Address: 1-130 Riocan Ave., 613-825-2188, goldenrestaurantottawa.com
Open: Monday to Friday 11 a.m. to midnight, Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. to midnight
Prices: most dishes from $8.95 to 14.95
Access: no stairs
Sun nien fai lok!
I’ve been wishing people Happy Chinese New Year earlier than the official date (this Sunday, Feb. 10) because of several trips to Golden Restaurant in Barrhaven’s Marketplace Mall. At this nine-month-old restaurant with a gargantuan, mostly Cantonese menu, the Year of the Snake decorations have been up for some time.
Based on two weekend evening visits I’ve made, Golden Restaurant passes the stereotypical test for authenticity regarding Chinese restaurants — most of its 120 or so seats were packed with Chinese people. They cared not about the place’s nearly non-existent decor (it does have one nice stone wall, a remnant from when it was a Fratelli location). They don’t care if the service can be a little brusque, or if tables are covered with white plastic rather than white linen, or if the English on the menu includes some typos. Rather, the large families are there for food that scores big on taste and value, if less so on refinement.
How to evaluate a restaurant with more than 200 items on offer, everything from sweet and sour chicken balls to spicy duck tongue with jellyfish? There are Chinese-Canadian combination plates and ostensibly Szechuanese dishes. There are dumplings, rolls and other dim sum fare and Happy Dinners for two, four or six diners that seem more Hong Kong in their orientation.
Bewildered by so many choices, my table during my first visit went off-menu for one of the intriguing specials listed on a card in the centre of our table. We three shared a rock cod dinner ($48.88) and were pleased to sample the succulent, clean-flavoured fish three ways. First came a gingery, tofu-studded broth made from its head and bones, with chunks of tomato to add sweetness. Then came a stir-fry that showcased the choice bits of the fish to best effect, paired again with ginger, still-firm carrots, snow peas and several kinds of mushrooms. Finally, the bone-laden rest came in a savoury, hearty stew with cubes of deep-fried tofu.
For contrast, we ordered some of the heavily seasoned “pepper salt” soft-shell crab, deep-fried and tossed with plenty of salt and bits of Thai chilies. It was crisp and punchy — a bit better than the pepper salt short ribs and pepper salt mixed seafood (a little soggy) I had on later visits.
Feeling pretty optimistic, I made a lunchtime visit to sample Golden’s Szechuan-style dishes. They were not bad — on par with similar dishes I’ve tried at other Cantonese-run restaurants — but not quite as vibrant as the food at eateries run by northern Chinese people. Hot and sour soup had the right consistency and sourness, but some pork and some meatier stock would have made it something to get excited about. Ma po tofu, the classic combination of tofu cubes with a spicy ground pork sauce, had good flavour and a comforting feel, but it could have been spicier still and it lacked the tongue-numbing impact of Szechuan peppercorns. We liked the spicy green beans with pork for its properly cooked beans and the heat and funkiness of its sauce. General Tao’s chicken was pretty ordinary — Canadianized? It had some sweetness and sourness to its sticky sauce, but not enough heat, and the chicken’s crunchy breading was too thick for my taste.
Dim sum dishes, ordered à la carte at another visit, were better. All were fresh, piping hot and seemingly made with care and attention to detail. Deep-fried shrimp balls, full of flavour and not greasy, might have been the best of the batch, but rice in a lotus leaf, shrimp har gow, stuffed eggplant and scallop dumplings all hit the spot too.
Last weekend, I had a final dinner at Golden with friends and no less than two Chinese grandmothers to get their expert opinions. Both are good cooks and choosy when it comes to restaurant food.
They liked some dishes that some non-Chinese grandmothers at the table shunned, such as sizzling, tender, black pepper steak, which was more likely much-marinated chunks of beef from a cheaper cut. For one Chinese grandmother, the texture appealed, but a non-Chinese diner thought the meat mushy.
Similarly, in the fish maw soup, the chewiness of the fish maw was more easily appreciated by a Chinese grandmother or her offspring.
But there was positive consensus regarding deep-fried fish filets with creamy corn sauce, and bone-in chunks of poached chicken, with a dipping sauce of ginger, garlic and green onions. (One of the Chinese grandmothers makes that great condiment by the jar.)
Most of all, we liked our server’s recommendation, which came after some discussion in Cantonese with the Chinese grandmothers.
As a result, we received a bamboo steamer containing a large lotus leaf filled with rice dotted with bits of egg and halved, shell-on shrimp. The shrimp were more cooked than you would find in a less homestyle dish, I think, but they were salty and good. The rice was shrimp-flavoured and savoury.
Regarding Golden’s dessert choices, the good news is that they are free, and the bad news, at least for some, is that they involve bowls of either tofu or red beans. (There’s always the nearby Starbucks.) The tofu is cold and sweetened, the red bean soup is sweetened and warm.
I liked the red bean soup, even if one Chinese grandmother said it should have been hotter, and the other said it tasted a bit burnt. Still, both Chinese grandmothers said that Golden’s food was not bad, which in relative terms might be a reasonably ringing endorsement.