90 Avenue Rd., Toronto
$100 for dinner for two with beer, tax and tip
If Bob Bermann and Barbara Gordon, two of the best cooks in Canada, couldn't make it on Avenue Road between Yorkville and Davenport, I am scratching my head about Zin's prospects. The first problem is parking. We Torontonians are lazy car-bound people. With nary a parking lot on the block, Zin's fortunes have one strike against them. The second problem is the cuisine. Is it Asian fusion? Kinda. Is it haute chinois? Sorta. Does it have the cachet of Lai Wah Heen? Maybe.
On the upside, the food is almost unbearably yummy, which goes some distance toward aesthetic redemption. Zin's owners, who picked up the place and renovated it after Bermann and Gordon closed their superb Boba, also own the upscale Asian place La Chine in Richmond Hill. Post reno, the gorgeous grace of Boba is gone. In its place is an ugly room with tan flocked wallpaper, dark wainscotting and chandeliers with white gauze shades. A large wooden model of a schooner is the only adornment. To call it a grace note might be going too far. It's an unfortunate transformation.
But grace in abundance issues from the kitchen. Hot and sour soup is wondrously tasty, unlike the more common all-chili/no-flavour version. Wasabi duck hand roll, meanwhile, is succulent duck chunks spiked with wasabi cream, rolled in a cone of lettuce inside a paper-thin skin of rice paper. When queried about how wasabi cream and rice paper are Chinese food, the affable maître d' responds that "Cantonese cuisine has always borrowed from other cuisines, especially French." Well, borrow away, if it comes to this. French style is everywhere at Zin, delectably commingled with the Cantonese: Wasabi cream, an elixir more delicate than béchamel with thrice the bite, reappears on big sweet shrimps.
The combo of Chinese cooking with French inflection appears again in steak la chine. First, they ask how you want your steak cooked, then the maître d' sautées the superbly tender meat tableside with tomatoes, basil, onions and just enough cream for luxe. More sino-francophilia rears its irresistible head in slow-baked squab with garlic buttered eggplant.
Squab (a.k.a. pigeon) is chicken's dark sister, with much deeper flavour. In Markham's Chinese restos, they call it pigeon and serve it whole, head on. Here in Yorkville, the squab has been sanitized: It's cut in half, the head disappeared. We grab for it with chopsticks, but Zin goes one better: As with the soup, which they divide into tiny bowls, the server apportions the squab (succulent, meaty, divine) and the eggplant (perfectly browned strips in garlic butter) and serves each person.
No need for self-service here, and the prices reflect it: $42, for instance, buys a two-pound lobster cooked any way you want it. As with everything at Zin, hair-trigger timing in the kitchen produces barely cooked lobster. Our chili meat sauce is a fabulous hot/sweet add-on of tiny pork bits and dried red chilies. Just what the doctor ordered for lobster.
The gaps in the stomach get filled with the best Singapore noodles I've met since Spadina's Szechuan heyday: These rice noodles are dry, without the usual excess of curry powder and barbecued pork, so that the dish is more vegetable-based and better balanced than usual.
Our server has suggested mushrooms and asparagus for veg. At first glance, this is a bad idea: The mushrooms are chanterelles (hardly Chinese) and who eats asparagus in late summer? Once again, Zin's chef outsmarted us: Meaty chanterelles make sweet love to tiny young asparagus spears, the two elements delicately bound with oyster sauce.
For afterplay, they bring citrus-scented rose petal tea, with tiny red petals afloat in it. The waiter says: "From the kitchen, to help you sleep." Sleep? One could eat this meal again, now. It's that alluring.