Grand Chinese Cuisine
Doubletree By Hilton - Toronto Airport
655 Dixon Rd.
That both Chinese New Year and Valentine's Day occur tomorrow should give foodies the best excuse not to go out for Valentine's Day - at least not to so-called romantic restaurants for their overpriced, less-than-excellent lovers' dinners. Instead, celebrate the dawn of the Year of the Tiger by eating Chinese because Chinese New Year celebrations tend to focus on food - unlike Valentine's Day dinners, where restaurants turn tables like crazy to build the bottom line.
In my city of Chinatowns, there is dim sum galore, but much of it is problematic. I find the reasonably priced dim sum downtown greasy. The dim sum at Lai Wah Heen, meanwhile, is of the highest order, but so are the prices. There are oodles of dim sum places in Richmond Hill's Chinatown, but they're so crowded that getting the dim sum sometimes feels like getting up to the front at a rock concert. Grand Chinese Cuisine charts an ideal middle path.
Grand is owned by Dragon Dynasty Group, which also owns Dragon Dynasty restaurant and Aromaz Cake and Pastry in Scarborough and Big Mouth Kee in Richmond Hill. The dim sum at their other place, Dragon Dynasty, is also interesting, but getting a table there is more of a struggle.
Grand's location - in the faceless Doubletree Hilton on Dixon Road near the airport - is both unlikely and unappealing. But 99 per cent of the tables are filled with mostly Chinese diners (a sure sign of authenticity) and it takes reservations, so what more could dim sum lovers ask?
The dining room is a round, bright space whose chief decor element is the chairs, which are dressed in white brocade slipcovers with lace overskirts and big white bows on the backs. It's very bridal - like a Valentine. The tables are covered in pale yellow damask and the waiters wear red jackets with snazzy silver and brocade trim. A Spadina dive this ain't.
The dim sum menu offers so many dazzling dumpling options that one eschews the standard shui mai and har gow. By number, here are some of the biggest dim sum thrills: No. 113 is steamed chicken and shiitake mushrooms in fragile translucent dough; inside are chunks of shiitake and chicken fragrant from ginger and sesame. No. 147, meanwhile, is deep-fried stuffed eggplant with eel and looks like Shredded Wheat by Royal Doulton - ultra-fine and ungreasy, a gossamer web wrapping deep, rich flavour.
No. 133 is a dark horse. How any cook can pack such a flavour wallop into puréed turnip cake beats me. That it's topped with Chinese ham and a cute little nori ribbon seems almost gratuitous. The cook who can make me love turnip is also the cook with a sense of humour. Dual eel rice roll (No. 117) mimics sushi: One fat roll is wrapped in yellow sheet bean curd, the other in nori; both are rice rolls with a heart of sweet tender eel.
Many of Grand's menu descriptions fall so far short of their reality that one really ought to take a crowd and order most of the menu. For example, No. 137, which is a pan-seared tofu layer folded and filled with assorted vegetables. Although plain-sounding, it is almost erotically crispy, the bean layers wrapped around large chunks of complex black mushrooms and seaweed. No. 141 - baked diced codfish in layered pastry - is another item whose words undersell it: It's wondrously ungreasy super-thin tiers of wheat flour pastry, deep fried crisp, cradling superbly moist cod with chives.
No. 127 is a carnival of tastes and textures: Outside is delicate rice-flour wrapper, then an inner wrapper of crispy deep-fried bean wrapper with a heart of tasty seafood and pork.
Steamed beef ball (No. 109) is the steak tartare of dim sum, rare beef loaded with coriander, sitting on lotus roots braised in soy and wine. Apparently plain tofu (but tastier than I have heretofore encountered) forms the base of No. 118, in which the tofu is topped with steamed shrimp mousse rolled in paper-thin winter melon with sweet Chinese ham on top.
The subtle, woodsy fragrance of a bamboo-leaf outer wrapper infuses the sticky-sweet-rice inner wrapper of No. 115: steamed shrimp and minced pork with crunch supplied by toasted pine nuts and bits of bamboo shoot. No. 104 has even an more delicate filling of shrimp, crabmeat, Yunnan ham and bok choy in fragile rice dough topped with three green soybeans.
K6 is one of the few non-dumpling items: The centrepiece of pan-fried rice cake with minced pork and spicy XO sauce is small coins, rather like a nickel, of tasty rice cakes stir-fried for zip and zing with the queen of Hong Kong cuisine, XO sauce redolent of garlic, chili and dried shrimp. The XO gives big savour to shreds of egg, green onion, green pepper, both hot and sweet red pepper, bean sprouts, onions and pork.
Our sole disappointments are No. 35 (greasy dumplings), No. 130 (glutinous rice mush with no taste) and No. 140, the lobster item: Who could ignore a dim sum of deep-fried diced lobster with fish roe? Discretion would have been the better part of valour, for the lobster is barely detectable swimming in a sickly sweet deep-fried sludge of Thousand Island dressing.
No. 124 - duck's tongue and matrimony vine embraced in a crystal consommé - was sold out. Most unfortunate, given its timeliness, quoth my Valentine.