All respect to downtown Toronto’s east and west Chinatowns, but for the best Chinese food, you need to head north. Chris Nuttall-Smith combed through Markham, Thornhill and Richmond Hill in search of great Chinese eating, and from glorious noodle soups to the GTA’s best Peking duck, to strange, but exquisite sweets, he found it in abundance. Here are his top picks.
Dayali Beijing Roast Duck
If you thought that only flannel-clad and bewhiskered downtowners would subject themselves to crazy lineups at hot new restaurants, you haven’t been to Dayali, the five-month-old, first international outpost of a respected Peking duck empire from Beijing. By 6 p.m., the line typically spills out the banquet room’s front door. For $38.88 you get the Gold Medal Roast Duck: a party-sized platter of crisp, dark-golden skin that Beijingers typically dip in white sugar and hoisin, followed by a heaping plate of sliced meat and skin that you roll up with chopped scallion, cucumber and condiments into paper-thin crepes. This isn’t the usual Cantonese barbecued duck that’s common in Chinatown windows; the Peking version is crispier and far more subtly flavoured – much less about the meat than the texture and full-fat glory of that burnished mahogany skin. There’s plenty else beyond the main attraction. The shrimp and eggs scramble is runny and superb, studded with fat, coral-coloured seafood. There’s whole, Vancouver-style crab, noodles, excellent vegetable plates, meat dishes and bullfrog. Chinese pears are available for dessert. 20 Gibson Dr., Markham, 905-604-8680
Northern Dumpling Kitchen
You won’t find a live-fish tank here, proper tablecloths (they use white plastic, thank you) or the foie gras and abalone pastries that have become commonplace in many nouveau South Chinese restaurants. Northern Dumpling traffics in the hearty, ruddy-cheeked and huge-flavoured cooking of cold-weather China: fat pork wontons smothered with hot chili, peanut sauce and scallions, deliciously gamy steamed lamb dumplings that you douse in tart-sweet red rice vinegar, pan fried dumplings filled with leeks and pork. The onion pancake roll and sliced beef (number 120) is a mustn’t miss – the roll is hot and flaky and the beef is fantastic. The deep-fried silver roll (number 123) is a loaf of lily-white bread that pulls away in diaphanous strands that are meant to be drenched in condensed milk; it’s sweet hillbilly decadence, China-style. Unit 52A, 550 Highway 7 E. (at Leslie Street), Richmond Hill, 905-881-3818
Yang’s Fine Chinese Cuisine
The GTA’s Southern Chinese dim sum restaurants come in three categories, generally: cheap and cheerful steam-cart joints, better-quality midrange rooms, and high-end places where ceremony (did you see how many pleats they got into that dumpling wrapper?), luxury ingredients (they’re often buried under mayonnaise) and gloopy architecture (see: The Crown Princess, Toronto) often reign. Yang’s does high-end dim sum with a measure of restraint. The room is spare and modern, the atmosphere relaxed, the cooking generally excellent. The rice rolls with scallops and XO sauce are a good bet, as are the barbecue pork and pineapple pastries and the fat har gow dumplings. The steamed soft egg-custard buns combine sweet, salty, oozy egg yolk and white-bread softness. The fried turnip cakes are also great. The “crispy foie gras and mango rolls” seem more about status ingredients than tasting good; they come smothered in mayo. 9665 Bayview Ave., Richmond Hill, 905-884-3388
Phoenix is a cleaned-up take on Hong Kong’s curious diner-food tradition. Some of my Chinese friends love it; another disparagingly calls it “Spring Rolls,” after downtown’s pseudo “Pan-Asian Zensation” chain. (She’s a devotee of New City Restaurant, a keepin’-it-real Hong Kong diner at Kennedy Road and Highway 7.) Phoenix’s menu is massive, running from comfort standards like Horlick’s and Ribena to grass jelly teas, to fried spaghetti, to luncheon meat (read: Spam) and eggs on rice. But the go-to dish is the Hainanese chicken and rice: bone-in chicken pieces poached in amber poultry broth, then served with rice that’s been steamed in broth and fat. It’s simple, homey stuff; amazing, too – juicy, fragrant and deep-down comforting, particularly when you dip it in the ginger sauce. Be warned: chicken and rice is massively contested; for every Chinese or Singaporean or Malaysian who loves the rendition at Phoenix, you can find another four who say the rice isn’t quite right, or that the chicken should be pinker. Whatever. It’s delicious. 8190 Bayview Ave., Thornhill (and two other locations), 905-886-1113