Ethnic Cuisine’s Small Plates Are Wooing Canadian Consumers


Volume 48, Issue 1

Written By: Cinda Chavich

The appetizer is simple yet completely on trend. Consider a variation on the popular Chinese dim sum pork bun or bao but reimagined as a pillowy pancake filled with spicy Hoisin pulled pork, perfect to pick up in one hand, while sipping a cocktail from the other.

This bao, a.k.a. Earls’ BBQ Pork Bun (3/$11.50), comes in a bamboo steamer and is offered alongside other global noshes, from crispy dry ribs ($11) to Los Cabos Chicken Tacos (2/$13). “A global menu, with modern versions of ethnic staples,” is what Mo Jessa, president of Vancouver-based Earls Restaurants, says has long been the company’s strong suit.

While restaurant sales across Canada have remained relatively flat, NPD Group’s Tyler Baks says consumers are still searching for new tastes and dining experiences, which is where ethnic restaurants and global snacks fit the bill. “Korean is showing double-digit growth and Asian food is trending up,” says Baks. “Greek, Middle Eastern and Latin is driving growth.”

A recent NPD CREST survey asked consumers what flavours they’d like to see more of in restaurant meals, and the results were almost identical for a number of popular ethnic cuisines — 11 per cent for Asian, 12 per cent for Mexican/Spanish, 12 per cent for Greek/Middle Eastern. Overall, 15 per cent of respondents wanted more hot-and-spicy options with garlic being the number-1 flavour.

That’s exactly what companies such as Earls are banking on, especially as Jessa introduces Earls’ new $1.2-million test kitchen in downtown Vancouver and the team he’s hired to run it — top toques, including Dawn Doucette, a former Top Chef Canada contestant; David Wong, Canada’s 2009 Bocuse d’Or competitor; Iranian-born Hamid Salimian, former executive chef at Vancouver’s Diva at the Met; restaurant consultant Tina Fineza, with Filipino roots; and American chef Jeff McInnis.
Together they offer a wealth of experiences, training and ethnic backgrounds, a “chef collective” Jessa hopes will create new menu items to keep the 60-restaurant chain ahead of the ethnic food wave. “These are people with knowledge, whether it’s South American ingredients, Persian food, Spanish or Korean flavours,” says Jessa. “Today’s customers are more educated about food, and we want to dazzle them with the tastes we’ve discovered. We want to bring the real thing from those countries.”
NPD researchers say immigration is driving consumer interest in ethnic flavours and spice. Over the next decade, net migration to Canada is expected to be nearly 50 per cent higher than the U.S., with most immigrants continuing to arrive from Asia. “Stats Can shows Canada’s population of visible minorities was 16 per cent in 2006, and that’s projected to be 31 per cent by 2031, driven by South Asian and Chinese immigration,” says Baks. “That diversity will continue to influence foodservice.”

Visible minorities also skew younger; it’s a group interested in small bites to share, portable snacks and inexpensive meals such as noodle bowls. “Millennials are driving growth in the market,” says Baks, noting a generation of culturally diverse diners — with upcoming Generation Z, the most ethnically diverse group ever — not afraid to try different foods and intense flavours, whether it’s hoppy IPAs or sweet-and-spicy Korean gochujang.

For this generation, global flavours are part of everyday choices — think Butter Chicken Poutine ($4.75) at Canadian QSR chains such as Toronto-based New York Fries or burger condiments, ranging from dill pickles to guacamole to mango chutney, at sister chain South St. Burger.

While ethnic appetizers offer consumers a chance to try new dishes or ingredients without making a major commitment, the small-plate trend may be driving the growth in new global restaurant concepts, especially those that have their roots in simple street food, which translates well to cocktail noshing and sharing.

So alongside the growing Spanish tapas style of dining (pinchos or toasts topped with various meats, cheese and fish), Latin tostadas and arepas, Middle Eastern mezze dips and kabobs, there’s Asian street foods, whether it’s a gyoza bar in Vancouver, a Calgary family serving Indian naan bread ‘tacos’ from their Naaco food truck or Toronto’s Kanpai Snack Bar, promising authentic Taiwanese street food with handcrafted Canadian cocktails.

Toronto celebrity chef Grant van Gameren, the poster child for small plates, was poised to open the seriously Spanish Bar Raval in late January, refining the authentic Spanish tapas experience he’s honed at Bar Isabel. “The style of eating came first, and it’s been driving every type of restaurant for the last couple of years,” says van Gameren of small plates. “But when it comes to how it’s eaten, Spain has more energy and originality. I want to transport people to another time and place, evoking an experience, a convivial and social atmosphere.”

Modelled after the tapas bars of San Sebastián in Spain, Bar Raval is designed for finger foods. “We’re doing a stand-up restaurant — no tables — and we’re trying to get away from cutlery,” says van Gameren. “We’ll chop it up and provide toothpicks, like a meat-and-cheese board at a cocktail party.”

The Spanish menu of pinchos and tapas is authentic and artisanal, like Bar Isabel’s Bacalao, Egg and Chistorra Pintxo ($7) or Pan con Jamon Ibérico de Bellota ($16), but it features the chef’s Spanish-style charcuterie and fish conservas, from B.C. mussels to clams in escabeche and Galician spices. “I’m doing my own canned seafood products, in natural sea water or sauces — sardines, barnacles from B.C., cuttlefish, mackerel, smoked and canned in olive oil with rosemary, eaten out of the canning jar, with beautiful bread for sopping up all of the tasty sauce,” he said during a January interview. “Boquerones (white anchovies marinated in vinegar and garlic) are my favourite thing to eat.”
Others serving Spanish cuisine across the country might not be quite as ambitious, but whether it’s the new Perro Negro tapas bar and Bodega Bar in Victoria, Sardine Can in Vancouver, Segovia Tapas Bar in Winnipeg, Barsa Taberna in Toronto or Pintxo in Montreal, there’s a taste for authentic Spanish tapas dining from coast to coast.

The shareable experience of a Middle Eastern mezze meal taps into the small plates trend, too. And, at Tabule in Toronto, that’s meant constant growth. Since opening their first restaurant in 2005, Diana Sideris and husband chef, Rony Goraichy, expanded with a home delivery and catering arm, a second location and a third is  in the works. “It’s the whole experience — people can try different things,” says Sideris. “We brought Middle Eastern food to a different level and, within two years of opening, we doubled in size.”

Their modern Mediterranean fare, made from scratch with local ingredients, is also a healthy take-out alternative. From tabule with hand-chopped parsley and whole-wheat bulgur ($4.80/$8.50) or gluten-free organic quinoa (add $1.50), to cured Basturma beef with Labni (yogurt cheese), arugula and za’atar ($12), or seared Akaawi cheese with nigella seeds, tomato concasse and extra virgin olive oil ($11.95), it’s fresh, authentic, and often vegan or gluten-free. Sideris adds: “With hot and cold appetizer platters and kebabs, there are 25 different dips and small plates to share.”

Authenticity is paramount on the Asian front, too. In Vancouver, where sushi bars and izakaya have become commonplace, there’s a new wave of Japanese concepts. At Shirakawa, Japan’s Itoh Dining company showcases a modern teppanyaki menu from Tokyo, with Gastown Gyoza ($7) and fried hamburger on grilled Japanese milk bread ($10), miso-glazed black cod on enoki ($15) and teppan-seared Wagyu Tataki ($20), all designed for sharing.
Ramen is also on the rise, and the cheap and cheerful meal is heading into gourmet territory. Japan’s Santouka Ramen chain has opened two locations in Canada — Vancouver and Toronto — committing 20+ hours to creating pork broth and sourcing quality ingredients, from the pork rib meat cha-shu to the pickled plum in its signature Shio Ramen ($11).

In Victoria, chef Patrick Lynch and partner Sterling Grice recently opened Foo Ramen, a sister spot to their popular take-out, Foo Asian street food. With fresh, local ingredients — from their own pork broth to locally made ramen noodles — the big bowls of Miso Ramen with puffed tofu, soft-boiled egg and kimchi ($11) or Tonkotsu with pork belly confit, egg, mushrooms and Asian greens ($12), take this bowl food into new territory.

And Vancouver-based Aburi Restaurants Canada has expanded beyond its upscale Miku and Minami Japanese restaurants, with casual Gyoza Bar + Ramen, an 80-seat space for innovative dumplings and noodles. This is Japanese food with a global twist — chef Kazuya Matsuoka’s Kaisen Tomato-Saffron Ramen ($17), with house-made noodles and lots of local, Ocean Wise shellfish, is closer to bouillabaisse than traditional ramen, and the teppan-style gyoza, grilled and delivered on a special cast-iron pan, features Fraser Valley pork and local vegetables with Korean chili paste (7/$8; 15/$15). Other cross-cultural, shareable fare includes the jalapeño-soy glazed Miso Short Rib Gyoza ($12.50), Crispy Harissa Tofu and Kabocha Gyoza ($11.50) and Edamame-artichoke Hummus ($7). Hideaki Saito, director of Operations, says the company will expand the brand across Canada with Miku Toronto opening in the summer.

In the hands of Canadian chefs, international street foods and flavours are hitting a new level. Like the Earls’ BBQ Pork Buns or Korean bibimbap, topped with a perfect sous-vide egg, it’s about elevating a simple dish with good ingredients and techniques. “It’s about knowing what customers want,” sums up Earls’ Wong, “and trying to do it better.”

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