Ningtu has been one of my favourite restaurants in the Vancouver area for old-school Shanghainese food ever since I discovered it on my trip last fall. I’ve been to Ningtu about half a dozen times now mainly for dinner but have been there a couple of times for lunch as well. On this recent trip to Vancouver last month, I went to Ningtu for dinner twice. On both occasions we ordered the set dinner for 4 for $53 which included a choice of 4 dishes off the menu and a complimentary soup and cold appetizer.
On the first visit, for the complimentary soup we chose the Hot & Sour Soup. The Hot & Sour Soup at Ningtu has been a favourite of mine. I find that it has the right balance of acidity and heat. Also, I like the consistency of the Hot & Sour Soup. It is not too thick or cornstarchy and not too runny either. It was as good as I remembered it to be on previous visits. The fact that it was included as part of our set dinner was an added bonus.
For the complimentary cold appetizer, we chose the Chicken with Wine Sauce. The chicken was served slightly chilled but not ice-cold which was nice as I find sometimes when the chicken is too cold, one can’t really taste the flavours of the wine sauce. While this is not the most amazing version of Chicken with Wine Sauce that I’ve ever had, it was executed well. The meat was tender and flavourful. I like the complexity of spice flavours in the wine sauce. This dish has been very consistent. I’ve ordered it several times on my previous visits and it has pretty much tasted the same every time.
As one of the four dishes, we ordered the Beef with Gai-Lan. This dish was ok. There was nothing really wrong with it but it also didn’t have a wow factor either. I don’t fault them for it as this is a Cantonese dish and I know Ningtu specializes in Shanghainese food. We ordered it because we wanted some vegetables and my friend really likes gai-lan. At least, the gai-lan was tender but not overcooked.
The second dish we ordered was the Deep Fried Yellow Fish with Seaweed. This is one of Ningtu’s signature dishes and it is obvious as almost every table seems to order this dish. It is definitely one of my favourite! I don’t think I’ve gone there once without ordering this dish. It is even available during lunch even though it may not be listed on the lunch menu. The fish is perfectly crispy every time on the outside and moist and flaky on the inside. What I also like is that it does not taste greasy.
Our third dish was the Smoked Duck Fried (also often known as Tea-Smoked Duck). The duck was served with steamed buns (mantou). Tea-Smoked Duck is actually a dish of Sichuan origin although I often see it served at Shanghainese restaurants. Ningtu’s version of Tea-Smoked Duck is very tasty and actually one better versions I’ve had. I liked that the skin was crispy and the meat had a nice smokey flavour. I would definitely order this dish again on future visits.
Our last dish was the Crispy Rice with Assorted Meat. This dish is sometimes known as Sizzling Rice. The clear broth contained shrimp, peas, slices of ham, chicken, and bamboo shoots. This is actually one of my favourite dishes and I often order it at various restaurants. I’ve ordered this dish at Ningtu a couple of times during my previous visits. What impressed me most on this visit was that the crispy rice was freshly made as it was still warm when it arrived at our table. This is a stark contrast to one of the Shanghainese restaurants in Richmond where I ordered the same dish and we were served square blocks of crispy rice that came from a package. (Initially, I found it unusual that the square blocks were all uniform in size and perfectly square. I figured out later that they were from a package after seeing it for sale at the grocery store). The proper serving of this dish is to have the hot soup poured over the bowl of crispy rice. But we always tell our server to keep them separate. We would mix it ourselves bowl by bowl when we are ready to eat it. That way the rice stays crispy and doesn’t get soggy from drowning in the soup for too long. What I like about this dish at Ningtu is that the broth actually tastes like soup rather than like gravy or sauce.
Overall, we were very impressed with the quality of food on this visit. All of the dishes we were well executed and there were no dishes that we didn’t really enjoy. Our favourites were the Tea-Smoked Duck, the Crispy Rice with Assorted Meat, and of course the Deep Fried Yellow Fish with Seaweed. Not only was the food tasty but it was also great value. There was more than enough food for the four of us. In fact, it was probably enough food for five to six people. We were so impressed that we decided to come back from a second visit later that week.
On the second visit, we chose the Hot & Sour Soup again as the complimentary soup and the Chicken with Wine Sauce as the complimentary cold appetizer as part of the set dinner for 4. Both were as tasty as always. For our four main dishes, we decided to be adventurous and try a couple of new dishes while at the same time sticking to a few of our favourites. Of course, we ordered the Deep Fried Yellow Fish with Seaweed as one of the dishes. To me, a meal at Ningtu is not complete without an order of this! The fish was as tasty as always. It was freshly fried and crispy on the outside while just perfectly cooked on the inside. Another one of our favourites that we ordered again was the Crispy Rice with Assorted Meat. Again on this visit, the crispy rice was freshly made and was still warm when it arrived at our table.
For our third dish, we ordered the Spicy Spareribs. These deep-fried pork ribs were lightly battered and flavoured with garlic and seasoning salt. We decided to order it because we had read some good reviews about it. We also saw quite a few other tables order it as well. However, on this visit, the kitchen must have been having an off day as we didn’t love the dish. In fact, we were disappointed as the texture was completely not what we were expecting. The batter was not crispy and the flavours did not stand out. It probably wouldn’t be a dish I would order again based on what I tasted.
For our fourth dish, we ordered the Pork & Preserved Vegetables with Fried Rice Cakes. This is a classic Shanghainese dish. On this occasion, I was a little disappointed in the flavours. I thought the flavours were really mild and almost on the bland side. This was to my surprise as I was expecting the preserved vegetable to be salty and pungent. We had ordered this dish at Ningtu previously and I thought the flavours were more bold that time.
Since there were six of us on our second visit, we thought we’d order an extra dish in addition to the set dinner for 4. We decided to try a dish off the regular dinner menu. We ordered the Broccoli with Shrimp and Egg ($15). Basically, the egg whites are whipped up to simulate crab meat. I thought this dish was tasty and well executed. The egg whites were fluffy and soft. Though the flavours didn’t wow me, the texture was unique and I’d probably order it again if I was in the mood for something different.
Overall, on our second visit, there were some hits and misses. The regular staples such as the Hot & Sour Soup, Chicken with Wine Sauce, Deep Fried Yellow Fish, and Crispy Rice were as tasty as always. But some of the other dishes, like the Spicy Spareribs, I could have done without. I think one’s experience at Ningtu is really dependent on what is ordered. Some dishes are stellar while other are not so much. But in general, I still think that the set dinners are great value and if you can pick the stellar dishes, you can get a memorable meal for a very reasonable price.