Canada remains ever vigilant against American invasion at Fort George, near Niagara Falls.
People often ask me before I go to another big city if I plan to eat at [INSERT EXPENSIVE TASTING MENU PLACE HERE]. The answer is almost always no, for two reasons: one, I feel like I should be true to my school and spend those bucks on the people I cover in Chicago, not go chasing the shiny thing in New York. But two, I don’t feel a burning need to go eat the food of guys in New York who’ve staged at Alinea and Mugarritz and basically have the same background and outlook on international modern food as plenty of chefs here. If I’m going somewhere different, I want to eat what’s really native to and reflective of that area. Barney Greengrass means New York to me more than Eleven Madison Park does, so that’s what I want to go have.
Up to a point, anyway. So for Toronto, the most interesting thing to try for me was Chinese food; 20 years ago, before so many Hong Kong Chinese emigrated to Canada, I went to a place in Toronto’s urban Chinatown, but that’s now dwarfed by the area out in Markham and Richmond Hill, where hundreds of import businesses are served by dozens of Chinese restaurants in strip malls. But for Montreal—if there’s such a thing as Quebecois food, it’s at top restaurants like Joe Beef and Au Pied de Cochon, so I did what I never do and got two high-end reservations back to back at those two places (actually Liverpool House, Joe Beef’s other concept, though as far as I could tell the concept is “Exactly like Joe Beef two doors away”).
Montreal will be in part 2, Toronto in this post. But first—we had to drive there. And driving toward great food up through the back end of Ontario is a somewhat dispiriting experience, punctuated by rest stops whose choices are almost Stalinistically identical (Tim Hortons, KFC, Taco Bell, a convenience store called Marché). From there it got culinarily worse, as we went to Niagara Falls, the town of which is a nightmare of alleged fun attractions (wax museums! Dino mini-golf!) which even the kids couldn’t put behind them fast enough. More attractive for certain was Niagara-On-The-Lake, but it’s a typical weekenders’ quaint little shopping and eating town, take Napa and replace all the wine geegaws with maple syrup gewgaws. We had lunch and walked around and shopped a little, and we were done.
Finally, Toronto in time for dinner. Online I found a noodles joint called Chinese Traditional Bun that sounded promisingly funky, down some steps into a ratty little room, but with ladies making food right by the entrance. They looked at us like we had to be lost, but we convinced them we weren’t and sat down. We had pretty good xiao long bao, soup dumplings—well, Liam had most of them:
There was also this interesting, sandwich-like thing with lamb in it. It was good, and very unusual— I wonder if it’s a Chinese thing or was invented in Toronto and has no antecedent back home to speak of. [UPDATE: see tweets at bottom.]
But the best thing was dan dan mien, with housemade noodles (below). Scissors were provided to cut them as you ate. I also ordered something that said it was a lamb stew with Chinese bread in it. I don’t know what Chinese bread is, there were lots of little pieces of what looked like pasta in an enormous, fairly flavorless bowl of weird lamb cuts. Sometimes the price of experimenting on something new turns out to be that you have to waste a huge bowl of something in front of the people who made it, alas.
On the way there we had spotted a tiny window where a guy offered lamb skewers, so on our way back we ordered the minimum order of four and watched as the guy took them out of a home freezer, rolled them in cookie sheets covered with spices, and grilled them by hand over an electric grill. This would have been more novel if I hadn’t had basically the same thing in Chicago a few weeks earlier at the skewer place in the Richland food court next to the Chinatown Square mall, but it was cool, nevertheless, to buy street food like this on the teeming streets of Chinatown.
We wanted to get to Montreal early in the week so as not to have all the driving back at the very end, so our last stop in Toronto for the time being was hitting a place in Markham for breakfast dim sum on the way out of town. We’d actually stayed in Markham, 20 years ago, when it was farm country and the TV series of Anne of Green Gables had been shot nearby (never mind that it’s set in P.E.I.) Now it was a busy suburban area loaded, absolutely packed, with strip malls of Chinese-oriented shops.
I knew there was a knockoff of Taiwan’s famous Din Tai Fung nearby, but an article in The Globe & Mail steered me to a place they said was both better and less likely to be packed, 369 Shanghai Dim Sum. Indeed, at 11 we were the second table there, though it filled up fast. First choice was xiao long bao… which were the best I’ve ever had. I’m a little leery of saying that, since there has been a lot of xiao long bao obsessiveness online, so I didn’t haul out the micrometer to measure the wrapper. I’ll just say: most delicate wrapper, best tasting soup, you can’t argue with that.
Most of the other things we had evidenced similarly quality, from shrimp dumplings to pastries filled with pork. At one point I saw something interesting on a nearby table, a bao with kind of a ridged top, something like a croissant, and quietly asked the waitress what it was, not wanting to seem intrusive toward the other table. “This?” she said loudly, sticking her finger right into the middle of their plates. I said yes and she explained that it was a snail. Or snails. I couldn’t tell if she meant it was just shaped like a snail shell, or actually had snails in it. I decided not to inflict an order of those on the family, but I still wonder.
* * *
Renee with the menus at John’s Chinese BBQ.
Coming back after a few days in Montreal I planned another Chinese-palooza with my friend Renee Suen, who writes for Toronto Life. As someone who often guides other journalists, radio hosts, etc. to places in Chicago, I was delighted when I told her that we had gone to 369 Shanghai Dim Sum based on the Globe & Mail piece by Chris Nuttall-Smith— and she replied “Yeah, I took Chris there.”
We planned to meet for more dim sum the next day, so the night before we tried something else we don’t have in Chicago— we went to a Portuguese grilled chicken and meats place called Piri-Piri. To be honest, it wasn’t that different from all the South American grilled meats places we have, but it was likable enough.
You have not tasted the power of my Dragon Fu-sion!
Since we’d had Northern dim sum, Renee wanted us to try Southern dim sum too, and she directed us to a place called Dragon Boat Fusion Cuisine, which was packed and barely able to contain the crowds that hovered around the host stand and which she had to beat back out of the dining room regularly. We waited a half hour but finally sat, and it was worth it. Things maybe weren’t as delicate as at 369, which being Northern-style uses a different kind of wheat wrapper anyway, but they were well-made and the fillings were a cut above any that I’ve had here, from something as basic as pork in an egg white wrap to the BBQ pork bao and this cool-looking thing you dipped in mustard and plum sauce:
BBQ pork pastries.
Yes, there were children deciding what to order.
We were full but not done; Renee wanted us to try one of her favorite dishes, something called “King of King’s Pork” at a Hong Kong BBQ place, John’s Chinese BBQ. It’s a hunk of meat somewhere in the vicinity of pork belly, double-glazed in a honey sauce. And it’s awesome, the ultimate meat candy.
My delight in it was slightly diminished by the display in the foyer as you enter the restaurant: an assortment of shark fin skeletons, a reminder that this is the real Chinese cuisine, eating endangered species to this day in north America. China really has set up shop in this corner of Canada, on a scale well beyond the ability of food writers or much of anyone else to fully comprehend.
At Fort George we saw them fire this…
In honor of these guys, Canadian paratroopers who dropped on and right after D-Day.
ADDENDUM: from a couple of friends via Twitter:
— JimTheBeerGuy (@JimTheBeerGuy) September 4, 2014
— Dan Schleifer (@dschleifer) September 4, 2014