong, an exuberant habitué of the area. Born in Hong Kong, Stephen moved to Vancouver in 1978 and has either owned or worked for a host of Vancouver restaurants and co-authored a number of cookbooks on Chinese cooking. (His business card hints at the many faces of Stephen Wong. Below his name, written in Mandarin, it says Cookbook Author, Food Consultant, Restaurant Concept Designer, and Project Development Manager.)

The last time I was here, maybe ten years ago, Wong and I had a memorable Sunday brunch at a cavernous restaurant smack in the middle of Chinatown, called Floata Seafood, and it’s here that I’ve suggested we dine again. But Wong isn’t crazy about the idea. “Always very crowded on Sundays,” he says. He suggests we try a place on Fraser Street that has excellent Cantonese- and Northern-style dim sum like har gow (shrimp dumplings) and lo mai gai (sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaves).

Sounds good. But I’ve been thinking of the dim sum at Floata for days now. Besides, it’s just a couple of blocks from the Dr. Sun Yat Classical Chinese Garden where I want to visit this afternoon. Stephen says, Okay, we’ll go to Floata, but I can tell he’s not happy about it.

When we get there, I can see why. The place is a zoo. (Floata’s happy claim to fame is that, seating over 1,000 people, they’re the largest Chinese restaurant in Canada.) At first we’re told there’s a 30 minute wait but after Stephen has a private conversation with one of the managers, we are suddenly escorted to a table in the back of what looks like a convention hall. Much of the room is filled with large round banquet tables, the type that seat eight to twelve people. Lots of families. Lots of maj jong grannies. It’s like a large wedding reception with kids running around and people sitting up on an elevated dais in the front of the room and loud music, laughter, pandemonium. And then there’s me, a gwai-lo, and Stephen, sitting in the back. So here’s what happens when you get seated at Floata: the receptionist puts a number on your table (we were 49), and then a young woman promptly brings you tea (without asking), and then you wait for the little old ladies wheeling trolley carts to come by your table with the dim sum.

Except if you’re a party of two and you’re sitting in the back of the room, you’re lucky if the carts ever make it back that way. And if they do, they’re often times low on food (there’s a trick here to ordering; you have to check the carts to see how many servings of, say, BBQ pork bun, they have left because if it’s only one or two, it’s usually old and that silky quality of really good dim sum has been replaced with kind of a nasty paste flavor).

Now, Stephen Wong knows just about everybody in Chinatown (if not Vancouver) and, as I said, he’s an accomplished restaurateur and cookbook author, so at most restaurants around here, we’d be well taken care of. Which is probably why he suggested we go to some little place in his neighborhood (but I wouldn’t listen). But here at Floata, in a dining room that looks like a football field, where maybe a thousand people are waiting to be fed by dozens of servers spinning their trolleys through narrow lanes—well, it’s just not happening. Still, we eventually get some siu mai, which is very salty, and pork congee, which is very salty, and chiu chow, which is…well, you get the idea. The best dish: chicken feet. Salty, but tasty.

Walking to the Dr. Sun Yat garden after lunch, I apologize. “You were right,” I tell Stephen.

“Sometimes a famous old restaurant is just a famous old restaurant,” he says.

Amen to that.

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