- 241 Spadina Avenue, Toronto, Ontario
- Small plates, $7 to $18; sharing and large-format dishes from $17 to $75.
- Cantonese and Canadiana
- Decent cocktails, affordable wines (but only because they’re starting with the super-cheap; markups can be insane), the expected beers and spirits.
- The lunchroom at your local Costco tire centre got a makeover, and wow there’s an enormous Mao portrait on the wall. Service ranges from enthusiastic and friendly to rather-be-washing-their-hair.
- Go for the dim sum: CSB, egg rolls, dumplings, little dragon buns.
Alvin Leung and Eric Chong first met on the set of MasterChef Canada, the popular CTV game show that feigns, with a whole lot of television magic, to crown one bumbling but telegenic home cook as not merely a chef, but a masterful chef. It's an absurd conceit: After a few weeks of minutely choreographed and edited kitchen hijinks (plus plenty of the expected tears and backstabbing), the winners are no more deserving of the title "chef" than a month of diaper-changing and Teletubbies reruns would make me deserving of the title "pediatric neurosurgeon."
It does make for great TV, though. It's great enough TV that – full, slightly mortifying, disclosure here – I auditioned a few years ago to be a judge on the program after its producers approached me. Even more mortifying, I didn't get picked.
Mr. Leung, though, was an inspired choice, because his own story makes the MasterChef conceit seem eminently reasonable. Mr. Leung, who was raised in Scarborough, was working as an engineer in Hong Kong when he decided, in his early 40s, that he'd rather cook for a living. With no formal training or experience, he opened a restaurant called Bo Innovation, and developed a brand of molecular gastronomy-influenced "x-treme cuisine," as he calls it, that earned the place a global following, as well as three Michelin stars.
Like Mr. Leung, the 21-year-old Mr. Chong (he's 23 now) had trained as an engineer, though mostly to appease his parents. What he really wanted was to become a chef, and so he signed up as a contestant on MasterChef Canada, and poof! the program made him one. Or at least it made Mr. Chong into a guy who played a chef on TV.
This all would have been harmless enough, except late this spring Mr. Chong and Mr. Leung opened a real-life restaurant together, at Spadina and Dundas.
The place serves "a Canadian take on traditional Chinese dim sum," our bored-sounding server told us one evening recently. The restaurant's name, R&D, is an allusion to the two men's engineering backgrounds, as well as a play on their biographies. Mr. Chong, who spurned the career path his family had set for him, is the R in the name, for "rebel," while Mr. Leung, who likes to call himself "the Demon Chef," accounts for the D. (Michael Bonacini, who is also a judge with MasterChef, helped back the place with his company Oliver & Bonacini Restaurants, which has been instrumental with HR, purchasing, logistics and back-office functions, but is not otherwise involved in kitchen operations.) Though the pair claim to have done plenty of research and development building the restaurant and its menu, the experience of actually eating at R&D does not make that clear.
The restaurant is grim, but not gruesome; amateur but with moments of genuine not-awfulness, which is an accomplishment when you stop to consider how little actual experience Mr. Chong has. To his great credit, the place is nowhere near as abysmal as it might have been. Also to his credit, he knows he's not ready to run a restaurant, and has said as much repeatedly. (You'd better believe, meanwhile, that the three-star Michelin Mr. Leung has better things to do than run a kitchen in Toronto's Chinatown.) So the pair hired an actual chef named Nelson Tsai to sort of run the show.
The room is the first of R&D's problems. Though there's a perfectly attractive bar area up front, and the open kitchen is beautifully lit, the main space is a windowless, two-storey box that Commute Design (I generally love their work) tried to pretty up with tall, raw-wood beams and monumental pop art portraits of Chairman Mao and the Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei.
This might just barely work in a space that wasn't reminiscent of a Costco tire centre. The lighting is harsh up high, as if the designers didn't have any ideas for all that vertical space except to klieg it; it glares off the walls near the ceiling but is pallid grey at lower elevations, where all the customers sit, lending the place a Deathly Hallows vibe. As if in compensation, the soundtrack cleaves to the likes of the Baha Men's Who Let the Dogs Out and Shaggy's Boombastic, played in a gratingly short loop. We had an excellent and cheerful server one night, but otherwise it was hard to tell if anybody actually owns or runs or feels pride in the place.
The cooking starts out well, especially from the menu's dim sum section. Mr. Chong's "CSB," which is short for char siu bao, or Cantonese pork buns, are by far the best thing, and the best I've had in the city. Rather than pack the roast pork into the usual plush, bland, steamed doughy whiteness, Mr. Chong's char siu bao are made with butter, egg white and icing sugar-topped "Mexican buns," as they're called in Hong Kong, that are baked, so they crunch and dissolve into a sweet buttery, steamy fog when you bite in. The style is increasingly common in Hong Kong, popularized by the dim sum mecca Tim Ho Wan, but until R&D I hadn't yet seen it here. Be sure to snag an order, or maybe two.
Mr. Chong's tribute to his dim sum chef grandfather, called "grandpa's fun guo," are very good. They're crystal-skinned dumplings filled with chicken, bamboo and black truffle. R&D's egg rolls, though atypical, are also excellent: The long, thin phyllo tubes look and crunch almost like grissini, and are filled not only with crisp bamboo and chicken, but also with Thai basil, Parmesan cheese and pine nuts – with pesto, roughly. These add a weird but terrific green herbal freshness as well as nutty crunch. The Szechuan lamb "little dragon buns," which you have to nip at their sides and slurp at (they're xiao long bao, effectively) are also worth ordering. But the cooking mostly goes downhill from there.
We had an "aromatic five-grain rice" one night that was mushy with adzuki beans, quinoa and brown rice. If you've ever imagined eating a porridge of antique linen tunic, you've got it nailed. The spot prawn and scallop ceviche was so overwhelmed with soy and mayonnaise-like avocado puree that you couldn't taste the seafood; there was a puddle of "jolo butter" with it – that's a mix of butter, vinegar, spices and Chinese pickle sauce; it's a fixture on the Bo Innovation menu – but that didn't add nearly enough acidity to the dish.
The char-grilled octopus suffered from similar issues: With its "eggplant caviar" and choy sum "chimichurri" it sounded like a winner, except that the eggplant was just eggplant and the chimichurri was a flat-tasting puree, like over-processed guacamole, without even a glimmer of the bright vinegary punch that's chimichurri's entire point. The octopus was dry. Mr. Tsai knows better than this, if Mr. Chong and Mr. Leung do not. Mr. Tsai, though he's the grown-up in the kitchen, is merely an employee of the restaurant, and not a partner. I'd love to know what that dynamic's like.
We ate disappointing lobster chow mein made with Italian chitarra noodles (the noodles were excellent, but the portion was tiny; the lobster was rubbery and slack-tasting), excellent charred Brussels sprouts, and sweet, sticky Hawaiian-style spare ribs that were about as good as you might find at an East Side Mario's, which isn't all that bad.
R&D's sort-of-Chinese, sort-of-Canadian fried chicken (it comes with tinny-tasting Szechuan maple syrup and is called "General Sanders's Chicken" – get it?) was simultaneously overcooked and greasy, and the batter was thick, hard, crusty and tasted like Thanksgiving stuffing, and it came with a bland, dry Hong Kong egg waffle that was only half as good as you can find in the atrium of the Dragon City shopping mall across the street. There are 20 better fried-chicken variations in this city, many costing about half as much. Correction: Every fried-chicken variation in the city is better than here.
Yet the worst of it all was R&D's appallingly overpriced $75 "duck duck bao," which is a play on Peking duck, but made without the skill or the flavour, and which managed to combine both chewy, underseasoned meat with uncrisp skin and a layer of unrendered, lukewarm fat that made me wish I'd brought a flensing knife.
It came with cloying smoked plum sauce, some sort of mango abomination and a gloopy cabbage, carrot and ginger slaw. If you want roast duck, go to People's Eatery or Dayali uptown, both of which serve infinitely better and cheaper versions, or to one of the windows along Spadina, where they'll happily hack off a few prime pieces and put it on noodles for $7.
Desserts were okay. The crispy smoked milk balls tasted like burning foolscap paper, but my standards had toppled by then and so I glumly ate them. The banana split another night was great on first bite, but then the crust on the fried bananas started to taste too much like the crust on that imbecilic fried chicken (they're done in the same fryer) and I couldn't force myself to go on. I can't say for certain what would happen if somebody cooked like this on television, except that I hope they would be asked to turn in their apron.
R&D, though, is real life.