Fresh crab and barbecued pork, all good
This is one of those Chinese restaurants where the wait staff is worried that if they serve the real Chinese food to the white folks we’ll have an anxiety attack and never come back. You’ll need to be insistent with the waiter about bringing you the food from the Chinese menu, not the English menu (which is from the won ton soup school of Chinese-Canadian cuisine).
Who wants that when they do winter melon soup, a melon holding wonderful chicken stock with shrimps, lotus seeds, Chinese mushrooms, bok choy and sweet barbecued pork? They keep live Vancouver crabs in the tank and deep-fry them just enough, with a fragrant mountain of crisp garlic in contrast with the hot of chili and the sweet of minced pork. My soul can also be bought cheap with their pork that has been braised long and slow with onions and five-spice for sweetness, complexity and tenderness. Who cares that it ain’t the Ritz?
Big Mouth Kee is located at 280 West Beaver Creek Rd., 905-881- 8821.
Ingredients take centre stage at Chiu Chow Boy
Chiu Chow is a Cantonese province of China, which means its food is lightly sauced and chefs tend to let ingredients speak for themselves. One often finds garlic and vinegar as a light sauce for poultry in Chiu Chow cooking — and at Chiu Chow Boy they do superbly tender duck like that, with subtle five-spice flavouring in its flesh.
The long, green garlic chives that we see in markets appear with sweet, chewy Chinese sausage and Chinese summer squash as garnish for noodles. XO (the famous sauce of Hong Kong, made from a long cooking-down of dried shrimps and scallops with chili, Chinese ham, garlic and onion in oil) appears as benediction for stir- fried turnip, rendering it an astonishment of delight.
Chiu Chow Boy is located at 3261 Kennedy Rd., 416-335-0336.
Dumpling-seeking Sinophiles rejoice
Since the dim sum downtown has sunk in a slough of grease (save for the high-priced delights of Lai Wah Heen), dumpling-seeking Sinophiles have had few alternatives. At first glance Casa Imperial is an unlikely candidate, a baroque mansion loaded with gargantuan crystal chandeliers, ersatz British hunting scenes and musty brocaded draperies.
It’s about as Chinese looking as Honest Ed’s, but the dim sum is quite wonderful. Don’t try asking your server questions because most of them seem to speak no English.
They wear black-and-white maid’s uniforms (perhaps in keeping with the British colonial theme) and bring the likes of rich seafood dumpling in perfect chicken soup and har gow with big chunks of sweet shrimp. You can see the chunks of Chinese mushroom and tendrils of pea green through rice wrapper so delicate it’s translucent. Fine hot XO sauce makes steamed pork with small black mushrooms exciting, and little cuttlefish tentacles profit by the sweet complexity of five-spice powder.
Casa Imperial is located at 4125 Steeles Ave. E., 416-756-2788.
Hidden gem of Chinese cuisine in Midtown
Eglinton and Yonge, despite its relative prosperity and the abundance of restaurants within two blocks in all four directions, is a gastronomic wasteland — many choices, few that would appeal to an epicure. Cha Liu is one of midtown’s few Asian restaurants that succeed in one cooking style rather than failing at fusion. Their all-day dim sum menu does not stray from the standards but does them well, using quality ingredients and cooking the dumplings fresh daily. Their soups are wonderful, built on good, strong stocks and full of ingredients like dumplings of shrimp and black mushrooms with barely wilted pea greens.
They do marvellous seafood dumplings — notably shrimp and scallops topped with al dente asparagus slices. Their cute little spare ribs come sauced with a piquant blend of garlic and black bean, and their scallion and sweet Chinese ham pancake is glorious crispy grease.
Cha Liu is located at 2352 Yonge St., 416-485-1725.
Head for the all-day dim sum
The clever owners of this small chain occupy a welcome niche: Their restaurants look more upscale than old-style Chinese restaurants and they thus appeal conveniently to chinoiserie novices.
Their other smart strategy is selling dim sum at dinner as well as at lunch, and dim sum is what they do best — not the expensive dumpling extravaganzas of Lai Wah Heen, but good, basic northern Chinese dumplings. Their best is thinly sliced beef brisket jazzed with five- spice, rolled up in a delicate pancake full of chives and coriander.
They do a similarly marvellous onion pancake with chives in the batter and thick scrambled egg omelette on top. The best soup is a rich broth with tofu, shredded pork and bean thread noodles. Skip the other stuff.
Asian Legend is located at 5188 Yonge St., 416-221-9797.
Fine Chinese cuisine in the heart of it all
The best Cantonese restaurant in town, maybe in Canada, Lai Wah Heen is a formal and elegant room with cooking to match. Wuxi spareribs are red-cooked juicy, spiced and sweetened by five-spice. Lobster Canton-style is a whole lobster baked in its shell in delicately wrought curry sauce.
Taiwanese triple cup chicken is steamed in a clay pot with soy, rice wine and ginger, which creates chicken flesh that is ethereal for its tender moistness. They serve the best dim sum in the city — gloriously fresh and interesting dumplings filled with the likes of lobster and Wagyu beef.
Lai Wah Heen is located at 109 Chestnut St., 416-977-9889.