Tony Chow, Hu Guoguang, Pan Yewen – North Garden Restaurant

Plays On Pickerel

by Joelle Kidd

North Garden’s Chinese renditions on our provincial fish have us hook, line, and sinker.

It was 1988 when North Garden opened its doors. What was then a small and unassuming eatery tucked into a University Crescent strip mall has blossomed into a 130 seat space that churns out hundreds of dishes. Serving everything from quick take away to extensive dim sum lunches to multi-course banquets, the restaurant, like the food, is modest and modern, a hidden gem that has become a beloved favourite across the city.

“I want to make people feel comfortable in the space,” says owner Tony Chow. While North Garden’s goal is to offer authentic cuisine that may push the boundaries of Canadian food sensibilities, the clean and contemporary setting makes adventurous eating easy. Tony’s one décor rule? “No red and gold,” he says with a wink. “Those are the 2 colours I won’t allow in here.”

From the beginning, the restaurant’s simple goal was to serve the recipes that were beloved by Winnipeg’s Chinese population but missing from the city’s restaurant scene. Having recently graduated from the University of Manitoba, Tony knew the difficulties of trying to find his favourite dishes so far from Chinatown. His family bought China Garden, and after two years of cutting his teeth in restaurant ownership, Tony opened North Garden.

The original plan was to foray temporarily into the restaurant business, but after 4 or 5 years, Tony realized he was hooked. “I never looked back,” he says. “When you own your own business, you have stress, you have loans – but you’re happy.”

The commitment to Asian flavours and ingredients drew strong support from Winnipeg’s immigrant community, including many international students at the university who found themselves missing home. The space expanded twice in 2001 and 2002 to keep up with demand. Tony travelled back and forth from China, eating and researching dishes. Keeping up on the pulse of contemporary cooking put North Garden on the forefront of Chinese cuisine in Winnipeg, the first in the city to serve now-ubiquitous ginger beef.

These days, Chow travels less, and has cut down the size of his menu. “At the time, I would add one or two dishes from every city I visited,” he recalls. “The menu was too big.” Menus that stretch on for pages are staples of Chinese restaurants, but North Garden’s current 100-plus item menu is about 40% of its previous size.

It takes a talented kitchen team to manage this variety. During peak times and special events, North Garden’s cooks can push out 2000 dishes in 2 hours. Eight cooks at once squeeze into the restaurant’s mid-size kitchen, made cozier by rows of bamboo steamer baskets and lines of whole hanging ducks, waiting to be barbequed. Tony places great importance on hiring chefs from China, and Cantonese is the kitchen’s lingua franca. Hu Guoguang and Pan Yewen are two of the dependable chefs leading the team, both of whom have been with North Garden for 8 years. While Guoguang mans the wok, Yewen draws on years of experience at one of Beijing’s top restaurants to create masterpieces of the deep fry.

During Ciao!’s visit to North Garden’s kitchen, chef Yewen shows off one such showstopper. Deftly slicing a cross-hatched pattern into a halved pickerel, the chef then lightly dredges the fish in a flour-egg mixture. With lightning quick motions, the fish is swiped back and forth through the fryer’s hot oil, sliced sections separating and blooming into a spray of delicately crispy and flaky meat.

Such intricate and striking dishes are a staple of the elaborate banquets that take place for Chinese New Year. North Garden’s feast is a multi-course affair, with groups of 10-14 seated around large round banquet tables. The event follows the traditional format for such a meal: first come appetizers, like steamed and fried dumplings, at least 2 courses of hot meals (stir fries and deep fried dishes), soup, a whole steamed chicken, a fish dish, 3-5 additional hot courses, noodles and rice, and dessert. Many of these foods have symbolic meaning, as is the case for fish, an essential element of a New Years’ dinner. Because of similarities between the words meaning “fish” and “surplus”, eating fish symbolizes luck and abundance in the coming year.

Taking advantage of Manitoba’s own abundance of lakefish, Tony has always made a point to procure fresh pickerel when in season. With the same spirited hospitality that keeps a cup of tea from ever going empty in his presence, Tony talks about sourcing his pickerel fresh from Gimli. “I get the catch of the day and invite all my friends to the restaurant to enjoy it fresh.”

Like many first and second generation immigrants, Tony has incorporated local and readily available ingredients, like pickerel, into traditional dishes. The result is serendipitous fusion food. Pickerel may be a Manitoba ingredient, but don’t expect to find a shore lunch here – instead, fish is simmered in a fresh and light watercress soup, stir fried with plump onion stems and gaai laan, or bathed in rich, savoury chile oil. For North Garden’s customers, a meal is both familiar comfort and culinary adventure, often within the space of a single menu page.