Another Susur experience: Would I thank this Luckee star?

Deciding on brunch in the competitive Toronto restaurant scene can be a daunting task.  Visions of eggs benedict and chicken and waffles fill my head like sugar plums on Christmas day. However, the recent addition of Luckee, Susur Lee’s latest project, has added Dim Sum to the trendy weekend choices. Located in the Soho hotel,  one can indulge on weekend dumplings as well as the wares of circulating trolley carts.

When I arrived, I was able to see Susur Lee quarterbacking his kitchen staff who were busy prepping and steaming the day’s fare. The menu includes both standard menu items and daily specials off the cart which circles around regularly. The set-up of the restaurant was a bit odd for dim sum.  The table we were at was not accessible by the cart, meaning we either had to get up or they had to carry things in.

Luckee offers a small number of Lee’s signature cocktails including the Burnt orange manhattan which I had a few weeks before when I went to Susur’s flagship  restaurant Lee.  Since I was driving home after, I simply grabbed a pot of Jasmine tea.  `

The waiter was pleasant and had a good handle on the menu.  He nodded happily with each order and emphatically insisted that we were missing out if we didn’t order the Shrimp Cheung Fun.   We complied.

The service started with an offering of three condiments;  green onion, mustard and hot sauce, soy sauce with sesame.

Luckee Condiments (Green onion, mustard/hot sauce and soy with sesame)
Luckee Condiments (Green onion, mustard/hot sauce and soy with sesame)

Instead of going into excruciating detail about each and every dumpling, I will summarize it as above average but expensive dim sum.  The offerings were a mix of traditional dumplings and some more innovative creations orchestrated by the flavour-bursting brain of Susur himself.  For example, the crispy vegetable spring roll, har gow (shrimp dumpling), xiao long bao (pork soup dumplings), chicken pot sticker were all a good reflection of the classics.  The Char Siu Bao…not much so.  I found them  a bit doughy and uninspired.

Good!

Vegetable Spring Rolls $6
Vegetable Spring Rolls $6 and Curry Shrimp Rolls $7
Har Gow (Shrimp Dumpling) $9
Har Gow (Shrimp Dumpling) $9
Xiao Long Bao (Soup Dumplings) $8
Xiao Long Bao (Soup Dumplings) $8
Chicken Pot Stickers $8
Chicken Pot Stickers $8

Not So Good

Char Siu Bao (Pork Buns) $9
Char Siu Bao (Pork Buns) $9

Regarding the more innovative dishes, it was well worth trusting the waiter’s recommendation of the Shrimp Cheung Fun $12.  The taste and texture of the roll itself accented with the soy juice was yin and yangtastic. It was a multi-dimensional taste experience and the best thing I ate all meal.

Shrimp Cheung Fun $12
Shrimp Cheung Fun $12

The savoury crispy rice donuts ($6) were filled with chicken, choy poh, chinese chives, jicama and shrimp.  Once again, flavours like jicama add a twist to traditional  dim sum in a successful and sexy manner.

Savoury Crispy Rice Donut $6 (came with 2 pieces)
Savoury Crispy Rice Donut $6 (came with 2 pieces)

The curry shrimp rolls ($7), pictured above, were another twist on the standard spring roll.  They were seasoned nicely and served with another dipping sauce indicative of Susur’s explosive flavour profile.

Dessert was also split into the traditional and not so traditional.   The former was a sesame custard ball that was good but not remarkable.  The latter was a mango passion fruit panna cotta with a great texture.  It was quite polarizing; the super sweet of the mango combined with the sour passion fruit wouldn’t be for everybody. It was a good few bites but wasn’t something that I would say was easy to devour.

Mango and Passionfruit Panna Cotta $7 and Sesame Balls $4
Mango and Passionfruit Panna Cotta $7 and Sesame Custard Balls $4

My Take

The reviews of this place from a service and value perspective are hit and miss.  Personally, I found the service to be excellent. The waiter was pleasant, efficient and recommended the best dish I ate.  The dishes, from the dumplings to the desserts, were a yin and yang of traditional and contemporary flavours.  I really can’t ask for much more. As for the incessant complaining about the price and the fact that five blocks up you can get the better dim sum for a third of the price, it gets tiring:

1. Susur Lee is a internationally recognized chef who has a restaurant in a suave hotel just outside of Toronto’s entertainment district.

2.  You can have a good experience in a place with a nice ambiance and a great drink list instead of a hole in the wall serving water and green tea.

3.  Toronto is a city where people will pay  $16 for a bowl of mushroom soup.  In fact, some of the most elevated prices in the GTA are during brunch.  Try and find bacon and eggs for less than $12.  That said,  what’s a few extra bucks for a dumpling?

I don’t want to sound bitter but it’s like complaining about a burger at Harbord room because there’s a McDonald’s up the street.  Let’s compare apples to apples.  Luckee is another option to the expensive brunch options. The dim sum is above average and the sauces/condiments are explosive,  punchy fun.   Yes, you will pay more than you will anywhere else along Spadina but it’s competitive among other Saturday and Sunday morning hot spots. For the haters…walk up the street.  Better yet, when pondering Beast’s $14 beastwich breakfast sandwich, say hi to Ronald while you order a $3 egg McMuffin.

Luckee on Urbanspoon

Dailo: Asian Foodie Flare Beside a Mexican Place in Little Italy

Toronto is a true cultural mosaic.  There used to be  streets and neighbourhoods which defined a specific cuisine.  Danforth is Greek, Spadina is Chinese and College West is both little Italy and  Portugal.  Over the years the barriers have crumbled and now there  are no boundaries when it comes to a opening a new restaurant.  I remember the now defunct Strata 241, which offered all day Italian pastries and pizza/pasta dinners, opening in the heart of Chinatown.  Now the tides have turned with Dailo, an Asian snack bar which has graced the border of Little Italy albeit beside La Carnita’s Mexican concept.

We showed up on Friday night with fingers crossed hoping to get a table.  There was space at the bar, so we were quickly seated and handed the bar and food menu.  We were quickly greeted by a young lady who looked fresh out of college.  She enthusiastically explained the menu, adhering to the common how to order off a small plate speech and  the importance of balance in Asian cuisine.  Drinkwise, we started with a trio of cocktails; the Manila Galleon, Tom Yum Booze and the 5 Spice Dark and Stormy. Watching her make the drinks was like watching a student trying to please her parents by getting an A on a science project.  She was meticulous in everything from setting up the glasses to laying out the necessary ingredients.  She tasted every drink before delivery and dumped one which was 90% complete while having a mild hissy fit. When they did arrive. we were treated to some of the more innovative cocktails I’ve tried this year.  The Tom Yum Booze gets an A, having all the hallmarks of Thai flavours including kaffir lime, lemongrass, ginger syrup and coconut water.   It was spiced with chilis resulting in a refreshing drink with a bite.  The addition of the five spice and some star anise to a traditional dark n stormy worked wonderfully. Another A.  A Manila Galleon was a name for a 16th century ship which hauled goods from Spain to Mexico to Manila and back again.  The ingredients, mainly tequila, ginger and lime pay homage to this. In addition,  rhubarb was a highly sought commodity by Marco Polo. As for the aperol…I have no idea why that’s in there.  Regardless, it’s another smart cocktail which definitely gets a passing grade.

Cocktails
Manila Galleon, Tom Yum Booze and Five Spice Dark n Stormy Cocktail ($14 each)

For the food order, we chose a number of dishes but our calculations didn’t compute with our server.  She suggested that our choices, although good, were somewhat out of balance and suggested  we supplement with another couple of dishes.  What was funny is I didn’t see this an any kind of salesmanship whatsoever.  I think it was a honest request to ensure we had a meal which had a yin and yang foundation.

In adherence with the small plate code of Toronto “the dishes arrived as they were prepared”. In most cases this means quick but the service was slower than average for most of the night.  The first two were the crispy octopus freshroll ($8) and the jellyfish salad ($6).   The use of daikon as a taco shell of sorts and the clever combination of pork and octopus in the freshroll was brilliant. The slaw was well seasoned with a good balance  of sweet and acid, bursting with asian flavours including sesame.

Octopus Roll $8 and Jellyfish Salad $6
Octopus Roll $8 and Jellyfish Salad $6

The next duo of dishes included fried watermelon ($9)  and duck tacos ($6). The first  (which I think is off the menu now) was a clever dish which used the melon’s sweetness and texture as a foundation along with a crispy batter and finished with asian flavours.   It was a great example of sweet meets salty.  The filling in the duck tacos was a little scarce so I was only able to get a hint of the flavours which couldn’t keep up with the overwhelming taste of the fried taco shell. It was like eating those free wontons you get when you spend more than $30 at your local Chinese takeout joint.

Watermelon $9 and Duck Taco $6
Watermelon $9 and Duck Taco $6

The third wave consisted of the silken tofu ($11) and the sweet and sour pork hocks ($13).  The tofu had a beautiful texture and was nicely complimented with the earthy flavours of seaweed and mushroom.  The pork hocks were both crispy and tender and seasoned with the familiar taste of a Chinese sweet and sour sauce laced with garlic.  It was a safe dish  but enjoyable nonetheless.

Silken Tofu $11and Sweet and Sour Pork Hock $13
Silken Tofu $11 and Sweet and Sour Pork Hock $13

The next arrival was the hakka brown dumplings ($9). Flavoured mainly with sesame a bit of heat, the consensus at the table was they were below average.  They were sloppy, mushy  and lacked any real consistency.

Hakka Brown Dumplings $9
Hakka Brown Dumplings $9

The first of the “bigger” dishes was the truffled fried rice ($19). I love egg and the use of edamame was a smart twist.  I was pleased to see the use of fresh black truffle instead of truffle oil and that it didn’t overwhelm the other complex flavours in the dish. It had a spicy kick very similar to that of the dumplings.

Truffle Rice
Truffle Fried  Rice $19

The final dish was the Singapore Curry Cauliflower ($16).  The purple potatoes were a great marriage for the cauliflower and made for an attractive presentation.  Flavourwise, it was a pretty decent curry.  We were halfway through it before they realized they forgot the rice and it soon arrived with an apology. Once again, it had the same signature heat of most of the other dishes.  I’m a fan of heat and although the flavours of the dishes were diverse, the level and type of heat wasn’t. It just became a bit monotonous after a while.

Cauliflower Curry $14
Singapore Cauliflower Curry $16

For dessert we ordered the Kasu White Sugar Cake ($8).  More like a rice pudding, it was served with a caramelized sauce and garnished with sea buckthorn. The quick consensus was that we didn’t like it.  The barkeep seemed to take it personally and reaffirmed its authenticity and asked what the issues were.  The sauce was undercaramelized and just didn’t have a clean and consistent sweetness.  The addition of small strands of lime leaf was strange and disjointed. In the end, although they may not have agreed, we weren’t charged for the dessert.

Sugar Cake $8
Kasu White Sugar Cake $8

My Take

Dailo is the long awaited restaurant from Nick Liu.  Even though it took forever to open, it immediately hit the waves of social media, receiving both accolades for a great vibe and criticism for overpriced Asian food.  I think it’s a little of both.  It’s loud and crowded but it’s fun.  I swear I even saw Richmond Station’s Carl Heinrich hanging out at one of the tables.  I can summarize this vibe in one word…passionate. Whether it was the hissy fit over an ill-prepared cocktail, a lesson in balancing food or a concession about a dessert we didn’t like, the staff had a swagger and fervor which can’t be taught although in general the speed of service was generally below average . The patrons also added to the zeal.  Beside us were a couple who took hundreds of pictures all over the restaurant (including over the shoulder of the chef at times)  while taking numerous shots of sake on tap in between.

The prices do push the boundaries of acceptability (eg. six cubes of watermelon for $9). If you’re looking for nothing more than some good Asian inspired eats the pundits are right; there are a million dumpling houses and eateries along Spadina, Dundas or College which can satisfy that craving for half the price. With that, however, you are likely to get service and an environment which is much less exciting. If you want a fun evening with innovative cocktails, decent food and suave clientele and are willing to pay for it, Dailo is a good choice.  Plus, if you go you’ll be cool.   Remember, the foodie doesn’t make the place..the place makes the foodie.

DaiLo on Urbanspoon

Montecito: A Memorable Montage Yet Mediocre Menu

Montecito sounds like a good movie. Starring renowned chef Jonathan Waxman and produced by movie legend Ivan Reitman, it’s a tale of Californian cuisine trying to find its place in the bustling entertainment district of Toronto. Whereas other restaurants in the area have opened and closed with varied amounts of fanfare, one might consider Montecito a big budget production.  It’s a massive, two floor establishment complete with a large bar and lounge are on top and abundant seating on the ground.  Pictures of Montecito, California are projected on the screens throughout the restaurant and snapshots  of Reitman’s accomplishments fill the walls on both floors.

The place was packed.  The clientele ranged from hipsters to business folk.  In fact, the upstairs lounge was filled with suits, ties and plenty of booze. We were quickly seated by a courteous hostess and our waiter showed up shortly after.  He was a little odd from the start in that he talked to us like he was reading a script, making sure he told us that the summering projections were that of Montecito in Southern California.  Otherwise, he was not very informative when it came to anything to do with the menu. The cocktail list was small and sleepy so I opted for a side launch weissbier, one of five draught beer available on the menu.

To start, I ordered chopped salad which consisted of beets, corn, red peppers, onions, blue cheese and boiled eggs for $12.  As a whole, it was very average although the ingredients were nicely proportioned. The blue cheese was divine and made the remainder of the dish a little less boring.

Chopped Salad $12
Chopped Salad $12

I also ordered meatballs served with polenta and tomato sugo for $19.  The triplets came out covered in shaved parmesan cheese.  The rich creamy polenta balanced nicely with the acid in the tomato sauce.  The meatball themselves were old school and nicely seasoned but in the end the price was as elevated as a movie ticket itself.

Meatballs, Polenta and Tomato Sugo $19
Meatballs, Polenta and Tomato Sugo $19

There are only 2 dishes on the menu which bear the initials of Chef Waxman; the chicken ($24) and the potatoes ($9).  For that reason, I saw them as a must. The chicken was crispy on the outside and moist in the middle, well seasoned was served with an herb salad and salsa verde.  It was good but I can’t say I closed my eyes and tasted Montecito while the salty breeze of the Pacific Ocean with every bite (despite the fact I continued to see images on the wall all night).  The JW potatoes were crispy and well seasoned but once again didn’t transport me to the judging table of Top Chef Masters.

JW Chicken $24 with Herb Garden and Salsa Verde
JW Chicken $24 with Herb Salad and Salsa Verde
JW Potatoes $9
JW Potatoes $9

The other entree we ordered for the table was halibut served with grilled romaine, tomatillo salsa and chermoula ($32).  I was a bit surprised to see roasted tomatoes scattered across the plate.  Maybe I’m out of the loop (I’ve seen it in other places) but I really don’t understand the combination of fish and tomatoes.  It doesn’t work for me.  Neither does mushy halibut or charred romaine.  There is not a thing I liked about this dish, including the $32 price tag.

Halibut, grilled romaine, tomatillo salsa, chermoula 32
Halibut, grilled romaine, tomatillo salsa, chermoula 32

For dessert, I bought into the Reitman propaganda and ordered the Stay Puft marshmallow basked alaska for $12.  This sickly sweet, ghastly combination of sponge cake, ice cream and torched meringue swam atop a chocolate sauce which tasted like Nestle Quik.  I didn’t (and couldn’t) finish it.

Stay Puft Marshmallow Baked Alaska $12
Stay Puft Marshmallow Baked Alaska $12

My Take

Initially, I was excited to experience food influenced by the highly touted Jonathan Waxman.  With the name Montecito, I expected fresh California fare.  Waxman’s contributions make  him more like a supporting actor by offering his famed chicken and potatoes to another wise lame script devoted more to an Ivan Reitman montage than fresh and innovative cuisine. Pictures of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito  as twins along with other memories of movies past (including a replica of the Stay Puft marshmallow man which gets passed around tables like a joint and seems to make drunk patrons ridiculously happy) seemed more important than focusing on great food in the present in an area of Toronto that desperately needs it.   To me, it’s nothing more than a glorified Moxie’s or Earl’s.

Ivan Reitman has had a very successful career as a movie producer.  Like anybody else with such a long history, as a producer and executive producer he has had some great movies and some which aren’t so good.  I quite enjoyed the groundbreaking zaniness of Animal House, the crude humour of Old School and EuroTrip and the smart jocosity of Evolution.   On the other hand, I could do without Kindergarten Cop, Space Jam or Stop! Or my Mom will Shoot. As far as his restaurant production goes, I’m forced to give Montecito a very emphatic two thumbs down.

Montecito on Urbanspoon

A Blind Date with THR & Co…Harbord Room’s Little Sister

Ever since I went to Harbord room, I’ve been interested in trying THR & Co, their sister restaurant. Eating out can be like a blind date. Sometimes, all you  had to go on is a picture of the menu and an online testimony or two.   I  showed up early given I was on another dinner mission  in an attempt to avoid outgoing Toronto traffic.  As a result of this, I was offered  a seat on the comfy side of the bar (there are four or 5 padded stools instead of the regular ones which graced the remaining perimeter.  One of the first surprises was the limited bar menu.  My tainted recollection of Harbord Room (which involved a few drinks with the Food Network’s Kevin Brauch) was an innovative and expansive cocktail menu so I was a little surprised to see a limited selection here.  In fact, another gentleman came in and ordered an amaretto and after a 5 minute search concluded they didn’t have any. Of the four, yes four cocktails, I ordered The Pisco Sour (pisco, pear, egg white, ginger and sage syrup and fresh lemon).  She was certainly playful but was anything but sour. In the end, I was impartial.  She was neither naughty or nice.

Cocktail $13
Pisco Sour $13

For the appetizer, I went with the compressed carrot salad for $13.  She was one of the prettier salads I’ve been served. The  had carrots which were roasted, pickled and cut into attractive ribbons. The apple vinaigrette was subtle but appropriate.  The sunflower granola was less appealing and a little abundant.  All in all, she looked better than she tasted (hmm…that sounds wrong)  but was a very acceptable starter.

Compressed Carrot Salad $13
Compressed Carrot Salad $13

For the main I ordered the Oxtail Bucatini for $21. Wow, she had really small…..pasta.  I recently complained about the price of the pasta at SPQR in San Francisco but that was a value compared to this portion.  Although the pasta itself was delicious and nicely cooked the oxtail was scarce and there was no unity in the sauce.  Instead of a marriage of  flavours, it was more  like a breakup.

Bucatoni with Oxtail Ragu
Bucatini with Oxtail Ragu $21

For a side, I ordered marinated mushrooms which was served with pickled onions, fresh bay and salsa verde.  I enjoyed this dish. Although a little greasy, the unlikely combination of ingredients really worked. I was surprised by the potpourri of mushrooms which  filled the bowl. She would have been a perfect match with the rib eye steak on the menu.

Marinated Mushrooms $7
Marinated Mushrooms $7

None of the desserts appealed to me so I juts decided to end the date and get the hell home.

My Take

Harbord room is like a hot date. It has one the best burgers in Toronto and an extravagant bar menu.  On the other hand, THR & Co is luke warm. I was a little disappointed by the small (although firm) pasta and rather dismal cocktail list.  The carrot salad was stunning and almost as delicious. The pasta was saved somewhat by a nice side of marinated mushrooms.  If Harbord Room and THR & Co are in fact sisters, the latter is the one that probably doesn’t get a date.  She has a really nice salad though.

THR & Co. on Urbanspoon