After a great visit to the AGO with an old friend it was time for lunch. Originally trying to decide between Moroco’s Brunch and Lai Wah Heen’s Dim Sum Lunch we decided on Dim Sum as I’d already had plenty of sweets for breakfast and I’d heard from reliable sources that Chef Chan’s dim sum was some of the best available outside of the mainland of China. Having been largely underwhelmed by my previous experience with Dim Sum (admittedly a cheap experience more than three years ago) I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect as we made our way into the Metropolitan Hotel and inquired on the restaurant’s location at the front desk. Informed that the restaurant was tucked away on the second floor we made our way up the stairs and shortly found ourselves waiting at the hostess station.
Greeted promptly by a friendly young Chinese woman we were asked if we had reservations and when we responded to the negative we were told this was “not a problem at all” and swept away to a table in the main dining room – a beautiful two top near the stairs and adjacent to the large bay windows with an excellent view of the street and the room. Browsing the immediate dining area as we were presented with our menus, water, and a pot of green tea I was impressed by the mixed population – older, younger, Chinese, Canadian, businessmen and families were all represented in large numbers and the room had a “buzz” without being loud.
Instructed on how to order from the check-cards by our server my friend and I slowly went through the arduous process of deciding how best to experience the maximal amount of tastes without being too full to walk out – a process that easily took twenty minutes and a few glasses of water, but a time during which no pressure was imposed by our servers who were happy to answer any questions. Orders placed the young lady tried to tell us that we’d ordered too much – the second time (of three, actually) that day someone questioned my ability to eat – and I assured her we would be okay.
Ordering on separate checks (or cheques for Canadian readers) but sharing almost everything we ordered, the first item was the only non-dim sum option – an $18 pick off the appetizer section of the menu. Simply titled pan-seared foie gras with asparagus, dressed with sweet ginger sauce the dish came exactly as advertised. Featuring a modest slice of seared foie that was perfectly veined and cleaned, nicely poached asparagus, and a thickened sweet ginger sauce the dish didn’t really re-invent the wheel, but instead focused on flawless preparations of each ingredient with the unctuous liver contrasting nicely with the crisp vegetable and offset by the sweet pungency of the ginger. Simple and effective albeit somewhat unimaginative and difficult to consume without a knife to cut the asparagus.
Following the appetizer dish ensued an onslaught of dim sum options, each beautifully presented by any number of servers and eventually amounting to a substantial amount of food on the table. Ordered by my companion and untasted by myself were the steamed calamari with black pepper sauce, the steamed Lobster dumpling with shrimp and diced vegetables, butter, and garlic and the Steamed dumpling of Waygu beef accompanied with thinly sliced Waygu beef, in chili oil – a dish that led her to make an uncanny number of “food sounds” clearly indicating her love of the dish.
Ordered by myself and consumed either solo or shared with my companion – well, there was a heck of a lot of food. Kicking things off, from Chef Chan’s “Innovative” menu, a steamed dumpling of smoked sturgeon, shrimp and minced butter squash and a steamed crystal purse filled with five spicy shredded duckling & heart of garlic. If the measure of a chef’s skill in dim sum is gauged by the creativity, flavor, and thinness of his noodles then I’ve no doubt we were in the presence of a master – the translucent noodles alone were works of art with my friend’s lobster featuring the crustacean’s characteristic shape and the sturgeon presented as a small fish while the purse did appear to be a tied-off bag. More impressive than the appearance, however, were the textures and flavors of the dumplings with the mildness of the sturgeon perfectly complimented by the sweetness of the squash and the spicy anise/clove/ginger bite of the five spice duck proving an adequate foil to the pungent and sweet heart of garlic. While certainly not “cheap,” the quality of the ingredients was apparent and I’d gladly re-order each dish again.
Following the “innovative” were the “Lai Wah Heen Classics,” each served in groups of three. Starting with the baked mini puff pastry filled with cured ham, shrimp & pork and the Steamed Pork Buns I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the pork and the degree of saltiness of both options – a clearly Chinese interpretation of steamed pork featuring familiar flavors of allspice and cinnamon. While the Buns were decent, I personally found them a tad pedestrian compared to what Chang is doing in New York City and the overall flavor was vastly inferior to the puff pastries with their sweet and crisp shell proving a much more adequate mode of delivery for the savory proteins than the bland moist buns. Significantly less expensive than the options from the Innovative menu these two options were actually quite filling.
The next round of dishes were again served in threes, yet somewhat more interesting than the pork dishes. The first dish, Deep-fried taro root paste dumpling filled with sweet plum & minced duckling was an absolutely astonishing dish that my companion summed up as “light, but really dense.” Featuring a crispy and airy taro root shell absolutely stuffed with an amalgam of chopped plums and minced duck I have to say that this may have been my favorite flavor pairing of the afternoon and it honestly could’ve served as a dessert or a savory – an absolute must order. The second option, Filet of bass & thousand years egg in rice roll served with sweet soy sauce. Having never tasted the unique egg-preserving technique prior to this I have to say I didn’t know what to expect, but what I received was superb. Mildly salty and somewhat sour the egg proved a balance to the smooth and meaty bass while the sweetened soy brought out the flavors of both the egg and the fish without masking any of their more subtle notes.
More or less stuffed at this point we opted for only one small dessert – traditional Chinese Egg Custards. Served as four small 1/2oz tarts the custards were barely set with the buttery pasty and only a thin skin of custard preventing the creamy vanilla egg compote from being a liquid – absolutely delicious and flawlessly executed – a great end to a wonderful meal.
Making our way to the exit after paying the somewhat impressive bill (I mean, Dim Sum isn’t supposed to be “haute cuisine” normally) we took a look at some of the party menus and both agreed that Lai Wah Heen would be an awesome place to return with a larger group in order to sample some of the noodle and rice dishes (normally intended for parties of 4-6 according to the menu) as well as the myriad soups and entrees. Thoroughly satiated and happy we made our way out the doors where our hostess bid us farewell. While I can’t say I’m a dim sum expert by any stretch, I can say I’ve been to some great restaurants and would rank Lai Wah Heen’s presentations, flavors, and service favorably amongst many of them.