353 Spadina Ave., Toronto, 416-596-8787. Dinner for two with wine, tax and tip, $70.
Peter's Chung King
281 College St., Toronto, 416-928-2936 Dinner for two with wine, tax and tip, $65.
Unrequited love might be the saddest thing in the world. My unmet need for Chinese food, while not exactly heartbreaking, has been making my culinary skies less than 100 per cent sunny.
Going out to dinner on a whim, when nobody wants to cook and you're dead tired, used to be chinois on Spadina: cheap 'n' cheerful and nobody cares what you wear. When Chinese money fled to Markham, leaving Spadina bereft of decent joints, I gave up my frequent Chinese habit . . . and took up sulking.
Lee Garden remains divine, but its lineups are ridiculous, and hardly the thing to encourage frequent visits. Some people switched their allegiance to Rol San, but I find its food greasy.
How wonderful it was then to discover New Sky on Spadina, just north of Lee Garden. This is not your tired Spadina joint, with plastic tablecloths and iffy washrooms. New Sky is pretty! Cream tablecloths, Chinese vases and figurines in glass cases are just the ticket to make a middle-aged Sinophile happy. And the servers have learned a thing or two since Spadina's heyday.
It's extremely unusual to find food as flavourful as New Sky's south of Highway 7. Chinese soups, poorly done all over downtown, are ethereal and yet deep with flavour when they're properly executed. No Western soup can match the knife-edge harmony of a great Chinese soup, and New Sky gets it right. Soup of mustard greens and sliced pork with salted egg has richness, depth and delicacy. Hot and sour soup has the requisite elements -- hot, sour, a back story of sweetness -- in perfect balance.
Dumplings are a dime a dozen on Spadina, but New Sky has built a better dumpling. Everybody does shrimp dumplings but few package them in such fragile wrapping, and with a dazzling, good-enough-to-drink sauce of soy, sesame and green onion. Hunan dumpling is another fragile cladding round beautifully seasoned pork, its sauce an improbable creamy compendium of peanut butter spiked with chili and green onions.
Ordering your meal is slightly challenging, thanks to the list of specials on blackboards -- all in Chinese. The menu lists everything in Chinese first: It makes one wonder whether some of the best stuff is not offered in English. But all the other diners here are Asian, and they do not appear to take offence at our curiosity. "We want what they're having," works better than a Berlitz phrase book at New Sky.
Thanks to copycat ordering, we feast on giant B.C. crab steamed with rice. It arrives in a tall bamboo steamer, the rice under the crab turned yellow and tasty from being steamed under crab roe. The dish of stir-fried string beans with minced meat in XO sauce is full of sweet pork bits, beans intensified by hot wok frying, an XO chili wallop and big chunks of green onion whites for another strong flavour note. Chinese broccoli with oyster sauce is another green dream, the veg crunchy, the sauce smooth.
This is Spadina, with Spadina prices, but our server whisks away the dirty plates every couple of courses. She will not allow us to order crispy noodles, instead recommending Fu-Kin noodles, which are crisp-fried on the outside of the platter and soft toward the centre of it, topped with emerald asparagus slices, peas and chunks of sweet BBQ pork.
Lobster with ginger and green onion is barely cooked. Steamed chicken in lotus leaf is moist and rich with the scent of soy, sesame, ginger and Chinese wine. Its splendiferous garnish is big, meaty Chinese mushrooms. Peking duck is perfect pancakes with duck crackling, hoisin and lightly sweet pickled daikon and carrot to cut the irresistible grease. They do scallops with almost-raw mushrooms and barely cooked garlic, all in delicate Cantonese sauce that's nonetheless long on flavour.
Just to make sure that going gaga over New Sky is not a result of going soft in the head thanks to desperation for edible Chinese food downtown, I checked out Peter's Chung King (on College Street, just west of Spadina), which is lauded by many as the mothership for hot and sour soup. Feh. The waiter pours on a large orange puddle of chili oil tableside, which is impressive -- and helps the soup stay one-dimensional. It's hot, but the other requisite flavours (such as the sour) are all show and no go.
Szechuan shredded beef has a certain charm thanks to being almost candied in sugar and soy before deep frying, but it's charm on the level of candy. The famous Singapore noodles have a dry curry powder mouth feel, and shrimp with asparagus are bland.
The moral of the story? For Spadina Chinese, it's not over till the fat lady sings.
Chefs are notably peripatetic, but this spring it's almost too much to keep up with. Chris McDonald, having closed Avalon, opened Cava tapas bar on Yonge Street last week, where Delisle resto used to be (1560 Yonge St. in Delisle Court, 416-979-9918).
Before he did the "high-church" Avalon for the past 11 years, McDonald was already one of our best cooks; he worked for other people at Santa Fe, then Massimo Rosticerria, then -- 13 years ago -- Delisle. I followed him like a slave in those days because his cooking was full of big, exuberant flavours and grand textures. He did not then apply them with an eyebrow tweezer. At Avalon, chef got too serious and lost his sense of food fun.
Returning to the location of Delisle -- this time as owner -- is both poetic justice and we hope instructive for chef: He's promising "casual, cheeky and fun." Roger that.
Cafe Brussel, the Belgian mussels 'n' frites parlour on the Danforth, is closing at the end of May after 21 years. Owner Roger Wils says he struggled with "never really recouping from SARS, falling behind in revenue taxes, and sales of wine and drink have plummeted."
Michael Stadtlander's homage to the season is Spring Feast, to be held in the fields of his Eigensinn Farm on Sunday, June 4. It's a six-course seasonal feast, BYOB, $150 a person. For more information and tickets, call 519-922-3128.