Two Penny Chinese is the latest addition to that stretch of First Street S.W., just outside of downtown that's becoming a bit of a food hub — stretching from Bar von der Fels to Proof, with Ten Foot Henry in between.
The latest project by Cody Willis, located at 1213 1st Street S.W., is newly imagined Chinese, inspired by the collective experiences of Willis and beverage director Stephen Phipps, general manager Andrea Robinson and chef Scott Beaton.
It's not a new idea. The original inspiration came to Willis back when he was attending Stratford Chefs School in Ontario.
"We were writing business plans for restaurants and my concept was tongue-in-cheek — more the concept the tea house is now," he said.
"It was going to be a bar with dim sum. As time went on, it was something I kept thinking about, and I thought it would be awesome if Calgary had a more fun, modern, playful Chinese food restaurant."
The name was inspired by ramshackle tea houses along the ancient Silk Road; the older, more run-down and rambunctious shacks had a name that loosely translated to "two penny huts".
Like many Calgarians, Willis grew up eating Chinese takeout with his family, and visiting Chinese restaurants to celebrate special occasions.
"Being seventh generation Canadian, it was just a staple," he said. "I don't necessarily have a type of food that I culturally identify with — we ate everything. Chinese food was as routine a part of our weekly dining as hamburgers."
The decor, by Sarah Ward Interiors, is inspired by Shanghai in the 1920s, a period distinctive for its blending of traditional Chinese architecture and streamlined Art Deco.
Rich textures and patterns complement the existing finishes of the historical building — soft rose velvet adds comfort and glamour, hand-glazed seafoam green tiles and modern pendant lights bring it into the new millennium. Oversized scrolls featuring Chinese opera masks from vintage cigarette cards hang on patterned plaster walls.
"I've always been in love with this space. It was sitting empty for years, and it was bigger than I wanted, but I really loved it. We thought we could do the original tea house/dim sum bar in the basement, but on the main floor there's this beautiful high-ceilinged space with exposed brick. We could do more familiar Chinese food in a beautiful room, with more of the family-style dining you would expect."
Downstairs, the Tea Room is grungier and open later, with dim sum cart service and a streamlined, and entirely different, menu. You could get an order of General Tso Cauliflower, a Taiwanese pork bowl with shiitake mushrooms, preserved gai choy and a pickled egg, or a Kung Pao sandwich with Dave's (of Empire Provisions) bologna.
Cocktails are unlike any you'll find anywhere else — one has cachaca, pear, cantaloupe, dill and bubbles; another is a combination of aged rum, peanuts, oyster stout, chocolate bitters and lime. Or you can order a grown-up Slurpee made with gin, lychee, lemon and rosé.
Upstairs, the food is more family-friendly and designed for sharing, like traditional Chinese restaurants.
"We knew what we wanted the food to be. We didn't want to pigeonhole ourselves into being traditional, so we settled on the idea of familiar Chinese food. We have beef and broccoli, but it's not what you would expect to get from a standard Chinese food restaurant in Calgary. It's our own version. We use brisket and it's braised, it's a bit more elegant and refined."
- Cassis Bistro brings the French market experience to Calgary
- Farm-share arrangement splits risky business with local farmers
The dishes are more innovative than fancy. The special fried rice comes with roasted bone marrow you stir in at the table, and they're making things lighter, cutting back on excessive cooking oil and cornstarch-thickened sauces.
"We're taking the techniques that we know, and applying them to familiar dishes," said Willis.
They make their own sauces in house — hoisin and oyster — their own chili oil and dumpling wrappers.
"It's the little things that go into it that we're proud of, that we think make it really unique and special," he said.
Copyright 1996-2014 WestNet-HD Action News. A Division of WestNet Continental Broadcasting.