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Dineout Reviews: Mum’s epic Toronto trip

Usually my mother only makes a getaway to Toronto for a duration less than 48 hours and she does this several times a year. But with January 1 falling on a Sunday, it created an opportunity for her to step out for a whole five days! We did not cook anything at home and made a good dent in sampling Asian cuisine around town!

Chili Secrets (3rd visit, Markham)

Why are we going back to Chili Secrets, I wondered to myself as I let Lil Sis select a place for us to go for New Year’s Day dim sum the afternoon we got into Toronto on very little sleep. Even if it isn’t the biggest name sounding restaurant–I don’t know its reputation yet–there was a substantial queue to get a table and when we had waited half an hour, mum refused to take a table that was too close to the queue as we were basically waiting on top of those unfortunate tables.

So if I’m going to be back at Chili Secrets for a third time, why not get lots of really cool food? In addition to egg tarts, they have a special house-made custard tart which was the first dish to arrive. Mum and Lil Sis ate theirs as they were hungry but I saved it as a proper dessert. Lil Sis thought it was a little lumpy but I did not notice that and the custard was creamy and the crust was beautifully buttery  and flaky. I also ordered the Dan Dan noodles since the place specializes in northern style cuisine. It looked innocently enough with a bit thin broth and looked like they forgot to put in the sesame paste. We then we all tried it and nearly choked–it was so spicy!! There is some crazy Sichuan peppercorn that is a little bitter on top of being so spicy that numbs your mouth and tongue. I thought it was fun although Mum and Lil Sis thought otherwise.

On Lil Sis drawing my attention to it, I ordered the Chinese hamburger. Why not? It was just $3. It was… cute. The bread was Northern style and great – not too fluffy, chewy, hot. I wasn’t too surprised that the meat was stewed pork belly pieces and the garnish consisted of thinly sliced green onion and cilantro. We had so many other dishes so I did not eat much of the burger.

In addition to the tofu rice roll and fried dough stick rice roll, which look remarkably similar on the plate, Mum also ordered two plates of the plain rice rolls to bring back untouched to Halifax. I don’t know why Mum urged me to order the tofu rice roll. It is not a standard offering and I did not like this incarnation too much except, of course, it has tofu. It’s because Mum went to dim sum with her older brother and they got a great egg tofu rice roll that was so remarkable she wanted it again. Then we must seek out the words “egg tofu” on the menu.

It seems that dumplings were on special so we ordered some pork and bok choy dumplings (8 for $4) and what they labeled as Beijing-style Xiao Long Bao. Since I was fairly certain what they called the Shanghai-style Xiao Long Bao is another order of dumplings, I wanted to try whatever it is they called Beijing. Which turned out to be buns with a minced, marinated pork. I kind of like the chewy bun while Mum and Lil Sis favour the fluffy Cantonese bun.

Chili Secrets on Urbanspoon

Gourmet Vegetarian Restaurant (Markham)

We were so full for so long after that dim sum lunch at Chili Secret so when it came to dinner time, we weren’t so hungry at all. I had been harping about having my Gourmet Vegetarian Groupon ($15 for $30 of food) so to shut me up, Mum and Lil Sis agreed to go. Ever since having good Gardein at Loving Hut and NPY’s mother brought back imitation meat from temple, I’ve been fascinated by good fake meat. As I was considering buying the Groupon, I read the discussion forums and diners’ reviews elsewhere and got quite nervous–everyone was saying the food was so greasy! Well, we would just avoid the deep-fried foods like “sweet & sour” and “battered”, won’t we?

The restaurant was fairly busy when we arrived and as they were setting up our table, I nearly turned on my heel and walked out because their sign at the door suggested they would not accept the Groupon on holidays (like January 1) and Chinese holidays like the upcoming Lunar New Year and the Fifteenth Day of the Lunar New Year. But they were accepting it on the western folks’ New Year so we sat down and it was clear we were there only because I had a Groupon. Oh, and I stopped everyone from eating to take photos with a flourish. I wonder if the food always arrives so quickly or just because I was a bit of a nuissance…? :)

I ordered a small mixed “cold cuts” platter to get a sample of imitation meats and it came right away and it was larger than our appetites were at the moment. In addition, it didn’t look very appetizing. There was thinly sliced firm tofu, marinated tofu puffs, imitation BBQ pork, imitation beef slices, and spongy gluten pieces. I don’t usually eat this stuff but it was easy to tell the quality was not good. Mum urged me to order the jellyfish as we love jellyfish and I was intrigued how it would be rendered. When it arrived, we looked at it in wonder and she confessed that in a lapse of memory, she forgot that jellyfish is meat and we would receive an imitation. And quite a poor imitation at that. The dish is essentially crunchy savoury wild-coloured jello with some seasoning that did not much resemble the delicious spicy and salty marinate that penetrates real jellyfish.

Mum is on this funny bender about having eggplant and she’s rolling out Thai dishes at the restaurant so we ordered the Thai style eggplant. With the name so generic, we had no assumption what the dish would be like. “Sweet & sour eggplant” is an apt description. The first bite of fried eggplant was really nice. The eggplant as fried tender and batter is a nice complement to sweet & sour sauce. But it got to be too much and I don’t really enjoy “Thai style” meaning “sweet & sour”.

Given we weren’t very hungry, Lil Sis requested we order something spicy or curry that would “open” our appetites and I know what she means. I skipped over plain old curried vegetables, vegetarian fare like that, and picked the one that was named Veggie Meat and Tofu Curry Sauce. A big bowl of curry minced “meat” and big bricks of soft tofu appeared and I was happy. The tofu watered so I had to eat it fast and the curry was plain old, delicious Chinese style. The jury is still out whether there was vegetarian meat that appeared like ground meat or, mum’s version, it was just beaten egg as the server did inquire if we could eat eggs.

Gourmet Vegetarian Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Sukho Thai (Toronto)

Since Mum is introducing Thai cuisine at the restaurant, she was practically demanding that we take her to a Thai restaurant. Lil Sis was game to find one and the one with overwhelmingly positive reviews on Urbanspoon was Sukho Thai. As we walked into the small restaurant with the additional dining room in the basement, she recalled she had been there before. Our chef cousin did say you couldn’t get decent Thai food anywhere but there. So there we were.

From the brief menu, we only ordered what is relevant for Mum’s research trip starting with Thai spring rolls. The spring rolls were small and tightly bound with shredded carrots, vegetables, noodles and-alas-cilantro. We dipped them generously in the spicy plum sauce to try to drown out the cilantro.

When we ordered our dishes, we were asked to specify if we wanted them prepared mild, medium, spicy, or “Thai spicy”. Curious, we asked what “Thai spicy” was but kept our pad Thai at medium and our curry at spicy, or so we thought. The Sukho Pad Thai arrived first and we eagerly dug into it. Omigosh, it was so spicy the heat spreads across your face in just a moment. We got so red we were laughing. There were tons of little chili peppers in addition to a lot of some kind of chili powder mixed in. Okay, if this was medium, Mum flagged down the server to request our curry be prepared mild!!

The Thai fried rice was was a great reprieve from the spiciness of the pad Thai. It was prepared with smooth and fragrant coconut milk and it was a very simple dish with sizable chunks of chicken and we just inhaled this dish.

Of course, the curry was already prepared before we asked to tone it down but the server assured that that the curry will taste mild, especially after having “Thai spicy”. Huh, so he made a mistake ordering it? The red curry beef with squash was indeed mild. Not too memorable but not bad.

Sukho Thai on Urbanspoon

Buk Chang Dong Soon (2nd visit, Toronto)

Like a most eager child, I really wanted Mum to see what I like to eat, show her “my restaurants”. I never got a chance to do it when I was in Vancouver because she never visited but I did manage to show my father some places when he visited in August. I most wanted to show Mum tofu soup at a Korean restaurant!

After running most arduous errands after the first workday back in the new year, Korean food was a no-fuss option. Lil Sis tried to tone us down and have us order just two dishes but I urged for three. I didn’t want to share my tofu soup!

I ordered my vegetable tofu soup which as perfect as usual. Lil Sis ordered the bulgogi beef soup after being disappointed the short menu did not have a noodle dish. Mum ordered the bibimbap which is not pictured. As it turns out, the bulgogi beef soup has potato starch noodles on the bottom so Lil Sis was satisfied. However, the broth was super sweet and she ended up dipping into my mildly spicy broth to pair with her leftover rice. Actually, I don’t mind sharing the broth–it’s the tofu I want all to myself!

Buk Chang Dong Soon Tofu on Urbanspoon

Ding Tai Fung (2nd visit, Markham)

Lil Sis forwarded me a link to the Urbanspoon list of best Scarborough restaurants and I narrowed it down to Ten-Ichi and Federick’s. Since Mum wouldn’t appreciate Hakka at Federick’s, it meant Ten-Ichi but they were crazy busy and we wouldn’t get a table for an hour and it was already 8. So we took her to Ding Tai Fung in Markham because they are imitating that famous chain out of Taiwan. It’s great to have Mum along because we can order 50% more food and she can explain some dishes. At the same time, she’s been in the boonies so long and we haven’t before directed the dining in Toronto and there’s a lot of stuff we can show her!

First off, we had real jellyfish and that was fine and nice. We kind of treated it like dim sum and ordered one round of food first because we were so hungry, having made the attempt at Ten-Ichi first. We also ordered the beef noodle soup and xiao long bao of course, both not pictured. To have something that really sticks to our ribs, I ordered the snow vegetable shredded pork rice cake. I like rice cake of late and I remember the shepard’s purse rice cake from High Shanghai so fondly. This was just okay and could have used some chili oil if I wasn’t too busy just eating it anyways!

Mum told us she hadn’t had vegetable rice in a while and it sounded non-threatening. It looks like steamed rice except for some glistening which comes from adding stir-fried and savoury vegetables to steaming rice. When I was getting my portion, I observed there was “soup” at the bottom which was actually a big puddle of oil! No wonder it was so tasty! We ordered another Shanghai delicacy, green onion pancake where green onion was really abundant in the middle layer. It was fried through though and the green onion was not raw.

Mum ordered some buns to take back with her to Halifax and we waited for quite a bit for our red bean crepe to arrive. Lil Sis observed that it wasn’t pretty looking in the least but the crepe was delicious and the red bean paste was good, especially when I’m not normally a fan.

Ding Tai Fong - Shanghai Dim Sum on Urbanspoon

Ten-Ichi Japanese Cuisine (Toronto)

After not getting into Ten-Ichi the night before, we were sure to make a reservation for the following evening. And confirm the reservation. Afterall, it would be Mum’s last night in Toronto until we see her again for one of here usual short stints in April. She suggested we could wait until the next time but Lil Sis and I couldn’t wait since we had perused the menu and salivated over the all-you-can-eat selection!

The strategy that I’ve learned from NPY is to try to order the fried and carb dishes until last. So in our first round, we ordered sashimi and proteins. We ordered salmon, “white tuna”, and herbed salmon sashimi. Herbed salmon sashimi is pictured here on its own and it was a tasty discovery. A fatty cut of herb-marinated salmon is lightly seared. It was a nice east-west fusion. The salmon sashimi was very good and we thoroughly enjoyed the white tuna sashimi which is much light a butter fish I had. In another round, Lil Sis also ordered red snapper but I save my appetite for salmon and tuna! We ordered one of the house special roles, roses maki which was an avocado-kani (crab) roll drizzled with mango sauce and topped with tobiko… fancy! But I thought the mango sauce tasted artificial and overly sweet.

We were also happy to see beef tataki on the menu–what a delicacy! But did they forget to marinate and lightly sear it? It was like eating completely raw beef and I did not have more than a taste. For the fun of it, we ordered wasabi mussels. They were served cold and drizzled with wasabi mayo. Unfortunately, the mussel was hard and not fresh-tasting. I wanted Mum and Lil Sis to sample some Japanese steamed egg which was very smooth and sweet. Otherwise, it’s something we can easily make at home.

Mum went straight for the teppanaki section and ordered some grilled flounder and grilled shrimp. The shrimp could have tasted more fresh and crunchy but it wasn’t bad. Lil Sis saw that the avocado seafood salad was indicated to require 20 minutes of preparation so we ordered it right away as soon as we saw it. The menu did describe it as guacamole-style avocado and the seafood was there in flavour but otherwise kind of missing. It was odd to eat heated avocado which seemed really creamy and to enhance the flavour strongly. Lil Sis and I perused the temaki (hand roll) section to find an ingredient that balances well with the other items we ordered and we both decided on spicy tuna temaki. It was a good choice. We weren’t as ravenously hungry as when we started but it was still just the most perfect handroll. The seaweed was not damp and chewy but had some crispiness. The tuna was prepared well, sushi rice was good, and I loved the fragrant and crunchy panko bits inside!

We wanted to try another house special and settled upon salmon roses which was salmon sashimi wrapped around chopped ika (squid). The chopped ika was mixed with mayonnaise much like chopped scallop is and this was a delicious and creamy bite, a winner for me compared to the roses maki earlier. Since my positive experience at Sushi on 7, I wanted Ten-ichi spicy salmon pizza as well. It delivered with chopped spicy salmon atop a fried patty formed from sushi rice. Opening ourselves up to more fried food in our second round, I also ordered the unique-sounding Japanese potato hashbrown. As Lil Sis ribbed, I just cannot turn down a hashbrown. It was definitely different with a smooth mash inside the crispy exterior and not bad. Lil Sis and I also ordered spicy been ramen which arrived looking very spicy indeed. The noodles looked like curly instant noodles but were cooked too long and a little too soft.

There were so many tempura options! We went with the tried and true tempura shrimp where the shrimp proved again to be a little less than fabulous and Lil Sis thought there was just a bit too much of the good panko batter. We ordered sirloin rolls which were so good when lovingly made for that dinner in HK and was a little heavy-handed here. And we were getting full. Still on her eggplant bender, Mum ordered grilled eggplant that looked like a dead eel and very unappetizing. Not bad though, she reported. For some real eel, Mum ordered the unagi don which was the tiniest portion ever!

Still dreaming of the cured pressed mackerel sushi at Suika, ordered and specifically emphasized just one piece of saba sushi. I was getting full and the opalescent skin always gets me. It wasn’t bad. Taro tempura was also unique and we were relieved at this point that only three pieces arrived. Lil Sis thought they were too hard and I enjoyed how they almost has a crispness to them. Mum’s unagi don was so very small and she wanted some soup so we took a risk and ordered the seafood hot pot. It sounded wild and extravagant for all-you-can-eat and fortunately it just turned out to be a Chinese broth with nappa cabbage and pieces of seafood. I was so full even the big chunks of tofu failed to appeal to me! Finally, I ordered some scallop cutlet since our meal was absent of scallop and they turned out to be deep-fried breaded scallop served with a refreshing wasabi mayo.

Okay, Ten-ichi’s all-you-can-eat dessert menu is amazing. Despite being full, Lil Sis’ eyes were bigger than her stomach and she wanted to order multiple of each of the six or seven desserts for just herself. Throughout the evening, we would see servers approaching tables with a tray full of shotglasses as everyone would sample widely and multiply.

We tried a different ice cream each: red bean, mango, and green tea. There were at least three other flavours. They are made fancy with a crisp wafer “waffle”. I thought the Jell-O would be those roughly cut cubes of all other all-you-can-eat restaurants but it came in a wider dish with a piece of fruit in it. Lil Sis enjoyed that alone. We each had custard cream which was topped with powdered graham crackers and tasted, as Lil Sis pronounced, like cookies ‘n’ cream. We each had the mango yogurt, one of the signature desserts. “Yogurt” was more like tapioca cream pudding and it was topped with mango puree. We had chocolate mousse. Mum and Lil Sis moaned that the tiramisu was very bitter due to the coffee but I thought it was fine. And the cherry on top was another house signature, the ginger creme brulee. We were beyond stuffed but it still tasted good, maybe a little firm, but the perfect cap to a super duper meal!

Ten-Ichi Japanese Cuisine on Urbanspoon

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