296 Spadina Ave., Toronto, 416-598-1817. Dinner for two with Chinese beer, tax and tip, $75.
Few have dared challenge the supremacy of Lee Garden on Spadina, and none have succeeded -- till today.
Loving Lee Garden has grown increasingly disappointing: The lineups don't get any shorter, it continues to eschew the taking of reservations and the food is predictable and, dare I say it, less clean-edged than it was a decade ago.
Rol San tried hard to challenge Lee Garden's gastro-hegemony, but its food is greasy. Next to do battle: King's Noodle, though it does not look the part of the restaurant that threatens to take down Lee Garden. In the front window, under hanging barbecued ducks and pork sides, two cooks labour fast and furiously, slamming barely wilted greens onto bowls of rice congee and throwing dumplings into a huge cauldron of boiling stock. Curious folks stand outside and stare in.
But this is no mere dumpling house. The King's Noodle menu is a cornucopia of unusual and authentic Chinese items. Each day, the cooks prepare a different "family style soup." Sunday's is a big hunk of fragrant fuzzy squash (immature winter squash) and dry octopus in rich chicken stock with tender beef hock -- quite the warming sensation. BBQ duck soup is sweet duck with black fungus, chives and lemon rind in sesame-scented broth. Hot and sour soup, an old favourite rarely executed with such grace, has the requisite hot and sour balance.
Tiny fresh clams are served in black bean sauce made uncommon with tiny fragments of red chili and shards of chive and ginger. Garlic ribs "Singapore-style" are not. The server warns us off them, saying: "They're pork chops. How about you have honey-garlic ribs?" Clearly she's worried that we won't get it, but who could dislike the not-ribs, for they are thin pork chops that have been dipped in curry and then briefly deep-fried into crisp, batterless tenderness. They sit on a bed of deep-fried cellophane noodles with chilies, onion and garlic -- a holy triumvirate.
Snow pea greens come with fat beige slices of Japanese king mushroom: sweet and fresh. Free-range chicken chunks have been wrapped in banana leaf with sweet Chinese sausage and steamed in a bamboo steamer. (Who on Spadina mentions the provenance of their ingredients? This is a great step forward for one of the best food streets in the city.) Fat rice noodles are sautéed with black bean sauce, seafood and vegetables for a deep rich taste. Lobster steamed with garlic is slathered with chopped garlic, apparently the store-bought kind, which in this application is felicitous because its garlic scent is appropriately mild.
Casserole of fuzzy squash with dried shrimp and Chinese zucchini is a flavour triumph of cellophane noodles zinged with black mushrooms and shredded squash, with undertones of ginger and dried shrimp. Like the Sunday soup, this dish is ideal winter food, which is good because a cold draft blows through the restaurant every time the front door opens (and it opens a lot).
The cooks take down ducks and pork from the front window and hack them up for our pleasure, which is significant, thanks to their sweet five-spice fragrance. The chow mein is the classic fried egg noodle, perhaps not as crisp as elsewhere, but nicely garnished.
The pièce de résistance is steamed fresh scallop in egg custard: A pie plate holds gossamer egg custard, in the manner of Japan's chawan mushi, made from carefully baked eggs whisked with chicken stock, and in this case afloat with small scallop pieces and ginger.
The kitchen only really lets us down by having no crispy pigeon as offered on the menu (on three separate occasions) and sending out sweet corn with chicken soup that features unsweet corn niblets and lacks the creamy texture we expect.
Chinese food on Spadina is like a lover who treats you rotten, and you try to forget him and move on, but you can't. Not 100 per cent. I've missed it terribly.
Sure, they have great Chinese food in Markham, but who wants to schlep up there, park beside a herd of Mercedes and eat in a white-tablecloth restaurant with prices to match? I love the Avenue. It has always been Toronto at its undressed-up polyglot best. Welcome home, to King's Noodle.