The Gist: In a city with one of the most diverse ethnic populations in North American (and therefore the world,) Toronto plays host to more Dim Sum restaurants on single streets than the entirety of Columbus (and maybe all of Ohio) combined. With quality ranging from fine dining quality to quite bad from what I’d been told, Yang’s in the upscale Richmond Hill area reportedly fits the former description and many would claim it to be perhaps on par with Lai Wah Heen – a space I was lucky enough to visit on my previous trip north of the border.
The Why: This I owe to Charles Yu, a man with substantial knowledge of Chinese cuisine both here and abroad. With Yang’s not exactly well known outside of those truly in tune with the Toronto food scene I was lucky to become friends with Charles through Chowhound (and later Facebook) and much like I picked Sherman’s brain for my trip to Richmond/Vancouver, Charles was my go-to for Toronto’s Dim Sum scene.
The Reservation: While I’m sure some of the folks at Yang’s speak English, I did not hear any of them do so and with Charles playing gracious host he took the liberty of gathering an excellent group including local gourmands TorontoJo, prima, sweetie, jlunar to join us for the meal. Having heard that Dim Sum restaurants tend to get full later in the day and myself with plans to drive to Ottawa that afternoon our reservation was at 9:00am and under Mr. Yu’s name.
The Space: Like many dim-sum restaurants Yang’s is in a non-descript strip mall and with white table cloths, icicle style lighting fixtures, and venetian blinds as the only real decorations to the room save for mirrored pillars the overall feel of the space was certainly less ornate than Grand Chinese, Lai Wah Heen, or Jade in Richmond but with comfortable chairs and an immaculately clean dining room there was certainly nothing ‘wrong’ with Yang’s – just not a lot of “eye candy” to distract from the food and friends.
The Service: Service at a Chinese restaurant, and particularly for dim sum, is difficult for me to gauge. Dishes arrive with one word descriptions as the kitchen prepares them, plates piled up but disappeared quickly when emptied, and a variety of excellent teas were replenished without request throughout the meal. If what I just said constitutes good service, then the service was good and perhaps even great as even our individual plates were replaced with clean ones if they became dirty and serving chopsticks were present at each seat as opposed to one or two pairs as I’d seen elsewhere. Deferring to the experts on just how to tip I paid what I was told assuming that we had tipped well for a job well done.
The Food: 14 dishes, at least 3 different teas, and I honestly don’t recall the price but remember thinking “Wow, that was one hell of a deal” walking out the door.
Wu Gok: Otherwise known as taro dumplings and one of my favorite ingredients whether boiled, griddled, or fried. Not oily in the least and perfectly crisp on the exterior these sweet dumplings exploded with flavor giving way to a creamy and savory interior rife with pork and chives. With three to an order our two orders would suffice, but I could have eaten the half dozen myself and been quite happy.
Rice Congee with pea shoot, prawns and thousand year eggs: Apparently a bit of a shocker to my tablemates that my Caucasian self would request this dish I half explained my fascination with puddings, tapiocas, and oatmeal before digging in and while not as amazing as the totally non-traditional rice porridge at Red Medicine both the texture and delicate balance of savory tones at Yang’s was the best ‘traditional’ congee I’ve ever had. Thin but toothsome, subtle but nicely augmented by herbs, and studded with an ample helping of snappy prawns plus at least five thousand year eggs I know I ate more than my fair share of this dish…and continued to pick at it throughout the meal until it was gone.
Foong Jow: This was a new one for me, but a must according to Charles, and as much as I dislike the term I’ll simply call it “interesting.” More flavorful and meaty than I’d have expected but loaded with both bone and cartilage the overall flavor was something like hotwings without all the oil and breading – definitely an experience I’d willingly repeat but not something I’d seek out with zeal.
Baked Barbecue Pork Puffs with Pineapple: Definitely a bit more “American” than I’d have expected at a place like Yang’s and quite dissimilar from the bready steamed or baked versions I’d enjoyed in the past this flavorful bite reminded me, sadly, of the ‘Hot Pockets’ of my youth, though filled with tender savory pork and sweet chunks of pineapple plus thick barbecue sauce with a touch of heat these were certainly more dignified. With a tender pastry shell lightly flecked with herbs this is probably one of only two dishes on the morning that my immediate family would have enjoyed (or even tasted/tried.)
Steamed Vegetable and Mushroom Dumpling: Probably not something I’d have selected on my own largely because there were so many other interesting choices on the menu I was most impressed by the wrapper on these little bundles of shitake, pea shoot, and sliced bamboo – so thin and translucent that the pea shoots within shined brightly and so sticky that extricating them from the chopsticks was actually a challenge – while the bundle inside was tasty, tender, and aromatic, but nothing I’d crave.
Har Gow: Probably a must order staple at every Dim Sum spot on the planet and a good measuring stick of the kitchen’s talents these shrimp dumplings were pure and flavorful with the shrimp sweet and snappy and although the wrapper was not quite as thin as that on the vegetable dumpling it was not far off and considering the generous amount of shrimp inside of each one it seemed everyone was quite pleased.
Rice Roll with jumbo shrimp and yellow chives: Apparently known as “Cheung Fun” because the rolled noodle resembles pig intestine this dish was quite similar to the Har Gow in that a plethora of tender shrimp speckled with savory herbs lined the inside of a thin noodle but with a rich soy stock added tableside and the noodles this time made of rice and therefore less sticky I actually found this plate to be even more compelling than the last.
Pork and Shrimp Fried Rice Dumpling: Another taste, another texture, and perhaps the most interesting dish of the meal these delicious gobs were described by Charles as ‘Ham Shui Gok ,’ and are apparently made by frying a stuffed glutinous rice ball. Crispy and golden on the exterior yet slightly chewy with just a bit of grease within the center of these pockets were a molten amalgam of pork, shrimp, shiitake, chives, and something vegetal/crunchy for added texture and a bit of balance to the otherwise intense savory notes.
Northern style dumplings with Chive and Pork: Apparently differing from Southern-Style dumplings in the folding and thickness of the skin, these dumpling featured a much thicker exterior than the other dumplings we sampled on the morning and while I’m sure a lot of this is based on where one is raised and what one is used to I have to say this thickness was a bit of a turnoff to me. With the interior filled, once again, with nicely cooked pork and chives plus what I’m rather certain was cabbage or a thick lettuce plus vinegar there simply wasn’t enough to these to keep my interest beyond the first – though I did end up trying a second just because we were served so many and I wanted to taste with and without soy.
Fried Cuttlefish tentacle with five spices: I have no clue what the five spices were as it did not taste like traditional “Chinese 5 Spice” but with Sichuan pepper, salt, and cinnamon definitely present these tentacles were not coated, breaded, and abused like their Italian (or bastardized Italian/American ‘calamari) counterparts, but instead very lightly fried to render the skin crisp and the interior tender with just a touch of chew. Generally fond of squid and cuttlefish, but rarely when it is fried, these were excellent and definitely something new and unexpected.
Egg custard tarts with birds nest topping: A “must” order from my standpoint and thankfully the rest of the table agreed. Buttery flaky pastry, a warm golden interior that was just seconds from set (IE, slightly runny and perfect for my tastes,) and sweet without losing its eggyness they weren’t quite as good as the superlative versions at Grand but in the company of so many dim sum aficionados this order came with a great deal of education about Swallow’s Nest which was much appreciated (even if I still don’t think I could taste it.)
Baked Cashew and Pumpkin Puffs: While I’m rather certain these are not traditional dim sum items, the description sold me and with the group an agreeable bunch these cute little treats arrived along with the egg custards appearing as – well – miniature pumpkins with a cashew stem. Sweet yet slightly savory – think pumpkin pie with far less cinnamon – and somewhat like a muffin on the exterior but with a custard-like interior not dissimilar to a souffle or ‘lava cake’ this was another dish I really liked and for someone who generally does not fancy desserts at Chinese (or Japanese…or Korean… restaurants this was another welcome discovery.
Crispy Foie Gras and Mango Rolls: Served later in the meal that I’d have originally expected I was actually surprised how well this dish worked as ‘dessert.’ Featuring a crunchy shell without much grease and an interior rife with crisp unripened mango and creamy foie gras at an approximately 2:1 ratio plus a squiggle of citrus tinged mayo the flavors all melded nicely to form a very complex bite that I was fortunate enough to enjoy a few times over as some members of the group did not favor foie.
Baked Sweet Durian Puffs: The last flavors on my palate were egg custard, cashew and pumpkin, plus foie gras – I simply wasn’t willing to take the risk on these, particularly considering my last experience with durian was not especially present, and once my dining companions broke into these neon green bites my nose confirmed what my brain had assumed – perhaps another time and another place.
The Verdict: Rarely one to suffer a ‘bad’ meal and almost never one to experience ‘bad’ food as I spend a lot of time researching my agenda there are some meals that are greater than the sum of their parts because everything simple comes together and Yang’s was definitely one of those meals. From the food to the setting to the service all of the aspects of the restaurant were excellent and yet all paled in comparison to the company – a great group of folks without whom I’d have probably not even heard of Yang’s let alone have the opportunity to learn so much and enjoy so many different tastes – I’d happily do it again anytime.