July 13, 2024


Food never sleeps.

Review: Miantiao offers up Italian cuisine with a Chinese inspiration

8 min read

Justin Lee is fiercely original and some of his dishes will challenge conservative diners. But he wants to expand palates, especially when it comes to wasteful approaches to eating meat.

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Where: 1115 Alberni Street, Level 3, Vancouver


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When: Breakfast and dinner, daily; lunch, Monday to Friday;weekend brunch

Info: 604-695-1115. miantiaorestaurant.com

Justin Lee’s outlandish Instagram persona doesn’t sync with the man I’ve interviewed over the years.

“For the most part, anyone who sort of knows me realizes that in most of my comments I’m making fun of myself. I’m very loud and obnoxious in the posts but in person, I think I’m naturally quiet and thoughtful,” says Lee, chef de cuisine at Miantiao at the Shangri-La Hotel.

Lee, who goes by Justin Ell on Instagram — he applied to officially change his name but the province “botched it” and he’s got to reapply — dismisses social media, especially when it comes to “influencing.” 

“If I’m influenced, the opportunity for originality gets smaller and smaller. People may say nothing is original in food but I think that’s so incorrect.”


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And there! That’s his core. He’s fiercely original and some of his dishes will challenge conservative diners. But he wants to expand palates, especially when it comes to wasteful approaches to eating meat.

The dining room at Miantiao at the Shangri-La Hotel.
The dining room at Miantiao at the Shangri-La Hotel. Photo by Mia Stainsby /PNG

When I first encountered his cooking at Crowbar, I wrote that his cooking was well-executed, original and daring. It’s the same at Miantiao although perhaps not as daring. At Crowbar, he was on a full-on offal offensive, something only a very good chef could pull off. And he did so with a waste-not, want-not credo.

“It’s very easy to get caught up in awards and being recognized but we have to be able to see the big picture and realize the impacts on the environment,” Lee says while accepting that not everyone’s going to be a fan. “I love offcuts when they’re treated properly. It’s truly outstanding. When not, they’re awful. But it’s good for you. It’s high in collagen, minerals and they’re just nourishing cuts.”


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At Miantiao, he’s adding Chinese influences. “Italian cuisine, Chinese inspiration,” the website says.

The most daring dish on the menu is the beef lips, which he says is “surprisingly good” but a heck of a lot of work to cook.

After seven or eight washings in salt, baking soda and vinegar, he brines it for 24 hours, cooks it, peels the skin and presses it into a pan. At service, he sears a piece until crispy, saucing it like cumin lamb noodle dish from Northern China.

“I’ve asked cook friends, Filipino, Asian, Mexican, Italian if they eat beef lips and they all do. Some taquerias order it and people might be eating it without realizing,” he says. And quite likely, in some sausages you’ve eaten.

North America is the land of limited palates but the beef lips are a hot seller, he says. The veal sweetbread, not so much.


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I should have tried the beef lips and shared my thoughts, so apologies for not stepping up.

While those two are the obvious unusual animal parts, you might come across others slipped into dishes — like the crisp roasted chicken skin blitzed with garlic and chilies topping an egg custard starter.

The tajarin, a ribbon pasta, pronounced ta-ya-reen, at Miantiao at the Shangri-La Hotel.
The tajarin, a ribbon pasta, pronounced ta-ya-reen, at Miantiao at the Shangri-La Hotel. Photo by Mia Stainsby /PNG

And also, in the excellent tajarin, a ribbon pasta pronounced ta-ya-reen ($27). The handmade noodles were perfectly made and cooked, tossed with butter, rolled into a neat cylinder and topped with beef heart shavings. Lee cures, smokes and dries the beef heart then shaves it into a delicate fluff over the pasta. I learned to love beef heart on a trip to Peru a few years ago so, and was happy to learn that’s what I’d eaten. On the menu, he calls it “shaved quantum beef.”


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Hammer chicken ($36) was an easy pleaser. He debones the bird, marinates it in wine, hammers it with a mallet, and folds half a chicken to fry in butter. It was served with roasted chicken vinegar sauce and sliced radishes. Very yummy and tender.

For our starters, we ran with “burrata with meat sauce” which sounds weird but he had turned meat trimmings into a condiment. He ground the meat, soaked it in wine, dehydrated it along with vegetables and then cooked it in oil with aromatics. The depth of flavour reminded me of XO sauce. A salad, endives with sour ginger scallion, showed off the beautiful produce he gets from Surrey’s Zaklan Heritage Farm. The endives float from sheer fresh crispness; the dressing gave it zing.


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In his quest for originality, Lee found almost burning some ingredients hits a sweet flavour spot. For example, he sautéed cabbage to the brink of burning to add smokiness and rolls it up with bolognese and charred cabbage ragu filling.

“Right before it burns, there’s a small window of intense sweetness that goes right up the nostrils and it shocks you. It tingles your senses,” he says. 

If you like, you can go the tasting menu route — eight courses for $65 or 12 courses for $105.

“About half the dishes will be from the menu. As we progress, we’ll probably cook completely off menu. We’re just not quite there yet.”

Other names at Miantiao — which means noodle in Mandarin — include Alex Tung, culinary director for Kitchen Table group, which also operates Giovane Bacaro, Ask for Luigi, Di Beppe, Pourhouse, Pizzeria Farina and Farina a Legna. Tret Jordon, executive chef, oversees food and beverage programs at the hotel.


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Miantiao has two elegant dining rooms separated by a bar and a there’s also a private dining room. At the moment, only one dining room is open, a spacious former patio, now glassed in.

Running a hotel restaurant kitchen was a huge pivot for Lee. At Crowbar, he was possessed by perfection and cooked alone “without influences and distractions.” And after Crowbar, he operated out of small room at Superflux Beer Company, creating exotic salads because all he had was a hot plate. 

“It’s been a wild ride,” he says of escalating to Miantiao. “I had to let go and it still feels unnatural to me. It’s so much easier on my own where I can manipulate variables. In a large kitchen, variables exponentiate. I have to train my staff and manage my own expectations. I can’t control everything.”


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Miantiao’s impressive wine list focuses on fine Italian wines with a good selection from B.C. and wide-ranging choices by the glass. Bespoke cocktails carry on the Italian theme with flashes of Asian flavours.

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Light Up Chinatown!, a family-friendly event on Sept. 11 and 12 will feature entertainment, food and light and lantern displays.

“The past year and a half has been particularly devastating for Chinatowns around the world,” says Carol Lee, co-founder and chair of Vancouver Chinatown Foundation. “Our goal is to encourage people to reconnect with Vancouver’s Chinatown, especially leading up to the Mid-Autumn Festival. The lanterns and lights are beautiful beacons, highlighting the vibrant, cultural history this special neighbourhood continues to hold and represent.”

The event kicks off on the Saturday at the main stage on Columbia at Keefer at 11 a.m. Attendees can enjoy a performance by Goh Ballet, live music, a magic show and food as well as explore Chinatown shops.

Culinary features include Chinatown BBQ and Beaucoup Bakery collab of Peking duck croissant; Jade Dynasty and Juice Bar collab on a multi-course Cantonese dinner paired with organic wines; a one-time Sunday brunch at Bao Bei; late night dim sum and cocktails event by Kam Wai Dim Sum and The Keefer Yard; a Saigon Saturday cocktail and Sunday pop-up brunch at DD Mau.

An Instagram contest is open for those who share images during the two days using the #LightUpChinatown hashtag and tagging @chinatownfoundation. The grand prize is a Chinatown restaurant gift package. More information will be announced in the coming days, including how to purchase tickets at lightupchonatown.com.



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