Dim Dim Sum, or Why Dumplings Are Better in Toronto than in New York

Ok, I’ve just come back from Toronto, where I had two dim sum lunches, one at a very high-end Chinese restaurant, the other at a very low-end Chinese restaurant, and both were better than anything I can find in Manhattan. Why?

The dining room at Lai Wah Heen in Toronto's Metropolitan Hotel.

Lai Wah Heen in Toronto’s quirky Metropolitan Hotel has, for many years, been my favorite place to have dim sum. It’s tucked on the second floor of the nondescript hotel. There isn’t even a sign outside. “Where are you taking us,” one food-critic friend I lured away from a food conference we were participating in asked as we walked through the ordinary hotel lobby and started up the stairs.

Lai Wah Heen is an elegant Chinese restaurant that isn’t trying to be “western” or “fancy.” The lunchtime menu offers innovative and traditional dim sum, both equally satisfying. What makes this dim sum worth its elevated price, besides the peaceful environment in which it is served and the exquisite tea that accompanies it, are the quality of the ingredients used and the obvious craft of the kitchen. Lobster, caviar, flying fish eggs, scallops, large shrimp, foie gras, shark’s fin, and other delicacies find their way into the dumplings and other steamed-to-order offerings. No dim sum I’ve had elsewhere can compete with the fineness and texture of the various wrappers and pastries that encase the delicately seasoned fillings. “This one is almost transparent, like glass” another food-writer friend noted about the crystalline wrapper on a steamed duck dumpling. The lobster dumplings come shaped as little lobsters. This is a special place. Dim sum came to about $50 a person, and no one seemed to mind.

Lai Wah Heen's lobster dumpling.

The next day, I joined my tai chi friends after class for lunch at Rol San, an all-day, every-day dim sum place on Spadina, north of Dundas, in Toronto’s original Chinatown. (As in New York City, there are now several Chinatowns in Toronto’s outskirts.) Here, too, the dim sum were steamed to order. But the freshness of the food

Rol San on Spadina in Toronto.

and the depth and diversity of the flavors was also noteworthy. All too often in large dim sum palaces where servers push carts of lukewarm food around the room everything tastes as though it has been bathed in the same MSG-infused brown sauce. Not here. Thin slices of beef were coated with cracked black pepper and fried, nubs of spare ribs were steamed in a tangy  black-bean sauce, sticky rice in lotus leaf was fresh and fragrant. I particularly liked the steamed chicken feet in brown sauce, which were delicately seasoned and easy to eat, and the steamed tripe, which had a crisp, not chewy, bite reminiscent of jelly fish. With more food than anyone could eat, our lunch came to $7 (CDN) per person.

However hard I try—and I’ve tried all over Flushing’s and Manhattan’s Chinatowns and I am about to head out to Sunset Park Brooklyn just to be sure—I just can’t find anything in New York that is as fresh and tasty and satisfying as either of these two dim sum meals.

Our 11-pound crab at Sun Sui Wah in Vancouver.

Although I didn’t have dim sum in Vancouver, I had a great meal at Sun Sui Wah, the highlights of which were an 11-pound live Alaskan king crab steamed and served with garlic sauce and an exceptional, dual-preparation of geoduck, fried and steamed.

Chef Joe Ng’s dim sum at Chinatown Brasserie in Manhattan’s NoLIta neighorhood comes the closest to Lai Wah Heen’s in terms of sophistication, but his creativity doesn’t always pay off. (Still, his lotus-root-shaped lotus-root pastries are remarkable.) For everyday dim sum in Chinatown, to my taste the best I can find is Dim Sum Go Go, and I don’t let the fact that few Chinese relative to gweilo seem to appreciate it as much as I do deter me (I’ve never been one to subscribe to the notion that a restaurant full of Chinese people or any people of a particular ethnicity is a good one. How many restaurants full of Chinese people in China must be terrible? I know there are plenty of French and Italians in bad French and Italian restaurants in France and Italy.) Go Go has “steamed to order” going for it. Plus they have interesting combinations of dumpling wrappers and fillings.

But still, New York dim sum leaves me wanting. Why? The Chinese community in Toronto and Vancouver is huge, but so is the community in New York. I’ve heard Canadian Chinese immigrants are more recent, more affluent than those who immigrated here, but I don’t have the census data to prove that. And there would appear to be a lot of money here in New York if the number of banks and jewelry stores in Chinatown is any indication.

Maybe the ingredients are better, even the cheaper ones. I believe that the shorter food chain and stronger government regulation in Canada makes for better food products, especially at the low end. (A topic for a future post.) But I don’t think that’s enough to account for the care that goes into the making

Susur Lee, Toronto’s super-talented, superstar Chinese chef who has been met with a lukewarm reception at his first New York venture Shang, believes New Yorkers are not as sophisticated as Torontonians when it comes to Asian food. (Full disclosure: I’ve known Susur since he cooked at Lotus in Toronto 20 or so years ago and when he hits his stride there is no more talented chef cooking anywhere.) Although I’m not sure that fully explains his experience at Shang—he might want to take into account the unfortunate 2nd-floor hotel location, the cold decor and environment, the inconsistent cooking—I do wonder if there’s an element of truth in what he is saying. I don’t think most New Yorkers are willing to pay an elevated price for top-notch, authentic Chinese food. What else would explain the ungapotchked environments and gussied-up take-out food proffered by places like Mr. Chow, Tang Pavilion and Tse Yang?

What do you think? Am I nuts? Am I missing a dim sum restaurant somewhere in the five boroughs that will change my opinion? Maybe it’s just the Tuscany effect, whereby just by being in another place makes everything taste better. I’m happy to be proven wrong.

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