Exploring the Limits of Chinese Cuisine at Bambudda in Gastown

I learned some hard truths:

  • Food isn’t the only determining factor in the success or popularity of a restaurant.
  • Tuesday nights after a long weekend are brutal for a restaurant just a mere block away from all the action — a block away in the wrong direction, unfortunately. So, location does matter.
  • Vancouver is still a small city with grand, lofty goals but not enough density to support such goals.
  • Social media is prone to faddism, hype and can generate big restaurant launches. But to sustain the momentum in the long run, well…it’s up to you (the “you” is left purposefully vague here).
  • Four “foodies” sitting at a table can easily burn four hours just talking about food.

It was Charity’s birthday, so we took her to a place that’s been on our radar for ages but never checked out before…until an absolutely dead Tuesday night.

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Bambudda has been around for about a year-and-a-half. But even with the activity in Gastown recently (opening of Tacofino Burrito & TacoBar, Nicli’s Next Door, Hi-Five Grilled Cheese, Soft Peaks, etc) Bambudda still feels a bit secluded in its corner location.

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Or maybe it was because it was a Tuesday night after a long weekend. This area just seemed dead and extra seedy that night.

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Bambudda hasn’t been immune to change. They’re on their third chef since opening in Summer of 2013. I’m sort of kicking myself for not trying these guys at the beginning, to get a sense of their original vision. Luckily, their third and current chef is Top Chef Canada alumnus Curtis Luk, a favourite of mine and Wicca’s due to his quirky, geeky passion and shouts of “behind! behind! behind!” on the show. It was great seeing him behind the counter at Fable with other Top Cheffer Trevor Bird, but we didn’t get a chance to taste his work at The Parker in Chinatown. Glad to see that he’s found a home at Bambudda, which is perhaps the best fit for him so far.

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Bambudda just launched a new menu that night. Beef Tongue is always a must! With beef floss? Intriguing… Crispy Oysters sound good too. How does one make their own Maggi sauce?

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Pork Belly with taro and fermented red tofu sounds like a take on the Chinese classic steamed pork belly with taro (kau yuk)! Hmmmm, how would they elevate it here? Charity saw a preview of the Stuffed Cornish Hen on Twitter, so that was a must-order.

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Sides include house ramen noodles?? Hmmmm… Full menu (with prices) is available on their website.

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If you follow Curtis on Twitter, you’ll see how he’s thoughtful, inquisitive, but never satisfied.

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Beerwise, Bambudda is bottle-only, therefore EXPENSIVE AS FUCK. But then, bottled beer in ALL restaurants is expensive. The selection here isn’t as good as it could be. Why have two stouts? And Estrella Inedit isn’t as good as restauranteurs think it is, even though it was created by/for Ferran Adrià (elBulli).

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Wicca is always skeptical when Asian food is “elevated” or “fused”, but one area that she’s usually happy about is the realm of desserts. Add matcha or black sesame to anything and she’s all over it. As long as it’s not a savoury Asian ingredient like lemongrass or basil…she needs a bit more convincing in those cases.

Anyways, dessert looks promising!

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Bambudda also has a late night menu. Now these prices are more in line with what I’d be comfortable with on a more regular basis. The regular menu is more in the “special occasion” territory for me :/ Small plates are $10-12 and larger plates run $16-22. Expect to order 2-3 plates per person.

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Customized virgin cocktail for Charity. I think it had passionfruit in it?

It’s dark as hell in this place, so I tried using my cell phone flash wrapped in a paper napkin to light the food. The results are iffy. I don’t think I’ll be doing this again cuz I think it gives the food an “operating table” kinda vibe… 🙁

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Crispy Oysters with house maggi glaze and oyster cracker. Also included a ton of other stuff like wakame (kelp) and pickled jalapenos.

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We all loved the flavours and textures in this dish. I don’t dig the way it’s plated though. Steamer baskets are great for dim sum, but for anything else it’s REALLY awkward. I couldn’t really see all the elements in the dish and I had to stand up in order to really get at my portion. It also looks like they rushed through a jungle on the way from the kitchen to our table. But the flavours were great, with plenty of texture from the “oyster cracker”. The inclusion of wakame in this dish reminds me of Statebird Provisions in San Francisco, where a fellow diner remarked about how they were “flavouring foods with other foods”. I would also get this feeling later on with the beef tongue dish.

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Scallop and Kale Dumplings with lime leaf soy and prawn dust. Great flavours but infuriatingly small serving. Shared between the three of us, there wasn’t much for each person to experience. And at $10 it’s a bit pricey. Next time I’ll take advantage of their happy hour special at the bar where these small plates are 50% off 😉 The flavour and texture of the wrapper instantly reminded me of steamed dumplings that my grandmother would make. Kinda caught me off-guard and I almost cried.

Charity thought the wrapper was a bit on the thick side, but for me, if it’s that appealing, chewy yet soft texture, I’m all about MORE, MORE, MORE!

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Beef Tongue with curry vinaigrette, beef floss and winter melon. This dish made me look around with a sense of “where am I??”, in that it made me reassess what Bambudda are trying to do. All the elements on this dish are familiar on their own, but the combination disoriented me in a good way. This dish is very Asian, but in a way that I’ve never had before. Those white things are ribbons of winter melon. Eating it together with the curry vinaigrette and beef floss, I knew that this was the kind of dish I could never get in a typical or traditional Asian restaurant.

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Closeup of the beef floss. Similar to pork floss (pork fluff) that people eat with congee. This pairing of beef tongue with beef floss reminded me again of the Statebird Provisions method of flavouring foods with other foods.

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Pork Belly with taro, fermented red tofu and lime. I admire the attempt to add some texture to the original Chinese kau yuk dish by wrapping it in potato and frying it, but the pork belly inside wasn’t meltingly tender enough to evoke memories of my mom’s kau yuk. The fermented red tofu flavour need to be amped up. All the seasoning needed to be amped up. The taro slices on top had a good texture though.

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Stuffed Cornish Hen with sticky rice, shiitake and lap cheong. This dish fared better than the pork belly dish. The skin on the hen had a sweet, carmelized glaze on the outside. Good texture and seasoning. However…(and I got this feeling from eating at Fable too)…I feel that the small plates were on the whole more exciting than the mains.

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I broke down and got a beer: Parallel 49 Gypsy Tears. It was an unlisted substitution for New Belgium Fat Tire. The bartender said they were the same style of beer, and technically he might be right as they’re both categorized as “American Amber/Red Ale” on Beer Advocate, I think Gypsy Tears skews more towards the red ale side whereas Fat Tire is more towards to amber side. It was an adequate but unexciting beer for the evening, and didn’t do much for the food.

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We ordered a couple sides: Curry Leaf Infused Jasmine Rice. I swear I got notes of chicken fat. Very tasty and aromatic rice.

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House Made Ramen. Surprisingly good noodles! Bouncy, elasticy texture. The rice tasted good with the mains that we ordered, but eating these noodles with the mains was a bit strange. Tasty but strange.

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I felt like we could pack in another dish before getting dessert. Potato Vermicelli with oyster mushrooms and cilantro sauce vierge (virgin sauce). These look like noodles but were actually raw (or barely cooked) potato! I believe Curtis used a vegetable turning slicer to create these “vermicelli”. There’s a similar Northern Chinese dish with raw shredded potatoes, but those are cut much thicker. The noodles in this dish behaved like real vermicelli noodles, with that elasticity when you try to pull them apart and serve them.

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The crispy fried mushrooms were my favourite part. We’d totally get this again.

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Coconut Rice Pudding with tapioca, melon and thai basil. I liked this less-sweet take on rice pudding. Wicca wasn’t a fan of certain savoury elements incorporated in this dish (like star anise and basil) but I thought they worked and added interest to what might’ve been a simple, straightforward coconut rice pudding.

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Chinese Opera Torte with soy anglaise and green & black tea. Wicca couldn’t get enough of this dish. Doing a soy anglaise instead of a creme anglaise was right up Wicca’s alley. And add in the Asian tea element and she was on the moon. One detraction for me was the hard (walnut?) layer in the middle which didn’t sit well with the rest of the dessert. If that layer was thinner and crisper, maybe…

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Towards the end of our meal, the owner overheard that it was Charity’s birthday, so brought us a surprise cheesecake dessert! Very nice guesture.

There are inevitable comparisons to be made between Bambudda and Bao Bei. But I feel that the food and the chefs are completely different, and that we’re only asking this question because the Vancouver scene is actually really tiny. I’d go back to Bambudda, but perhaps only during their happy hour…and it would help a lot if they improved their beer list.

Bambudda on Urbanspoon

2 thoughts on “Exploring the Limits of Chinese Cuisine at Bambudda in Gastown”

  1. We tried many of the same dishes you had here when we went; I had bought a Travelzoo voucher which was quite a great deal at $100 for two snacks, four appetizers, four entrees, and two desserts. Enjoyed all the food but was sad to see the restaurant was completely empty on a Sunday night… we were the only table.

  2. PS. The only available choice for the “snack” was crispy chicken skins!!! Amazing… no fat at all, just the skin, deep fried to crispy perfection!

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