We all know that Chinese food is one thing Toronto really excels at. And, while I happen to live in northern Scarborough, within easy reach of Chinese cuisine nirvana, I haven't had many chances to properly explore even my own neighborhood. My excuses basically boil down to:
a) all of my friends live downtown and Chinese food is infinitely more fun if you go with a group and eat family-style
b) the people I've had visit me since I moved here are more Ho Lee Chow sorts of people
c) when I strike out alone, getting gweilo-ed gets old really quickly. (I don't know why having to ask for chopsticks bugs me so much, but it does. Using a fork for noodles and stir-fries just feels wrong - I'm starting to wish Italian restaurants would bring me chopsticks for my linguini.)
So, when I saw a couple of friends on my last trip home this summer and they told me they were going to be in the neighborhood in a few weeks, I got really excited. His parents are Chinese. They have both lived in NYC. They both regularly make me crave odd cuisines via their Facebook status. THESE PEOPLE WILL ACTUALLY LISTEN WHEN I TELL THEM WE HAVE AMAZING CHINESE FOOD.
Not only that, but they're staying out in Bowmanville and are THRILLED at the prospect of only having to go as far as Markham/Scarborough to get it.
The day they rolled into town a week ago, they call me to ask where to go. I suggest Maple Yip, as it is insanely close to my house, well-recommended by our local experts, and will not require them to brave going anywhere near downtown as they have just survived the 401 during rush hour and never want to drive through Toronto again. We ordered the steamed whole fish, mushrooms in crab sauce, and the Sichuan shrimp. I really wasn't expecting much from the shrimp, but they were a pleasant surprise. Definitely a Cantonese-does-Sichuan kind of thing - not super-spicy, very flavorful, the shrimp were highlighted rather than drowned in spice. Mushrooms and crab being two of my very favorite things on earth, it was no surprise that I enjoyed those. There's nothing wrong with knowing exactly what to expect from the description on the menu, and the thing that made me very happy was that there really was a healthy amount of crab in it. Fresh, delicious crabby flavor on top of mushroomy umami goodness - mmmm.... But the big winner of the night was definitely that whole steamed fish. It was just...perfect. There's nothing else to say.
Last night, they were in search of soup dumplings. Apparently, the Washington, DC area is thoroughly lacking in good northern Chinese foodstuffs. This time, they didn't give me a chance to come up with a recommendation - they did their own homework and told me they were going to Ding Tai Fung, if I wanted to come along. I love soup dumplings, and Hwy 7 is a long bike ride, so I'm in. We ordered so many rounds of dumplings that the evening is a bit of a blur, but I can tell you that we definitely had: green onion pancake, beef tendon in sesame/chili oil, and a bean curd roll; pork soup dumplings; seafood/crab soup dumplings; and a soup dumpling with a thicker wrapper and a small shrimp on top that none of us had encountered before (the wrapper was more like the steamed buns you get at dim sum, but they definitely had soup and a dumpling filling inside). Everything was fantastic - wonderfully thin skins on the soup dumplings, the tendon was just the right amount of chewiness and really addictive...okay, I personally could've lived without the bean curd roll. We had to order a second round of all of the dumplings before they felt they had gotten their fix.
Finally, today was dim sum at Lai Wah Heen - the one meal we had been planning on since we first talked about this a month ago. First we had a soup of enoki mushrooms and duck (yet another of my all-time favorite ingredients) - such a good start. I can't even begin to tell you what was in the broth, but it was truly delicious. The mix of textures, flavors...everything worked. Then we had a round of dumplings. I'm not generally a sucker for the plating of dishes, but even I can't help but smile when your lobster dumpling LOOKS like a lobster (complete with little noodley claws), and there are a couple of brightly colored fish in the next steamer over. Very cute, and tasted...just like they were supposed to. Wonderful - let the main player shine through, with just the right accents. In the same round, we also got a vegetarian roll that involved bean curd and some truffle. This was a little disappointing - I didn't really get the truffle out of it, and the roll was too big for one bite, but not structurally sound enough to take two. It was surrounded in the dish by some very nice greens, but I find it weird that that the greens and sauce were my favorite part of this when they were supposed to be the accessories. The next round brought us a Wagyu beef dumpling with a couple of strips of raw beef on top, surrounded by chili oil, and a fried taro dumpling. The beef was good...the filling of the dumpling was rich, beefy goodness, but it wasn't quite what I thought it would be. The taro dumpling, though...I can't seem to access the menu online to figure out what the filling was, but that was one hell of a dumpling. I took a bite of this, then ate the beef to get it out of the way so I could focus on the rest of it. If you had any idea how much I love beef, you would know what high praise that is in my head. Then we had our noodles, topped with (I think) lobster and some truffle shavings. I have a very strong, visceral response to the aroma of truffle, and the seafood was fantastic, and well, noodles are just generally awesome, so I was a goner as soon as this was set in front of me. It might as well have been a hog-trough. Finally, we had dessert - three tiny little egg tarts, and three Peep-like, coconut-fleeced marshmallow bunnies. The tarts were flaky and the custard light, and the bunnies were fluffy, delicious, and almost as adorable as our lobster and fish dumplings earlier. I very rarely spend this much on lunch, but I don't regret one penny of it - it was an amazing meal, and the service was fantastic in an efficient and unobtrusive kind of way.
Three meals, three different styles of Chinese cooking. These friends are people I only see once a year, and both fascinating and incredibly fun to talk to, and every time the table fell silent as soon as the food arrived. In my mind, that's a rave review in and of itself. I got to be a bit of a tourist in my own stomping ground, and they left saying they were very jealous of our Chinese food.
All in all, not a bad week of chow. Not bad at all.
Lai Wah Heen
108 Chestnut St, Toronto, ON M5G 1R3, CA
Maple Yip Seafood Restaurant
4227 Sheppard Ave E, Toronto, ON M1S5H5, CA
Ding Tai Fung Shanghai Dim Sum
Fairburn Dr, Markham, ON L6G, CA