Dineout recaps: January 2013 bender in Toronto

So much food … and for so many days. This bender started off on New Year’s Eve with a quiet dinner (to contrast the chaos I was missing in Halifax) and quickly escalating as if there was no tomorrow. Fun! But tiresome after five days. I didn’t write about these along the way so I left quite a job for myself!

Raijin Ramen [Yelp]

Kinton, Momofuku, Santouka. That is the order in which I have been hitting the new ramen restaurants in town. While I don’t love the pricing of ramen in this city, it is still relatively an economical option.

After work on New Year’s Eve, I didn’t have plans-just the way I like it-but did give nod to the “occasion” by going out for dinner after work. We tried to go to Sansotei as I was “saving” Raijin to go to with mum and Lil Sis but-what do you know?-for the second time I tried to go, they were closed. Closed for the holidays. So we tried Raijin, a few blocks away. I heard Raijin had a lot of space and we scored a table at a counter and it wasn’t too busy so the atmosphere was peaceful.

Like Kinton, Raijin is a Vancouver export and belongs to the group that includes Kingyo and Suika izakayas.

We ordered a small chicken kaarage to nibble on before our bowls of ramen arrived.

I ordered bamboo charcoal miso ramen which is what I get Motomachi Shokudo and it is “healthier” and I recommended my friend order a pork bone broth shio ramen as an initiation. When the server brought the noodle bowls over, I thought the shio with dark oil patches were mine but my broth, as I should have remembered was full-on black. I had a taste of the shio broth and it was crazy rich and creamy. My broth was lighter in flavour and had a hint of Chinese tonic. I recognized the flavour as “sang day” that mum used to often make as potent broth and tell us it was good for our skin – thus I believe the bamboo charcoal soup is also beneficial! The noodles did not stand out in particular and I forgot to notice. I think Raijin wins it on the broth.

 

Nea Go Hyang Korean Restaurant [Urbanspoon]

 

As I waited for mum and Lil Sis to meet me at Finch Station after they got in from Halifax and swung by home, I froze without a hat and standing in sub-zero temperature at the Passenger Pick-Up area. I hadn’t decided where to eat and it was nearly 3 p.m. on New Year’s Day but in a frozen brain moment of clarity, recalled that Korean restaurants are plentiful just around the corner and that would warm me up quickly. Specifically, my favourite bowl of tofu soup. I pulled up the list of best Korean restaurants in North York on Urbanspoon and easily picked out which one we hadn’t tried and thankfully they were open on a statutory holiday.

Banchan arrived for us to nibble on-a good assortment-and this is one of those places also serving up a scallion pancake that is complimentary. The pancake was nice and oily and crispy. I don’t like glutinous flour pancakes unless they are thin like this. I did not push for tofu soup since it is a little antisocial of me as I tend not to share. Mum spied another table with kimchi fried rice so we ordered that and Lil Sis selected a spicy noodle soup, her kind of dish.

Kimchi fried rice was good, a little oily, with small pieces of nappy and chicken and pork. The spicy noodle soup was not as spicy as looked and as per my usual policy, I didn’t eat the seafood. The noodles were plentiful, springy and cooked perfectly.

 

Elegant Chinese Cuisine [Yelp]

My “research” to compile a list of places to try turned up Elegant when I was looking for Hakka food. Mum had mentioned she had Hakka food when she lived in HK and that is one of those cuisines that I definitely do not get to try. And, boy, is it difficult to find. There are many Hakka restaurants in Toronto, but it’s the Indian-Chinese fusion variety and not what mum is interested in. Hakka are nomadic people and their cuisine reflects the region where they have settled for some time while that includes parts of India, they have spent time in regions of China and created some unique dishes that hide in corners of some Chinese restaurants’ menu. Elegant sounded like it had several Hakka dishes but mum claimed not to know what the major dishes were and she shot down the idea of reserving a salt-baked chicken. Too salty, she said.

We rolled into Elegant anyhow and it is an interest space and decor with the ceilings not lowered and pipes exposed by painted dark and an eclectic mixture of refined traditional Chinese art and plants placed everywhere. I pulled up the Yelp page to keep on hand the reviews that listed the Hakka dishes and Mum asked the server which Hakka dishes they had on the menu. Server shrugged and said it was only a pork jowl and didn’t even mention the salt-baked chicken or the glutinous-rice stuff duck. I was getting worried. The chicken was out of consideration anyhow since we did not pre-order one and I was hopeful we could get the duck but it turns out that was out as well. Mum realized just how eager I was to try Hakka food and relented and we ordered the pork jowl with mustard greens. She hadn’t had jowl before and could stand to try that cut of met as well. The server seemed really concerned that we hadn’t ordered any vegetables but we really would have been too full.

Upon seeing it on the menu, mum ordered the jellyfish. It’s kind of funny and it looked odd when it appeared. A little too … dark. And it merely tasted like soya sauce and was crunchy. Mum ordered the hot & sour soup which counts as “research” as we also serve one and it was neither very hot nor sour.

 

The pork jowl arrived in a non-descript pile and I didn’t mind it so much except it was just not a lot of variety. The light sauce coating the pork was not too salty with sugar added to cut through it and thus I thought it was a little sweet. When we couldn’t order the duck, we freaked out and didn’t know what to replace it with except the tenderloin the hostess recommended, that had been ordered several times that evening. Honey mustard tenderloin, we thought it would be different and Lil Sis would enjoy it. “Tenderloin” was a misnomer. The cut of beef was a loin and it was tender but only artificially with tenderizer. I’m not such a honey mustard fan and the sauce wasn’t so special to blow me away.

 

Ten-Ichi Japanese Restaurant

Mum remarks upon our “loyalty” to Ten-Ichi and … why ever not? The price is right (there is even a senior’s rate that came in handy) and the variety is good. It was mum’s second time at Ten-Ichi and Lil Sis’ and my fourth time and we went for the first time a year ago, this time in January. We made a reservation and I’m not sure the host really was confirming reservations with his book and how on earth do you organize reservations at an all-you-can-eat restaurant where diner takes between 1.5 to 2.5 hours to enjoy their meal? Tables did turn over at 7:30 for a “second seating” and people claiming to have reservations got the first tables to turn over. Walk-ins were out of luck for a while during the busiest time. Suffice it to say, we don’t expect to get a table at the time we made the reservation if we arrive only at the time of the reservation.

The table to our left was overly fussy about the drafty window and relentlessly pestered the staff and actually sent back food because it wasn’t warm. We think they did not eat for days in advance and tucked away a scary amount of food, ordering more hot noodle soup after they had eaten dessert! The table to our right was a bigger group and practically sat on top of our table. For the first time, we had some problems getting what we ordered and had to remind them twice about our short ribs and sirloin cubes, neither of which was difficult to procure as other tables were receiving these in multiples. As coule be expected, there was no ginger creme brulee available (which we had just the first time) and there was no strawberry creme fraiche (which we’ve never had). We love the place, would return another time when we can stomach another all-you-can-eat sushi meal as the food it solid. Just for kicks, here is what we ordered:

* salmon roses
* roses maki
* white tuna sashimi (6pcs)
* salmon sashimi (9pcs)
* herb salmon
* 2 spicy salmon handrolls
* 2 spicy tuna handrolls
* spicy salmon maki
* soft shell crab maki
* kalbi short ribs
* garlic teppanaki sirloin cubes
* tempura shrimp
* tempura eggplant
* spicy salmon sushi pizza
* teppanaki flounder (2 orders)
* chicken yakitori
* grilled (robata) eggplant
* seafood hot pot (2 orders)
* unagi rice (3 orders)
* spicy beef udon
* beef ramen
* scallop cutlets
* chawanmushi
* deep-fried banana
* green tea ice cream (2 orders)
* mango ice cream
* red bean ice cream
* mango yogurt (3 orders)
* tiramisu (2 orders)
* custard cream (2 orders)
* chocolate mousse (2 orders)
* jello

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amaya Express

My lunch suggestion with cousin WC was to visit the food court in First Canadian Place, one of the ones near me but I had never before visited. Amaya Express was on the store listing and I know what I will order … ! Butter chicken bowl and lemon rice because the latter is something different. The butter chicken used white meat (a “flaw” resolved with the presence of curry, haha) and the lemon rice was brilliant yellow, just a little tart and lemony.

Grand Ocean Seafood Restaurant [Yelp]

Lil Sis requested squab for dinner and I did not know of a place downtown to recommend to Big Uncle recommended our old standby at Dragon Centre, currently named Grand Ocean. It was not busy in the big restaurant that evening and we heard that they had to order in, with same night/hour delivery the squab.

We were served bitter melon soup and nibbled on the garlic pea shoots to start. Mum told Big Uncle about my Hakka quest and so it was decided to get the braised pork belly with preserved vegetable and I was glad Big Uncle dug in because I did not want to work on it all alone. Unfortunately we didn’t enjoy it so much because the meat was too lean! Where were the layers of fat?? A steamed fish arrived and to not impede anyone’s work, I only took a photo after it was cut up and somewhat re-assembled.

We waited a really long time for the squab and just sat and talked. The servers were overly optimistic and would tell us several times it was coming soon until it was clear it was not true. The squabs were good and two pieces was the right amount. We were served tofu dessert which I found was not silky enough. Tasted too much like tofu and that’s coming from a tofu-lover like me!

 

 

 

Double Ming Chinese Dessert [Yelp]

I only tasted the tofu dessert at Grand Ocean and ate a mini almond cookie so I wasn’t filled up on dessert and Lil Sis looked up and found Double Ming. The place has no aesthetics except round, Chinese-style mahogany and marble tables with matching round stools. Double boiled milk is the specialty so mum and I got that but I asked for mine to be topped with black glutinous rice. Upon my recommendation, Lil Sis ordered sago in coconut milk, my favourite complimentary dessert after banquet dinners. Mum added at the end a order for a tea egg and I followed suit, regrettably.

Mum thought something was terribly wrong with the tea egg while I merely thought she didn’t like the flavouring they used and that the egg had been hard-boiled too long and was really green. The double boiled milk desserts were delicious and slipped down easily. Lil Sis’ sago dessert was perhaps a little too much of the dessert that at banquets we don’t get served too much and mum remarked how it was a really simple dish to prepare.

 

 

Casa-Imperial Fine Chinese Cuisine [Yelp]

Fondy, the first organizer of the Joy of Eating Meetup.com group, told me about Casa, a dim sum restaurant in a castle! It’s actually just a mansion located on Steeles Avenue East and mum and Lil Sis went once last time mum was visiting and I was at work. I still wanted to try it and they were game to go again.

In the restaurant that is far longer than it is wide, there are three dining areas. The first area you see is like a beautiful parlour, shaped like a square and with crystal chandeliers overhead. We were ushered to the back of the ground level and we were dining in a darker area that feels like a hallway leading to a landing. It felt like an exclusive club and mum kept remarking how you didn’t hear anything but Cantonese spoken and I find that homogeneity intriguing. There is a dining area on the lower level as well, where the washrooms are. The place used to be a steakhouse or something and the wall art was wonderful country English scenery. The servers were mostly female and they wore very prim black dresses with a bit of ruffle that I thought was quite like what Jane Eyre would wear or, as Lil Sis observed, creepy girls in horror flicks.

 

It was good last time so we ordered it again – jelly fish with shredded chicken. Unlike the night before, there was elastic-like springiness to this jellyfish, it was fresh and spicy and the thinly sliced chicken was a nice addition. This was a premium dish at a good restaurant. The meal also started out nicely with a colourful and delicious rice rolls dish. The fried tofu was egg tofu and it was a good combination of all the good stuff in a quality rice roll.

I chose two “fusion” dishes that were fun to eat. I really liked the chayote roll with shimeji mushrooms and veggie ham. The broth-like sauce was light and there were also taro sachets to round out the satisfying vegetarian dish. The other fusion dish was odd, just slices of king mushroom, “shrimp paste” (minced shrimp) and pumpkin and a glob of salted egg yolk sauce. The separate ingredients were nice, not sure however if they worked together.

 

 

I agreed to the beef brisket dish but it was actually tendon and brisket and when I searched for the brisket pieces, all I came up with was very tendony brisket pieces. Trying to get at the brisket meat meant eating far more tendon than I wanted. It seemed that they forgot about our congee so when we reminded them of it, it came quickly. It was a treat of a congee, arriving in a clay pot bowl and the server stirred it up and removed all the clam shells and then ladled out our first helping. The congee contained clams, gai choy (which is slightly bitter), salted egg yolk and preserved egg yolk. It was terribly funny to see Lil Sis’ reaction from tasting the bitter vegetable to briny egg white. I liked all of the ingredients and they lent a lot of flavour to the congee.

Lil Sis selected the shrimp and peach salad roll which was beautiful and crispy and served with Miracle Whip. I liked the perfectly crispy wrap best of it all. Lil Sis also selected the pancake dessert, an aromatic crepe made with glutinous rice flour and coconut milk enclosed around sugar, crushed nuts and more coconut.

 

Desserts just kept getting better with the fried sesame ball with salted egg yolk, the runny, creamy kind. Mum and Lil Sis humoured me and I had two of these beautiful balls.

 

Confucian Restaurant [Yelp]

Mum knew I was looking for different types of Chinese cuisine to try, like Shanxi or Northwestern and it can be awfully fun even when we stick with the “usuals” for the region because it’s all new for us. I was wildly impressed that mum had found, on her smartphone no less, a couple of options. When I learned that she started with Confucian Restaurant from seeing it reviewed on Trendy Zone, I downgrade it to quite impressed. From there, she did find another similar place but given we could confirm the pricing for Confucian, we ended up there. And, Trendy Zone hasn’t really steered us too wrong.

Confucian is a bit of a hole-in-the-wall, lacking in aesthetics but I did not feel uncomfortable there. With a combination of referring to a list mum jotted down from reviews she read and what I also wanted to try, we cobbled together an order that frightfully large for three women!

I ordered the shredded potato salad because that stuff is hard for me to make and so very easy to eat. The dumplings were a splendid deal with a dozen costing just $5. I ordered the regular pork and cabbage variety because we would like it and it turns out there was little bit of soup added to the inside. We had a order at least three skewers but they could be a variety so we ordered lamb, squid and yellow croaker. We were warned the lamb was very spicy but I did not find it so. Squid was okay, flavoured with cumin. And the whole fish was nice and crispy.

 

 

Our noodle dish was Beijing-style ja jiang mein and I had no qualms with it. Mum and Lil sis thought it was spicy but they hadn’t seen anything yet. The enormous bowl of fish in spicy broth arrived. I am nervous to order it because of the level of spice but mum had written it down from reviews and wanted to try it. Seriously, she hadn’t heard of it before? Well, it is a wonderous dish. Lil Sis and mum ladled out the white fish with chilis and munched on their first servings and nearly keeled over from the spicy. I made sure to not bring chili flakes with my fish and found the heat quite pleasant.

We ordered braised pork belly with preserved vegetable (again) in some kind of defiant gesture since it was so incorrectly prepared at the last meal but it was not necessary. I was so full and so pork belly/braised meat out I did not enjoy the pork belly and just found the sauce overwhelming. I was looking forward to getting the millet congee as a bland side to the spicy food and marveled at the yellow broth colour. It is yellow from chicken broth? I took a sip and watched for mum’s reaction and it was gold-we hadn’t expected it at all to be a sweet congee! It’s not as sweet as dessert soup and it ended up being a good accompaniment to the salty and spicy dishes we had.

 

The Bowl Kee Restaurant [Yelp]

We didn’t know what to eat after trying to go to Shiso Tree for Japanese-style pasta and they were closed for the week (how ironic, when mum closed our restaurant for the week to visit Toronto) so we fought through all the reds and arrived at Peachtree just to peruse the selection and pick a dinner spot based on signage and/or business. We would have had to wait for a while for a table at hoppin’ Top Choice so across the plaza, I saw the sign for Bowl Kee and suggested it. I had nothing else go on except the name.

The place specializes in clay pot rice with six choices that you can order in 2-6 person sizes. They also have a big selection of hot pot dishes from which we chose the Buddha’s feast. Mum glanced over at the next table and asked about the chicken and while they had received it with their three-dish dinner, we could also order a half chicken. I love the tender Chinese chicken that came accompanied with a creamy ginger sauce instead of the usual oily scallion-ginger one. The clay pot rice was good but not the best and the vegetables of the Buddha’s Feast were about the most unfabulous variety I have ever seen. I didn’t (quite) mean to rub it in but my favourite Buddha’s Feast is at this place in Vancouver … Still, it was vegetable content and we had a decent dinner.

If we return, now that it is in on mum’s radar, we would order a three-dish dinner and get the complimentary chicken starter and a dessert.

 

Pastel Creperie & Dessert House

Where to go for dessert now … ? That I was getting dropped off at Finch Station to head back downtown suggested that we revisit Pastel. The small shop was busy and we did not get  booth spot but a table by the counter instead. Mum ordered a matcha white hot chocolate to up her calcium intake (we hope) and it was a beautiful green colour.

Then Lil Sis and I ordered opposites in our desserts which we split with each other and mum. She ordered the shortcake waffle that was warm and had strawberry ice cream, shortcake cubes and mixed berries, drizzled with chocolate and with a side of whipped cream. I just had a taste of the waffle and it was good. I ordered the black sesame crepe within which was ground sesame seed in a sugar mixture, more shortcake cubes and a smattering of whipped cream. I would have a bite of black sesame ice cream with a bit of crepe and my plate ended up this ghastly brown and ash colour. But it was so good!

 

Yang’s Fine Chinese Cuisine [Yelp]

While I had suggested congee for lunch on mum’s last day in town, mum went ahead and suggested getting dim sum “across from the Maxim on Bayview.” It turns out we were returning to Yang’s. Last time, we had really late dim sum and it seem good and very high end. We were back to pick at more of their selection and dare not make it larger group because our Toronto relatives might be shocked we’d visit such a pricey place.

 

I’m a little wiped out by dim sum lunches and let mum and Lil Sis do much of the ordering and as such I did not know what to expect. As usual, there was a high rice rolls to diners ratio and mum and Lil Sis ordered two types. The plain rice rolls were so utterly plain and we were expected to jazz them up with hoisin sauce, peanut sauce and soya sauce provided. They were not exceptional in flavour to me. I helped mum decide between spinach rice rolls with barbecue pork or scallops rice roll. I always prefer rice roll with barbecue pork and was pleasantly surprised the rice rolls themselves were green. Other than that, they were not hot when they arrived at the table and the cut of pork was so-so, a little fatty and that is a lot coming from me!

Mum ordered “seafood” pancake which was also made with glutinous rice flour and she was disappointed that dried shrimp was one of the seafood items. I helped order the foie gras mango rolls and they were clumsily executed as flat pastries with too much mayo. My bad. And they were very expensive!

 

 

Mum ordered the plain white congee with fried dough sticks and the congee was indeed very plain. The dough sticks were hot and freshly fried but they did not taste very fresh. The typical pork dumplings (siu mai) were okay.

The glutinous rice wrapped in steamed bun was something I can fathom although have not ordered before. The glutinous rice was a little dry and the bun was not fluffy. Beef tenderloin buns were kind of tasty. The cashew pumpkin pastry and – very cute – shaped like miniature pumpkins. The interior filling appeared to be pumpkin custard which was just too much by that point in the meal!

 

Rolling Pot [Yelp]

Before we even got to lunch and while we were waiting for a table, mum was already looking for a spot for dinner! She came up with iCook Buffet, a Taiwanese place, but upon reading further reviews that outlined an unhygienic feature, we decided on Rolling Pot near Pacific Mall that I had seen before and noted as a place to try. Like iCook, at Rolling Pot everyone gets their own hot pot. Unlike iCook with a buffet table from which you get your items to cook, Rolling Pot is just the way I’m used to in that you place an order. At Rolling Pot, you serve yourself drinks from an assortment of cold Chinese drinks from fountain machines and Coke from 2L bottles. You also create your own sauce and mum and MY mixed two sauces each while I made one boring one with soya sauce, garlic and sesame oil.

I ordered the tom yum soup based for $2 extra while mum and Lil sis had basic broths included in the price. My favourite items of the evening included watercress, nappa cabbage, long mangrove noodles, tofu, Spam and lamb. Although you are responsible for all in your pot, you still can’t tell how much you are eating until you feel positively ill … which is the point we reached.

 

Ninki Sushi

A coworker asked me, out of the blue, if I wanted to have lunch. Sure! Later, she only needed to tell me Ninki in Scotia Plaza and I’m game. I’ve passed by the restaurant so many times when walking north or south from my office and Eaton Centre but never went in. We arrived for lunch after 1 p.m. and were seated on a Monday with no problem. If there was a lunch menu, it was over and we selected from two bento box options priced at $13 and $15.  I barely had to check what the items were include – it’s just what you order for lunch. I simply decided between chicken, salmon and beef teriyaki.

The salad was overdressed, but I like it that way. Miso soup and California rolls were okay. In the large box that arrived, everything was present in an impressive amount. The three dumplings were tight nuggets of pork and pepper and vermicelli. There were many more pieces of tempura than I would have expected, amongst them one piece of shrimp. The salmon was not the smoothest fillet but a good amount as well. Most importantly, the service was efficient and the food arrived quickly which is perhaps the largest criteria for a sit-down restaurant in the PATH concourse.

 

Banh Mi Boys

Okay, so I did plan running my errands around checking out Banh Mi Boys – finally. Just one more place to check off on my Toronto list (which was by no means a comprehensive list). The spot is bright and modern, long and narrow with one row of seating in the front and a long ordering and kitchen counter. I ordered the grilled pork banh mi, the first choice listed on the menu and veggie kimchi fries as the carnivore version of the latter was loaded with pulled pork (yech). The banh mi are a decent deal for the location (Queen Street West at Spadina) but twice the price than if you went to a restaurant farther from the city. But at Banh Mi Boys, if you ask for a customization (for me, no cilantro) you can be confident that it will be executed. The kimchi fries were an awesome mixture of picked spiciness, creamy mayo and peppery dried tofu and hand-cut fries.

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