“It’s the Quintessence of Vietnamese cuisine, Jerry, THE QUINTESSENCE!”, is how I imagine a scene from Seinfeld playing out. It’s an alternative version of Seinfeld, of course, with food bloggers playing all the main characters. Alexandra Gill would play Elaine. Yup.
“Quintessence” means “the most perfect example of”, and I think it’s a pretty fitting description of this place. Mr. Red Cafe showcases the subtler flavours of northern Vietnamese cuisine, which I find exciting cuz most Vietnamese restaurants in Vancouver are southern Vietnamese (think Hanoi vs Saigon). This place opened quietly this year in the spring but gradually generated a big buzz, then finally exploding with Alexandra Gill’s Globe & Mail review. I think they initially couldn’t deal with their new-found popularity and service suffered but from our recent visit, things seem to have smoothed out and they’ve hired additional staff to deal with their new normal. Still, everything is prepared fresh, so having a bit of patience when eating here will serve you well.
It ain’t a Viet restaurant without some sort of moving water feature!
Wicca wore this jade thing she got for our wedding more than a decade ago. It seemed to fit with the environs.
Enjoy the new Mr. Red Cafe menu. I believe they’ve tweaked things from the previous menu, like making the crab spring rolls a regular item instead of a weekend-only thing.
Banh mi, sticky rice and rice rolls.
Desserts and drinks.
Why “Mr. Red Cafe”? It was the male owner’s nickname back in Vietnam!
Tableside condiments: sriracha, chili oil, and (a new one to me) pickled raw garlic slices.
Their tea tastes great! It’s infused with pandan leaves. A wonderful extra touch.
Cuz I can’t type Vietnamese, I’ll just call this by the English description, Special Sticky Rice with Paté & Chicken. Amazing and eye-opening dish. Served with pickled daikon and carrot (same kind you’d find in most banh mi).
Another view of the sticky rice. Soft sticky rice topped with mung bean (stuff that looks like clumps of super pale brown sugar), paté (looks like ground meat), bits of chicken, fried shallots and what I think is pork fluff/floss. The sticky rice had this exquisite softness and freshness to it. Quite different from Cantonese dim sum-style sticky rice. The fried shallots tasted fresh and not stale. Even Wicca ate them and she usually picks out ANYTHING having to do with onions, garlic, shallots, etc. Oh, she loves the flavour, but just hates biting into pieces of anything to do with the onion family.
Cross-section. On paper (or even in photographs) this dish doesn’t seem like much but once you eat it you’ll know. I’m familiar with all these elements separately, but when combined it’s magic. Taste, texture and even aroma coming together in a new way. My favourite part is the paté. It tastes SO DELICIOUS in combination with the rice, and is for me the critical element to this dish. Who knew pate on sticky rice would taste so good? This housemade paté is different from the paté you might’ve had in banh mi. I suspect most places in Vancouver use Kim Chau Deli paté, and their stuff is good for banh mi, but this paté was different and super-tasty. But then, with this dish, if any one element were gone, I think you’d miss it. A must-try!
Stir-fried Beef Rolls Wrapped in Fresh Rice Paper. Menu description is a bit off because I’d categorize the wrapping as flat rice noodle, not rice paper. Think of Chinese chow fun but instead of layered strips forming thick noodles, imagine a single layer of rice noodle, steamed then used to wrap these rolls. My grandmother used to make a somewhat tangentially-related Chinese version of this except instead of beef and Vietnamese herbs, she put in ground pork, dried shrimp and chopped-up water chestnuts. It’s served lukewarm. I didn’t enjoy this dish as much as the others but it was great to try. I appreciated the Vietnamese elements in it. Wicca liked this one way more than I did. With a dish like this, I’ll always think of my grandmother, so…yeah…we bring our own particular tastes and experiences to the table every time we eat. In Asian families, our deepest emotional connections between each other form through food, and I just couldn’t shake the taste memory of what my Grandmother prepared for me.
Wicca’s Soy Taro Milk. Tastes good enough but sometimes Wicca wants the world. I’m pretty sure they use taro powder to make this drink but Wicca hoped that they used fresh taro. Her bar for Asian drinks and desserts is so high…sigh… I’m like, they’re concentrating so much energy in making all the food fresh that they don’t have time, space or energy to prepare fresh taro JUST for one drink on the menu. 😛
Their famous Deep Fried Crab Meat Spring Rolls. Yes, Moyenchow, they do use rice paper for these rolls. 😉 It’s just really well executed.
I think this is just the way food like this is served in the North — arranged on a platter instead of the more familiar bun served in a bowl where you mix up all the ingredients and pour fish sauce over top. Here, you sorta grab bits here and there and dip as you eat. We were given a couple side plates so it was a bit easier to eat…we could grab bits from the platter and make mini-mouthfuls as we ate.
To be honest, the crab flavour didn’t really stand out amongst all the other ingredients in the spring roll. They do put a fair amount of precious crab meat in there, but it doesn’t quite come out as strongly as one would hope. Still, I’d order this dish again any day because it’s so fresh-tasting, not overly greasy, executed very well and tastes amazing. The fish sauce in particular is very well balanced…so much so that I think I could drink it straight! Somehow not bland or weak in any way, not too sweet, not too anything!
Spicy Fried Chicken Wings with honey & butter sauce.
Fresh, juicy, carmelized. The butter adds richness. I had minor issues with the frying. I got hard, crunchy bits around the outside when I was expecting a thin and crispy outside. I tried eating a slice of pickled garlic with it and it made it a bit more interesting. Wicca appreciated it for what it was. I think I must’ve been expecting some platonic ideal of fried chicken wings or something.
I definitely want to come back to have more of that paté, maybe in the Spicy & Crunchy Paté Banh Mi!
Mr. Red Cafe scored big with this first visit. Overall, we both got a sense of how fresh and freshly-prepared everything tasted. It’s the critical difference between eating charred, grilled meat straight off the grill versus something that’s been sitting around losing its life essence. The owners seem 100% committed to the QUINTESSENCE, Jerry! The QUINTESSENCE of Vietnamese cuisine!
I’m confident that our future visits will be just as good.