Fire Kirin chef Ken Chau cooks up some jumbo prawns.
The sign over Fire Kirin’s front door vaguely bills its food as “contemporary cuisine.” Emblazoned above this non-committal tag line, however, is a big, clearly Asian-inspired red dragon.
Inside the Avenida Place mall restaurant in Calgary’s southeast burbs, a collection of central booths is surrounded on three sides by tall windows that flood the eatery with natural light, making it cheerful despite its shades-of-black colour scheme.
Like the Fire Kirin dragon, the menu is clearly Asian but with a little western inspiration. Not to be confused with westernized Chinese food — there is no ginger beef, chicken chow mein or chop suey here — the cuisine is a mix of Malaysian, Vietnamese, Korean and Chinese with western undertones.
The grilled salmon salad rolls ($6.95) are a take on the Vietnamese standard. Inside a rice wrap are vermicelli noodles, bean sprouts and mint, but rather than shrimp or shredded pork, they’re filled with un-Asian shredded salmon. Though it’s an admirable effort, the salmon is too dry and doesn’t quite jive with its tangy fish-sauce dip. The salmon would work better raw, making this appetizer a sort of Japanese-Vietnamese sushi roll. Just a suggestion.
The wonton soup ($3.50) is served with four wontons in light broth. Like a mini wor wonton soup, it includes a bit of chopped barbecued pork, broccoli and a dash of chopped green onion. The broth lacks flavour, and the wontons are bland.
Following middlin’ appetizers, it’s on to the entrees. Fire Kirin redeems itself with Szechuan mapo tofu ($9.95). A very popular dish in China, where it’s typically served ultra-spicy, it’s gone global in recent years. Often served with diced pork, this vegetarian version is prepared with shiitake mushrooms and preserved vegetables in spicy tobanjan (bean paste) sauce over soft, diced silk tofu. This excellent dish is garnished with finely chopped scallions. While not as spicy as some versions of mapo tofu, it is, however, just as tasty. As its name suggests, the silk tofu is smooth and just firm enough, making a fine counterpoint to the dish’s peppery sauce and finely diced vegetables.
Another delicious entree, the Kirin seafood royale ($21.95) is a genuine East-West hybrid. Looking like a bouillabaisse, this seafood soup employs the very Asian flavour of coconut milk in its broth. The bowl is swimming with an assortment of shrimp, scallop, squid and flaky fish chunks. Placed on top are four gigantic, meaty mussels. The seafood bits are tender and well complemented by the creamy broth. All good, but my favourite part of the dish is the simmered potato chunks that have soaked up and intensified the flavour of the broth.
Sweet and refreshing, the osmanthus gelatin ($5.95) is a delicate palate-cleanser. It’s a sophisticated, Asian take on the old picnic mainstay, Jello fruit salad. Osmanthus flower petals, goji berries (also called wolfberries) and lychee chunks float in cubes of yellow-orange, flower-flavoured gelatin.
Just as appetizing is the red bean pastry with homemade green tea ice cream ($5.95). Steamy, semi-sweet bean paste is centred in grainy, somewhat flaky pastry shells. The cool ice cream melts in contact with the hot pastry orbs, and the resulting spoonfuls are dreamy good.
Though the word has fallen somewhat out of fashion, there’s more than a hint of “fusion” in Fire Kirin’s food. Not every dish is a hit, but the food is inventive and unique. Two of tonight’s entrees, one an update of a Chinese favourite, the other an Asian update of a French standard, hit delicious home runs. And the desserts, as noted, are great.
Again, the word that pops to mind is “inspired.” That is, I’m inspired to return to Fire Kirin.