The Gist: Located in the Doubletree by Hilton and close to the airport this would seem a strange choice to most, but as the first stop on an eight day trek taking us from Toledo to Montreal and back by way of Toronto and Ottawa the west Toronto location was not only convenient but I had on good word of mouth from a trusted palate well experienced with Chinese cuisine that the food was quite good as well.
The Why: As above, plus some more “Americanized” options for my mother and aunt who are generally not tremendously adventurous when it comes to authentic ethnic cuisines. Certainly meant to appeal to both Asians living in the Toronto area and clientele staying at the hotel the diversity of the menu was impressive and unlike many similar restaurants a good website assured my family that there would be choices for them as well.
The Reservation: As we were entering Canada via the nearly impossible to predict Ambassador Bridge no reservation was made and given the location both outside of town and in a hotel we arrived to find the restaurant 3/4 empty.
The Space: While I am no expert on Chinese cuisine, the room seemed rather typical from my limited experience with tables and chairs covered in flowing materials, the carpet an ornate floral pattern, and fish tanks in back displaying live fish available to be cooked to order. Music was light woodwinds and chimes and with the central dining area slightly raised on a spiral ramp a small bar with top shelf alcohol sat near the hostess podium where a few businessmen were enjoying cocktails while browsing their laptops. Interestingly, to those who take note of such things, I will additionally note that restrooms were spotless and with the kitchen largely visible through open doors the entirety of the restaurant was much cleaner than any of the places we visited in BC.
The Service: From our check-in at the hostess station to the end of the meal service was professional – smiling even – and with half the items ordered from the dim sum portion of the menu while the rest were ordered from the main menu there was never “too much” at once on the table. As an added bonus, both water and tea were refilled frequently throughout the meal and plates were cleared as they were finished to make room for more.
The Food: 5 dim sum options, 3 plates, tea, and water.
Tea: Although I neglected to take a picture, tea arrived before the meal even began (along with two sauces, mustard and plum) and with jasmine tea starting things off while a dark black tea arrived later in the meal I found both to be fragrant and slightly sweet without needing any additional sugar or sweetner. At $2 per person it was well worth it.
Crunchy Garlic Shrimp Roll: Mom’s choice and although good, certainly the weakest of the dim sum options as the shrimp, while flavorful, were simply too few to overcome the amount of crunchy shell and ample use of garlic. Served along with pepper spears and pairing nicely with the plum sauce my mother enjoyed them, so I guess that is good enough since it was her order.
Baked Diced Cod Fish Pastry in Thousand Layer: Fairing far better than the shrimp rolls, this was perhaps the best dim sum selection to date as each of the three multi-layered pockets shattered on mastication giving way to juicy chunks of fish seasoned with pepper and herbs. Impressively crunchy and without a hint of grease due to baking rather than frying this was on bar with some of the best cod ‘fritters’ I’ve ever tasted – a stark contrast to the sometimes greasy brandade versions popularized at French (or Italian) bistros.
Deluxe Steamed Barbecue Pork Bun: When asked what made these “deluxe” the waiter explained to us that it was the use of abalone sauce as opposed to Barbecue and while I at first hesitated I will have to admit that this was inspired. Starting first with the tender bready dumplings and moving right on to the large chunks of supple swine there was no skimping on the ingredient quality here and with the focus of the sauce leaning more towards the savory than the sweet the end effect was really quite lovely, a sort of soy and spice flavor with just a touch of funk overlying the pork.
Pan Fried Bun with Minced Chicken and Pumpkin in Black Bean Garlic Sauce: Having fallen head over heels for the use of pumpkin in Chinese cuisine during my visit to British Columbia this was a must order and while not my favorite of the afternoon it was hard to argue with the quality as each of the three tender buns was lightly cooked on the exterior but still pillow soft within and topped with shredded taro root I loved the balance of bitter and savory, pungent and sweet, and most of all the tender chunks of chicken.
Freshly Baked Egg Tart in a Puff Pastry Shell Dusted with Swallow’s Nest: My first experience with Swallow’s nest, though honestly it was not at all the reason I ordered this dish; in reality I simply love egg tarts and despite being served on a flimsy plastic carrier these were incredible. Served warm, bordering on hot, with the pastry golden and flaky but not ‘crisp’ while the custard was still jiggly but not runny each sweet bite simply melted on the palate with creamy sweetness and a light tinge of salt and butter on the finish…without a doubt a must order.
Chicken Lo Mein: Yes, my aunt is the least adventurous eater I know, but to be honest this was actually some really excellent Lo Mein, and an enormous plate given the $12 price tag. Beginning first with the noodles, crisp and crunchy despite a hefty ladle of shoots, green beans, carrots, and bok choy in a light sauce part sweet and part savory without being over-salted (or worse, over MSG’d) each bite of this dish maintained a nice textural interplay while the all white meat chicken was thinly pounded and nicely prepared, also served in a sizable portion.
House Special Golden Fried Half Chicken: Definitely not the Colonel’s fried chicken, this half bird arrived split at the breast, golden brown, and resting atop a bed of fluffy white rice topped with at least half a cup of salted cashews. Juicy and aromatic with the flesh itself lightly marinated in garlic, pepper, and what I believe was ginger the star of this dish was without a doubt the crispy skin, lightly kissed with corn starch, soy, and more garlic with a texture not unlike that of Peking duck with substantially less fat. My mother’s choice, this too was deemed “great” despite not being exactly what she’d expected.
Deep Fried Duckling Stuffed with Shrimp Mousse and Almond: My ‘main course’ of the afternoon, and more along the lines of what my mother was expecting when she ordered “fried chicken” this was a truly unexpected and exciting dish where the kitchen had taken the liberty to pound crisp confited duck flat before matching it with creamy shrimp paste, and quickly deep frying it in batter studded with sliced almonds. Something like a fried pate or rillet in texture and rested across young green asparagus sliced lengthwise this was a dish I’ve never seen before on any menu anywhere and all-in-all utterly delicious.
The Verdict: A resounding win for everyone involved with each of us walking away impressed by not only the food – never oily, low on salt and MSG, and full of flavor – but the room and the service. While obviously not the most authentic, cheapest, or convenient to those residing in the greater Toronto area this was the sort of place where “something for everyone” did not mean compromising quality, but instead that the restaurant executed each dish with great ingredients and attention to detail. I would definitely go back and probably will on my next trip to the Hockey Hall of Fame.