If you're used to finding great food in settings that are either elegantly urbane or gritty and down-home, arriving for dinner at a Richmond mall is a little unsettling. Yet the food can be phenomenal. At Aberdeen Centre's chic Fisherman's Terrace Seafood Restaurant, you can choose from more than 60 dim sum items. On a cold winter night, get in line at Garden City Hot Pot for a Chinese fondue–style meal ― cooking your dinner in steaming hot broth. At Sun Sui Wah, you can splurge on a 10-pound steamed Alaskan king crab with garlic. And at the handsome new Shanghai River Restaurant (which is not in a mall but on the ground floor of an apartment building across from Richmond Centre), you can try Shanghai steamed buns, hand-pulled noodles, and tea-smoked duck.
Despite the setting, Richmond's restaurants have grown increasingly sophisticated. While David Jue ― owner of Bamboo Grove, the city's oldest existing Chinese restaurant ― says that traditionally here "food comes first, then service, then atmosphere," newer Richmond restaurants wow with ambience. Shanghai River, for example, bridges the gap between dining and entertainment with its subtle contemporary decor and its open kitchen, where you can watch noodles being stretched to incredible lengths. "Chinese people love a new attraction," says chef-owner Bill Cheung.
The cuisine has taken interesting turns as well. At intimate, elegant Zen Fine Chinese Cuisine, chef-owner Sam Lau cooks what he calls modern Chinese food, which he offers in a prix fixe tasting menu. "It's not fusion," Lau insists. "Some courses are straight Chinese. I cook the authentic way, but the presentation is Western."
The Richmond Public Market bustles with shoppers seeking seafood, snake soup, or herbal remedies. For a sleeker, more controlled shopping experience, head to T&T Supermarket, part of the largest Asian grocery chain in Canada. Here, across the street from Aberdeen Centre, customers are serenaded by softly piped-in music while they fill shopping carts with live crabs, clams, and abalone from T&T's fish tanks; they can also buy tropical fruits seldom seen in the U.S. (purple-skinned tart-sweet mangosteens, spiky durians with their unforgettable stink) and fresh, frozen, and canned foods from all over Asia.
"Our customers are used to high standards in Hong Kong and Taiwan," says T&T's marketing manager, Melina Hung. "They expect that here. Every Chinese is an expert on food."
So powerful is the Richmond food scene that it can even alter people's lives. Take Maggie Lee. I arranged to meet her at Fisherman's Terrace, a restaurant inside Aberdeen Centre. When I arrived, she wasn't there yet. A few minutes later, I saw a striking, curvaceous woman with short, spiky hair being shown to her table. I was then shown to the same table. Both of us were surprised. Lee expected to see a white face. After hearing about Lee's food expertise, I expected a Chinese grandmother.