East of East Dining Series: The Orient
The Orient Chinese Cuisine
227 Bedford Hwy, Halifax
I have been searching for the best Chinese food in Halifax, so I was ecstatic when I was invited to The Orient by Chef Ivan Chan to sample some new menu items, as well as some of his most popular and signature dishes. There were 9 of us (chefs, photographers, media & hospitality folks) meeting and greeting around a big round table while the April snow was collecting outside.
The Orient opened on the Bedford Highway in October, 2015, and Chef Ivan has been dedicated to serving up Cantonese food with personal care and chef-ish flare. For example, his seafood is locally caught, fresh off the boat 6 days a week. The wine list is 100% Nova Scotian (Ivan insists that red wine is the best pairing with Chinese food!), beef is sourced from PEI’s Atlantic Beef and most of the other meat is from Oulton’s Farm.
Ivan and his sous chef cooked us an 18 course meal (holy shit is right!) divided into 3 stages: Canadian Classics, Cantonese BBQ/Hong Kong Fusion, and Specialty Delicacies.
Stage One: Canadian Classics “Our Way”
If Chef Ivan could take egg rolls off his menu, he would do it today. He describes Canadianized Chinese food as “revenue food”, as this is what Nova Scotians expect from Chinese restaurants and where the money is made. We are notoriously slow to acquire a taste for new foods, and very stuck in our sweet and sticky ways. This is not Ivan’s passion, but a necessity that comes with doing business in the suburbs of Halifax.
With that said, nothing at The Orient is half-assed or cheapened. You won’t find any meat paste here – only fresh pork and vegetables in bulky golden wrappers.
Next up was a lovely bowl of won ton soup (not pictured) that featured shrimp won tons in a flavourful broth. One thing I can’t stand is a bland broth, but this soup gets a standing ovation from me!
Chef Ivan, principled man that he is, refuses to sell sweet & sour chicken balls. He does compromise, however, with his version of sweet & sour chicken ($14.50). Real strips of chicken are lightly dusted in cornmeal, fried, and tossed in his own sweet & sour sauce.
Chef Ivan’s ginger beef ($13.50) is likewise lightly dusted and fried, served in a sweet ‘n spicy ginger sauce that is so much more delicate than the cloyingly sweet, soggy mess that passes for ginger beef around these parts. I hesitate to order ginger beef because it’s usually chewy, questionable cuts of beef disguised by an abundance of breading. This ginger beef is tender, and actually identifiable as BEEF.
We were surprised by how light and tasty these dishes were, and relieved that our stomachs weren’t weighted down by grease. We were going to need our appetites to stay supple if we were going to enjoy the good stuff to follow!
Case in point: Salt & Pepper Squid ($13.95)!
Whereas Chef Ivan didn’t obliterate the previous dishes in breading, his salt & pepper squid demonstrates that he can totally batter up!
I’m a sucker for salt & pepper squid and I think this is the best I’ve ever had. The batter was so crunchy, the squid was tender, and just look at that presentation!
I was quickly realizing that this was elevated Chinese food – even the Canadianized dishes were above and beyond anything I’ve had elsewhere.
Thank you to my sponsor:
Stage Two: Cantonese BBQ & Hong Kong Western Fusion Cuisine
I was REALLY excited for this portion of the meal, because when it comes to Chinese food in Halifax, we are seriously lacking good Hong Kong food. We have no dedicated BBQ joints, barely any dim sum, and the city is totally in the dark about Hong Kong Style Cafe food.
In addition to the items below, Chef Ivan presented us with his new “Golden Kimchi” which will be a regular menu item. This yellow kimchi is spiked with turmeric and is spicy, tart and slightly sweet. I loudly exclaimed that it’s the best kimchi I’ve ever had, and that I wish Ivan would bottle it!
We were presented with this Cantonese BBQ platter with a sampling of Barbecue Pork, Soy Sauce Chicken and Crispy Pork Belly.
The BBQ Pork ($8.95) is on the appetizer menu and was the crowd favourite!
The Soya Sauce Whole Chicken ($24.95) is slow-cooked and so tender! This is on the Pre-Order menu, so you’ll have to call ahead for this one.
The Crispy Pork Belly is only available when Ivan can find skin-on pork belly, so it might show up if you make a reservation for a fixed price dinner.
New Menu Item: Black Pepper Chicken Chops on a Hot Plate
Breaded chicken is chopped and served on a sizzling platter with a bed of delicious fried onions, and topped with an oyster sauce that sizzles. This was quite a show and entirely delicious.
Hong Kong Style BBQ Spare Ribs
These were super tender and delectable. I’m more of a salt & pepper dry rib fan, but I certainly wouldn’t refuse an order of these.
Deep Fried Fish Filets with Sweet Corn Sauce
Moist and tender basa filets are lightly breaded and served with a sauce reminiscent of creamed corn. This is not what Nova Scotians usually associate with “Chinese Food” … but it certainly sounds like something a Nova Scotian would eat.
This is actually a very good example of Hong Kong Style Western Food (served in cha chaan teng or “tea restaurants” in HK and known as Hong Kong Style Cafes abroad). These tea restaurants (where “milk tea” is drank, in the fashion of the British) became popular after WWII, when Hong Kong was greatly influenced by British culture. This cuisine grew in cultural significance, as it came to be affordable comfort food, and it is very much a comfort food for immigrants living in the western world, and for Chef Ivan, himself.
In western Canada, which had a big influx of immigration from Hong Kong, there are dedicated Hong Kong Style Cafes. But in Nova Scotia we have the “Combo #1” crowd and students from Northern China who didn’t grow up with this fare. There simply isn’t enough demand. I’m hoping this changes!
Stage Three: The Orient Delicacies
Peking Duck ($56.95) is on the Pre-Order Menu and must be ordered 5 days in advance. Chef Ivan uses only the highest grade of Brome Lake ducks. Normally you would get three courses, as per usual with this Imperial meal, but we were just treated to the main event: sliced crispy skin duck with crepes, scallions, cucumber and hoisen sauce to make little “tacos”.
I friggin’ love duck, especially that layer of rendered fat underneath the skin. I couldn’t stop eating this, but I knew there were still a few more courses to come!
Cantonese Lobster (market price)
Chef Ivan has two preparations you can choose from: Ginger & Scallion (pictured) or Hot Chilli. You may want to order these ahead of time, because he only keeps a few around, buying them off the boat in small quantities to ensure ultimate freshness.
The group was split between which preparation they liked best, with the Hot Chilli having a bit of an edge. I’ve always found Chinese lobster dishes awkward to eat, but then – isn’t all lobster? The good news is that it’s pre-cracked, the bad news is that there is no dainty way to extract the meat from the shell. This is finger lickin’ good, so I say just get in there and get your hands dirty!
Ginger & Scallion Steamed Whole Fish (seasonal price)
Chef Ivan will prepare whatever fish landed on the dock that day, but in our case it was a lovely turbot.
If you grew up in Nova Scotia, chances are you’ve grown up eating fish filets with the bones removed for you, but this is not how fish is eaten in most of the world. Chef Ivan’s turbot was covered in herbs and julienned veggies, and was so tender and flavourful! My first bite contained a lot of bones, but the flesh melted in my mouth around the bones which I then spat into a napkin, lol.
This was worth every annoying bone, and may have been my favourite dish of the night!
Szechuan Style Dry Fried Green Beans ($13.95)
Despite not specializing in Szechuan cuisine, these dry fried beans are one of The Orient’s top sellers!
I can see why, as they are absolutely delicious (and not as spicy as you might find at some of the Szechuan places in town). The beans are fried with ground pork, garlic and hot peppers until they start to get brown, wrinkly and tender. I think this is my favourite Chinese vegetable dish.
The Bird Nest ($24.95) – on the Pre-Order Menu
A woven basket of crispy fried taro root holds a nest of shrimp, chicken, and vegetables in a light sauce. I have never seen such a thing!
I loved how the crispy taro root gradually softened in the sauce, giving that play of textures. I transported a bunch of shrimp, broccoli and taro onto my plate and it almost reminded me of a crispy chow mein or a nice stew. What a fine ending to our meal!
I know I was invited as a guest to The Orient and served an over-the-top dinner, and that I’m supposed to say nice things. But I can’t say enough nice things! I didn’t just find my new favourite place to get Chinese food in Halifax, I think I may have found a new favourite restaurant! From Canadian classics, to Hong Kong-Western fusion, to Szechuan and Imperial delicacies – Chef Ivan is a master! He has proven that Chinese food doesn’t have to be cheap, greasy take-out; it can have all the flourish of upscale dining with quality ingredients to back it up.
Chef Ivan says most of his regular customers call ahead and say, “There will be 6 of us and we’d like to spend $40 per person” (for example) and he prepares a special meal to those specifications.
“I haven’t had a complaint yet,” he says.
No complaints here!
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