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Asian Flavors in Vancouver

Decisions, decisions. "How about daimo for ostrich congee?Or Imperial for expense-account seafood?And there's Landmark for hot pot-- their shrimp is so fresh it comes out jumping," says my friend Stephen Wong. "If you're in the mood for sushi or dim sum-- "

"You pick," I plead, overwhelmed by the tidal wave of Vancouver's Asian offerings.

Choosing a handful of perfect restaurants in a city known as the North American capital of Asian dining can make you hyperventilate. But I sharpened my chopsticks for the challenge and navigated all of Asia in just five days. Here are my favorites-- with a few occidental pearls thrown in for good measure.

Hello, Hong Kong
Stephen and I finally settle on Sun Sui Wah, in a circular room designed by avant-garde Chinese architect Bing Thom. We land in a witches' Sabbath of cell phones (squat, sleek, gray, black; all cackling at once). CEO's suck loudly on crab claws, and families frantically spin lazy Susans. It's Hong Kong-- by way of the Great White North. Yet strangely, this world is more assimilated than the aggressively segregated Chinese food meccas of New York and L.A. Here the waiters smile sweetly, address you in English, and happily divulge their off-menu secrets.

Roast squab, the house specialty, arrives plain and plump. We eat it with sprinkles of spiced salt, then continue with vibrant garlicky greens and black-cod steaks in a sweetened light soy sauce. The coup de grâce is a shredded-potato basket filled with an improbably perfect sauté of snow peas, shrimp, and geoduck strips. This is haute Cantonese in top gear.

With a population one-sixth Chinese, choice real estate pumped up by Hong Kong dollars, and three Chinese daily newspapers, no wonder some call this city Hong-Couver. Over Sunday lunch at Mitzie's in Chinatown, Stephanie Yuen, a reporter for the Sing Tao Daily, introduces us to fashions in Cantonese fusion: a bizarre coffee-and-tea cocktail called Special Coffee, and microwaved Coke with lemon (a favorite cold remedy). Mitzie's itself is a curious hybrid. An American-style restaurant with a mostly Chinese clientele, it dishes up burgers and spaghetti alle vongole alongside pork chops with fried rice baked under a blanket of tomato sauce (surprisingly tasty) and some of the best chow mein noodles in town. Thousand Island meets five-spice-- with a dash of Parmesan.

In pursuit of a Taiwanese teenage fad, "pearl tea"-- strong iced tea with condensed milk, loaded with big tapioca pearls that sink to the bottom of the glass-- we drive out to the new Chinatown in Richmond, close by the airport. Here a cluster of malls offers acres of Pan-Asian exotica with the sanitized glitter of a fancy duty-free shop. At the oldest mall, Aberdeen Centre, you can catch the latest Hong Kong flick, snack on a spectacular array of street food, and buy Snoopy mugs festooned with Chinese inscriptions.

We find our pearl tea at Fook Po Tong, a café specializing in herbal drinks. Sucking the tapioca drops into your mouth from an outsize straw is like taking your taste buds to the funfair.

Before we go, would I care for a curative blend of lotus seeds and fatty tissue of snow toad?Maybe next time.

Counter Production
The seafood at Tojo's is so buttery, melting, and rich, you feel as if you're eating whipped cream. In a very Tokyo fashion, Vancouver's sushi temple-- actually, more a coffee shop with a glamorous view-- is tucked away on the second floor of an office building. Skip the panoramic seating, bid for a perch at the counter, shout "Omakase" ("Chef, we're in your hands"), and surrender yourself to the whims of Tojo-san.

"Where are you folks from?Hello, New York; welcome back, Vancouver." Tojo opens the show with Vegas swagger. This evening's routine: a bowl of albacore cubes in sesame-touched sauce; sweet, spongy shrimp dumplings tossed with shiitakes; Dungeness crab and an avocado roll; a hand roll of prawns, geoduck, and Tobiko caviar; and lemony tataki (seared tuna slices). The grand finale is a salad of raw seafood swathed in a sunset-pink sauce made of mentaiko (cod roe). The dish is slimy, fishy, and scintillating.

Famously, Tojo makes off with some of Vancouver's best catch before it's whisked away and sold in Japan. It's a small thrill, eating fish that's a day fresher than some of Tokyo's best. At Canadian prices.

Catching
the Wave

Two-year-old C touts itself as the city's first restaurant devoted to fusion Pacific Rim seafood. (Vancouver, what took you so long?) Dramatically framed by two bridges, the dining room and terrace look out on ferries and pleasure craft slicing across False Creek. The interior is a postmodern reverie of fishing motifs; even the menu cover is made of the rubber used for fishermen's galoshes. Equally suggestive are the chef's evocations of the Pacific Northwest. Smoked Georgia Strait octopus confit. Columbia Valley sturgeon. Wrangell Sound scallops. Makes you want to reach for a compass.

The food mostly lives up to the buzz-- though the saskatoon-berry-tea-cured salmon with okanagan-berry aioli tastes like plain old lox to me. To start, we have terrific oysters jeweled with three kinds of caviar; seared beef with roasted-garlic purée; and a competent spring roll. Tuna, ruby and rare like steak, dances with pineapple chutney and crisp samosas. The chef's wittiest concoction is sea scallops wrapped in thin strips of grilled octopus, which we almost mistake for

Canadian bacon. Desserts-- Gorgonzola crème brûlée and a rose-hip granita with honey parfait-- are fresh and exuberant. The staff recommends lovely British Columbian whites from a trendy, Riesling-rich list.

A Cambodian Kitchen
Enter Phnom Penh, and the pungent aromas of fish sauce, garlic, and tropical spices carry you oceans away to the clamorous night markets of Southeast Asia. The illusion grows stronger when you taste the Cambodian-Vietnamese food.

Like an expert bingo caller, my friend shouts our order numbers. No. 45: The city's definitive hot-and-sour soup, intense and transparent, teeming with chunks of vegetables, pineapple, and fish. No. 57: Slippery rice cakes tossed with matchsticks of pork rind and tiny chili-laced shrimp dressed in coconut milk. A startling tangle of flavors. No. 71: The best carpaccio you'll ever taste-- tissue-thin slices of just-seared beef bathed in an aromatic vinegar dressing. No. 74: Pan-fried moons of trieu chau dumplings that burst with a spicy scallion filling. The luckiest number is 76, a wokful of huge, crunchy, spot prawns (a local obsession) sprinkled with bits of chili and garlic.

Punjabi Panache
"Intense! Full-bodied! Syrupy!" cries Vikram Vij, like some grand sommelier. Not a scene from your typical vindaloo dive. But then Vij, one of Vancouver's many Punjabi residents, combines his devotion to curries with the savvy he acquired working at Bishop's (a bastion of nouvelle américaine). At Vij's, a small, spare storefront, there's little to distract you from the intriguing cuisine.

Tangy and fiery, a brick-red tomato-and-fenugreek marinade enlivens mozzarella-like slabs of paneer. Savory semolina halva, with a texture of bread pudding, gets a jolt from mint-mango chutney and coconut sauce. Main courses erupt with magical flavors: juicy chicken smothered with mild green chilies and cilantro; Bengali fried cod offset by a new-wave raita and a peppery mesclun salad with sesame-coconut dressing; roast quail framed by aromatic onion-seed curry. Each dish is carefully accessorized, and the wine list is smart and concise.

The restaurant does not take reservations, so lines can be long. But waiters greet you outside with pappadum and masala chai, and regulars offer up comments on the trendiest flavors of Indian ice cream-- jackfruit and passion fruit.

Balancing Act
Have you ever watched figure skaters, gracefully suspended in mid-triple axel, and hoped they'd land in a heap?I hate to admit it, but that's how I felt halfway through the scrupulously elegant tasting menu at Lumière-- almost willing the next dish to turn up soggy or burned. Silly thought. The kitchen kept landing on its feet without missing a toe loop.

Who would think tuna tartare could taste so new and refreshing, and crab ravioli, another potential yawn, so haunting and spicy?One salad paired smoked black cod and tiny potatoes in an ode to the Pacific Northwest. Another belonged in a Michelin three-starred auberge somewhere in Strasbourg: slivers of smoked goose, white asparagus, and minuscule croutons, bound by a foie gras vinaigrette. After the classicism of filet mignon topped with sweet, musky slices of porcini and Peking duck with spot prawns, Israeli couscous and curry oil sounded weird, at best. But, hey, it worked. Desserts?Litchi sorbet with strawberry water, and a tangy yogurt parfait with pineapple and coconut caramel.

Lumière's setting (austere but oddly comforting) and service (warmly professional) are true to the food. Regulars worry whenever chef-owner Robert Feenie dashes off to New York to consult at the Hôtel Plaza Athénée: What if the Big Apple tempts him for good?I secretly hope it enchanted isle

If you're in the mood for a quiet adventure, take the seaplane (about a half-hour hop) to Vancouver Island, then drive to Sooke Harbour House. This is one of Canada's best-- and most singular-- restaurants: a white clapboard inn overlooking the ocean, surrounded by gardens where almost everything is edible. The seafood on the menu could fill an exotic aquarium, and the house salad is a toss of rare flowers and plants. My meal?Ebony clams, gooseneck barnacles, and limpets in miso broth; weather-vane scallops with a parcel of Swiss chard and oyster mushrooms; sockeye salmon with fiddlehead ferns. My friend and I started with a Venturi Schulze sparkling wine, made on the island, and ended with local cheeses and alpine strawberries.

Sooke Harbour House 1528 Whiffen Spit Rd., Sooke, Vancouver Island; 250/642-3421; dinner for two $85.

the restaurants
Sun Sui Wah Seafood Restaurant
3888 Main St.; 604/872-8822; dinner for two $30.
Mitzie's
179 E. Pender St.; 604/689-9763; lunch for two $17.
Fook Po Tong
4151 Hazelbridge Way at Aberdeen Centre, Richmond;
604/279-9373; snacks for two $5.
Tojo's
202-777 W. Broadway; 604/872-8050;
dinner for two $37, more for chef's special menus.
C
2-1600 Howe St.; 604/681-1164; lunch for two $34.
Phnom Penh
244 E. Georgia St.; 604/682-5777; lunch for two $17.
Vij's
1480 W. 11th Ave.; 604/736-6664; dinner for two $27.
Lumière
2551 W. Broadway; 604/739-8185; dinner for two $54.
Prices do not include drinks, tax, or tip.

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