Happy Chinese New Year. Thursday ushered in the Year of the Rabbit, signifying hope. Which, waiting to be seated at Dynasty Chinese Cuisine last week, we were sorely in need of.
Our reservation was for dim sum at 12:45 and we arrived on time. There were others still waiting in the drafty foyer with us whose reservations were for 12:30 … and noon! Servers bearing food were trying to push through the crowd in the front. Nobody was happy. Why, I asked the woman at the front desk, are you not honouring our reservation? She said there were a lot of walk-ins. Well, that's just great. Ten minutes later I approached her again and she said, peremptorily: "You'll just have to wait."
Quite the welcome.
But hope springs eternal, especially in the Year of the Rabbit. So we wait. And wait. We are finally seated half an hour after our reservation time. The new Dynasty, which opened Dec. 18, after they left their long-standing home on the second floor of the Colonnade, is certainly pretty. There's comfort in the bourgeois excess of brocaded chair covers with flocked frogging on the backs, two layers of tablecloth (pale yellow atop deep purple) and a multitude of shiny things - glass baubles, bead curtains, mirrors and coloured lights, some of which change colour often.
There is also something comforting about finding upscale dim sum at a midtown location with a parking garage directly across the street. There are few items here that one wouldn't find in the grease parlours of Spadina, but the execution here is far better.
The standard dim sum dishes are all pleasing: Dynasty's har gow are big fat shrimp pieces in fresh moist rice-flour wrappings. The siu mai are big, juicy and sweet with good pork and shrimp. Grilled pork dumplings are like Japanese gyoza - carefully browned. Baked barbecued pork puffs are crisp and ungreasy outside and sweet with the classic red barbecue sauce inside. Crispy shrimp rolls are the standard - shrimp in deep-fried spring-roll wrapper - wrought a little better than usual thanks to fast flash frying.
There are moments of creativity when Dynasty rises above the expectable: Steamed mini octopus in curry sauce is impossibly tender, the sauce neither Indian nor Chinese but an enchanting hybrid. Chiu Chow dumplings with peanuts, chicken and dry shrimp are authentic (using dried rather than fresh shrimp), texturally interesting (the crunch of peanuts) and nicely blended for a graceful taste combo.
Some painfully predictable dim sum items are cleverly updated, changing them from old hat to entertaining. Everybody who does dim sum does long, narrow rice-flour crepes. They're usually thick, horribly bland and dressed in plain soy sauce with a few naked shrimps in the middle. When confronted with one of these unfortunate things, I always think of white glue. But Dynasty's rice crepe is thinner, smaller, dotted with spicy ham and infused with high-flavoured brown sauce, which they call seafood sauce. This is indicative of an artist in the kitchen. Is it that creator who also fashioned delicate broth brimful of tofu in two forms - both cloud-light cakes and thin multi-layered sheets?
Surely it was also that chef who marinated beef to total tenderness, spiked it with black-pepper sauce and sandwiched it, a burger à la chinois, in a snowy white, slightly sweet steamed bun.
They also renovate sticky rice: Instead of the usual bits of ham, they've added preserved egg yolk. The smooth yellow yolk has sweetened and mellowed with restrained aging. Similar finesse takes Szechuan deep-fried tofu to a new level. This item illustrates the great challenge of cooking simply: It's a cube of tofu. That's all. Deep-fried so fast and hot that it's crisp and clean -- its shell breaks like glass. Add the sweet/hot chili sauce for dipping, and simple turns scrumptious.
The restaurant also serves dinner - either dim sum or regular Chinese food. But the regular stuff is a bit too regular. Does the world need another rendition of lobster with ginger and green onion? Shanghai noodles? Or rainbow chopped in crystal fold? It's great that they whip away your plate and change it for a new one every few courses, but that hardly merits a special journey. Cherry-picking the menu, however, turns up a few gems: Little tiny fish, each the size of an anchovy, are flash fried with an ultra-light coating of spicy peppered salt. There is a maestro of the deep fryer in residence here, a cook who is retailing crackle and crunch, trans fats be damned.
Sliced, marinated spicy pork hock is Canton's answer to the terrine of France, a dense pork loaf with great big flavour. And twenty bucks buys the most interesting oyster dish in town, lightly fried oysters with red wine and green onions in a hot pot. We are unaccustomed to Chinese cooks using Cabernet, but happy to meet it as an undertone, almost a glaze for delicate fried oysters with green onions for contrast.
Usually fusion goes the other way, with Western chefs borrowing from the East. Dishes like Dynasty's Cabernet hot pot are welcome not only for their fine flavours but also because Chinese cooking with a hint of Western flavour is new magic, a welcome treat in this, the New Year.