I haven’t written any restaurant reviews on Chef’s Night Out in close to a year. It’s not that I haven’t been dining out, I just haven’t had the time or felt the desire to share my dining experiences on the ol’ blog. I’ve found Twitter’s 140 character allure to be overwhelming and the odd iPhone snapshot uploaded to Twitpic.com, to be a satisfactory recap of my meal out. I’m not sure where my recent desire to start reviewing restaurants again stems from, but I’ve decided to get back into the swing of things and document a few recent and upcoming restaurant meals. One restriction that I’ve applied to my restaurant posts is a time limit. I want to get my point across, describe the meal effectively, but I can’t afford to sacrifice too much time doing it. Where I might usually spend significant time proof reading and styling my words, I’m going to try and “bang out” these posts. I guess that’s also one of the indirect joys of blogging and social media. Poor grammar, bad spelling and improper use of punctuation has almost become the norm, particularly in my case. Hey, in the words of Anthony Bourdain, “I write like I talk.”
About a month ago, “Monk”, “Jazzy” and I were doing a little shopping at Metrotown. A casual Monday off for me and the wife, our family of three cruising the mall, pockets full of accumulated holiday gift cards; “Jazzy” needing a new pair of kicks and her dad eye-balling a couple of shiny, heavyweight cookbooks. After a morning of mall marauding, we were in need of lunch, but we also had an early afternoon doctor’s appointment for Jazzy’s 18 month immunization shots. I knew Alvin Garden [4850 Imperial Street, Burnaby, (604) 437-0828] was in the neighborhood and I had heard a few good things about it. I knew relatively little about the restaurant, except they had an award-winning pork heart dish and Hunan cuisine was “the name of the game.” I threw it out on Twitter while we were shopping and a few trusted sources responded clearly in the affirmative, so off to Alvin Garden we went.
As we pulled up to the restaurant, I started to feel a little anxiety. Firstly, the parking looked like it hadn’t been cleaned in years and secondly, though I know nothing about Hunan cuisine, I know it’s supposed to be fiery and “Monk’s” tolerance for heat is less than minimal. Regardless, we plodded on; we ordered quickly due to our upcoming appointment and our lunch order consisted of spicy pork ear, 5 spiced pork heart, tea smoked duck, spicy wontons and braised beef rice noodle soup.
Over the years, my desire and tolerance for spice has been increasing and I now actively seek out heat in dishes as long as it adds flavor instead of masking it. The pork ears arrived first; exactly as I would expect, great texture and taste. Definitely too spicy for “Monk”, but a perfect balance of heat and savory-ness. “Is that even a word?” Next up was the tea smoked duck. The duck was smoked perfectly, with the flesh still being a touch pink. The meat was juicy, well perfumed with the tea smoke and the seasoning was spot on. I believe this dish has won an award in the annual Chinese Restaurant Awards and it was well deserving. Truly, one of the best duck dishes I’ve had in any Chinese restaurant. The dish I was most looking forward to was the award winning 5 spiced pork heart. Being a chef who believes in using all the parts of the animal, offal such as pork heart is very appealing to me. I was a little suspect when the dish arrived and the slices of heart were gray from being cooked all the way through, but again, I found the flavors and textures to be captivating. My naivety toward this style of food is obvious, but the flavors were really working for me.
By this point, “Monk” was completely overwhelmed by the heat of almost all the dishes, so she order scrambled egg and tomato on rice for her and “Jazzy” to fill up on, while she gave me her blessing to continue on my heaty quest. Spicy wontons, were OK, nothing special about the dish; in fact I’ve had much better versions at other restaurants. In this dish, the heat was overwhelming and there were no other factors to balance the heat. The final dish we ordered was the braised beef with rice noodle and while I have had versions of this dish many times, the Alvin Garden dish was decent, but not special. In fact, the broth was overly oily and spicy, while being under-seasoned at the same time and the beef was stringy and a touch tough.
Issues and concerns; apart from the filth strewn parking lot and the worn dishware and interior, I was very pleased with our dining experience. The service was quick and attentive. They tried to provide solutions for “Monk’s” spice issues and the food was tasty, the service was fast and I look forward to returning. Next time with some of my cooks, who appreciate “Hunan heat” and I look forward to sampling some more of the menu. BTW, I just knocked out this restaurant review in 23 minutes. Mission accomplished.
On my chef’s night out scale, Alvin Garden receives 3.5/5 SOB (slices of bacon).