It’s no secret that Ningtu Restaurant used to one of my favourite restaurants in Vancouver for Shanghainese cuisine. I’d visited Ningtu Restaurant multiple times last year. However, with so many new restaurants to try in the Vancouver area, I never made it back to Ningtu in quite some time. I finally made it back to Ningtu on this recent trip to Vancouver back in June. With eight other dining companions in tow, it was the perfect opportunity to try out more dishes at Ningtu. For the nine of us, we decided to order the set dinner for 8 for $112. As with the other set dinners we’ve had in the past at Ningtu, this set dinner for 8 included a choice of 8 dishes off the special menu, complimentary soup and a cold appetizer dish.
For the complimentary cold appetizer dish, we got to choose three kinds of cold items. The choices included – soyed spiced beef, soyed pork hock, chicken with wine sauce, salted duck, smoked fish, jelly fish, smoked bean curd skin with mushrooms, braised gluten with mushrooms, and jellied stewed pork. On my previous visits to Ningtu, because we had ordered the set dinner for 4, we only got to choose one item for the cold appetizer. For the set dinner for 6, you would get a choice of 2 items and for the set dinner for 8, 3 items. In the past, we had always chosen the chicken with wine sauce. While the version from Ningtu is not as memorable as the version from Long’s Noodle House, it is still pretty tasty and we’ve always enjoyed it. On this visit, for our choice of 3 cold items, we picked the jelly fish, the soyed spiced beef, along with the chicken with wine sauce. This time, the chicken with wine sauce was probably the best version that we’ve ever had at Ningtu. I was actually quite impressed. It was very flavourful and the flavours were really complex. The jelly fish was executed well. But the soyed spiced beef was just ok. The beef slices could have been more tender and flavourful. It was my least favourite out of the 3 items.
For the complimentary soup, again we chose the Hot & Sour Soup. The Hot & Sour Soup at Ningtu has been a favourite of mine on previous visits. On this visit, it was ok but not as good as I had remembered to taste. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was different but perhaps, the balance of acidity and heat was just a bit off.
Our first dish was the Minced Duck with Lettuce Wrap ($14.95 on regular menu; additional $4.95 upgrade as part of set dinners). This dish is actually part of the regular menu and not amongst the list of dishes that we could choose from for the set dinners. However, we were able to upgrade to this dish as part of the set dinner for an additional $4.95. This dish was delicious and a hit amongst my dining companions.
Our second dish was the Deep Fried Yellow Fish with Seaweed. This is one of Ningtu’s signature dishes and it has been a favourite of mine on every visit. Just as before, this dish was spot on this time. The fish was perfectly crispy on the outside and moist and flaky on the inside.
Next up was the Crispy Rice with Assorted Meat. This dish is sometimes known as Sizzling Rice. The accompanying broth contained shrimp, peas, slices of ham, chicken, and bamboo shoots. On previous visits, we’ve always told our server to keep the soup separate from the crispy rice. 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. However, on this visit due to the lack of space at the table as we had ordered so many dishes, we decided to have the hot soup poured over the bowl of crispy rice, which is actually the proper serving of this dish. Indeed, this way of serving was more dramatic as you can actually hear the crispy rice sizzle as the soup is getting poured on to it but it didn’t take long for the rice to get slightly soggy. Good thing we had so many diners with us so it didn’t take long for us to finish this dish. On future visits, I would prefer to have the soup separate kept from the crispy rice and mix it ourselves bowl by bowl when we are ready to eat it.
For our fourth dish, we tried the Pork & Chinese Spinach with Fried Rice Cake. This dish is actually a variation on the classic Shanghainese dish, Pork & Preserved Vegetables with Fried Rice Cakes, which we’ve tried on a previous visit to Ningtu.This version with Chinese spinach is actually new amongst the list of dishes that we could choose from for the set dinners. Personally, I found this dish to be a bit too mild and would have preferred more flavour as the rice cakes themselves are already quite bland. Some of my dining companions did enjoy this dish.
Next was the Eggplant with Chili & Garlic Sauce. This dish is often known as Fish-Fragrant Eggplant or 鱼香茄子 in Chinese and is a classic Szechuan dish. Despite its common name in both English and Chinese, it actually doesn’t contain any fish. Since this is a classic Szechuan dish and Ningtu is a Shanghainese restaurant, I wasn’t sure what to expect initially. Though not necessarily prepared in “authentic” Szechuan style, I was pleasantly surprised at how tasty this dish was. The eggplant was perfectly toothsome and not overcooked. The flavours were bright and not overly spicy. I would definitely order this dish again on my next visit.
We also decided to try the Pan Fried Long Green Beans. Again, this was a dish we had not tried before at Ningtu. The fried beans tasted ok. At least, they had a nice crunch and were not overcooked. However, I would actually preferred if they were actually fried a bit longer until they puckered more and also, if they actually had more flavour. This dish didn’t seem to have much “wok hei”, which is the essence and flavour imparted by a very hot wok during stir-frying. The most memorable fried green been dish that I’ve had recently was actually the Green Beans with Preserved Olives & Minced Pork that I had Excelsior Restaurant in Richmond.
For our seventh dish, we had the Honey & Garlic Spareribs. Again, this was not a dish I’ve tried before at Ningtu. One of my dining companions suggested trying it. This version tasted ok but wasn’t particularly memorable. The most memorable honey garlic spareribs that I had was at Lucky Tao in Richmond. Though I don’t normally often order honey garlic spareribs, the version from Lucky Tao was amazing and had me craving for more.
For our eighth and final dish, we had the Smoked Duck Fried (also often known as Tea-Smoked Duck). The duck was served with steamed buns (mantou). Though tea-Smoked Duck is actually a dish of Sichuan origin, I often see it served at Shanghainese restaurants. Ningtu’s version of Tea-Smoked Duck has been a favourite of mine ever since we tried it for the first time last year. It is pretty much a staple for us now and a must order on every visit. Over the previous few visits, I’ve noticed slight inconsistencies in the preparation of this dish. Sometimes, the duck is a bit dry while other times, it’s perfect. On this visit, it was perfect. The duck was moist and flavourful. It was a big hit amongst my dining companions.
Like at most other Chinese restaurants, the set dinner included fresh fruit (a dish of orange wedges) for dessert. My dining companions were looking for something sweet so I decided to get them to try a special order dessert at Ningtu. It is basically Chinese candied fruit. This dessert ($12.95) is actually not listed on the regular menu at Ningtu. Because I’d tried it on a previous visit, I knew they were able to make it. The preparation is called Ba Si (拔丝). It can be made with a variety of fruit such as apple, pear, banana or even sometimes yam. Ningtu usually makes it with banana but on this visit they were short on bananas so they asked if we would mind to have a combination of both apple and banana. The pieces of fruit (apple and banana) are first coated in a light batter and deep-fried till they are crispy and golden. They are then tossed in a syrupy glaze and ready for presentation at the table. Our server then placed each piece of fruit into an ice water bath for a few minutes for the candy glaze to harden.
After cooling the fruit fritters in the ice water bath for a brief time, they are then removed and presented back on a plate. Since the fruit fritters were only in the ice bath for a brief time, the candy glaze on the outside had hardened while the fruit in the center was still warm. My dining companions loved this dessert! The consensus at the table was that they preferred the candied banana over the candied apple. But for myself, I didn’t mind the candied apple as it was less sweet and I enjoyed the slight tartness of the apple.
Overall, I was really pleased with this meal at Ningtu. It worked out to under $20 a head for the nine of us including the upgrade for the duck lettuce wraps and the additional special order dessert. It was certainly great value for a simple, casual dinner with friends. Though not every dish was necessarily the most memorable, all the dishes were tasty nonetheless. My dining companions were pretty impressed with overall experience.