Spit or swallow? Dinner at Lai Wah Heen
Spit or swallow? How about swallow spit? Because that was the climax (teehee!) to our glorious dinner at Lai Wah Heen. Don't worry, I'll explain later.
One of the glories of living in Toronto is the availability of a mouthwatering variety of cuisines from around the world. Of the many ethnic groups that have altered this city's culture and palate, perhaps none has had a stronger influence of late than the Chinese. With six Chinatowns in the Greater Toronto Area, Toronto offers fantastic access to many kinds of Chinese food. Probably because it is so easy to duck into small take-out places for noodles or congee, we rarely get a chance to enjoy upscale Chinese food. That's why it was such a treat to visit Lai Wah Heen with a group of friends.
Lai Wah Heen means "luxurious meeting place," and our friend and resident Chinese food expert, Cedric, who came to Canada from Hong Kong, made sure the restaurant lived up to its name. Having left our meal in his hands, we spent the first minutes of our visit gawking at the menu while Cedric chatted in hushed Cantonese to our server, and two other friends from mainland China, Snow and Jimmy, advised Cedric of their personal favourites.
The first dish to appear was a whole Peking duck, head attached, which the servers presented to us in all its burnished glory and then carved into succulent pieces served moo shu-style on warmed wheat crepes with finely chopped scallions and Hoisin sauce. The contrast of the crackling skin with the tender meat and fat, combined with the warmth of the crepe and slight sweetness of the sauce was wonderful.
Shark fin soup followed, with toothsome strands of fin swimming in a fragrant bowl of rich, meaty chicken and Jinhua broth laced with large chunks of Alaskan king crab. I knew shark fins were treasured by the Chinese, partly for their health properties and partly for their gelatinous texture (one that seems more popular in Asian countries than in western ones, although I quite liked it), but I was unaware of the extensive preparation involved, including extended simmering and cleaning. The broth for this soup was spectacular. Cedric has always maintained that the broth made from Jinhua ham -- a cured ham that has been produced for at least 1200 years -- is exceptional, and he is right.
The magnificent duck reappeared, this time diced and stir-fried, topped with crispy fried noodles and wrapped in lettuce leaves. This dish is extraordinary: sensations of hot and cold and soft and crunchy play off each other, and the lettuce perfectly tempers the richness of fatty duck. If you enjoy Thai larb, this is the dish for you.
Though the presentation was simple, it was always elegant, a fact due largely to the skill and deft touch of the restaurant's wait staff. Throughout the meal, the service was attentive yet unobtrusive, with no tea glass going empty. Throughout the meal we drank Dragon Well tea, which I've heard is the "Tiffany" of green teas. The non-tea-drinkers had Moutai wine, a sweet clear liquor distilled from wheat and sorghum that packs a 53% alcohol punch. It reminded us of grappa, but whereas grappa tends to be a digestive sipped from small glasses after a large meal, Moutai is drunk throughout the meal in great quantities -- with individual men throwing back half a bottle in an evening. Jimmy and Cedric, the Chinese men at the table, call it a "good time drink." You know it's a party when the Moutai comes out! We were comparatively restrained.
The braised abalone served on a bed of Chinese greens with oyster sauce was eye-opening. Until that moment, I'd never eaten oyster sauce that hadn't come from a bottle. This oyster sauce had none of the almost overbearing saltiness I've come to expect; this was light and fragrant, a real compliment to the firm, meaty texture of the abalone.
Before we bade farewell to the duck, there was yet another encore. This time it was served alongside a plate of other Chinese meats, including juicy chicken and a honey-glazed barbecue pork that had subtle aromatic flavours and a hint of sweetness.
This was soon followed by a combination of wok-fried, julienned steak, wok-fried, thinly-sliced conch, and deep fried sea bass with a sweet and sour sauce. This was the only weak link in this meal. The steak was good, but not special. The conch was especially disappointing to one of our Chinese guests, who said that it was too tough and did not compare to a similar dish she ate in Shanghai last year. As for the sea bass, well, it was good -- it was fried perfectly, and the sweet and sour sauce was well balanced -- but it just wasn't in any way special, especially when served alongside steamed broccoli.
The one part of this course that stood out was a magnificent deep fried sticky rice, loaded with veggies and flavorful nuggets of aromatic Chinese sausage. It's hard to understate how superb this rice tasted, but we all greedily devoured it, and I know that I would have happily eaten more.
One of the reasons we were so eager to eat at Lai Wah Heen is that it is one of the few Chinese restaurants in Toronto that serves rare specialties like shark fin soup, abalone, and, last but not least, bird's nest soup. The nest in question is made from the hardened saliva of the cavern-dwelling swiftlet swallow -- hence the juvenile humour. Because of the rarity of the nests, the difficulty in retrieving them, and their popularity as a food item due to their reputed aphrodisiacal and longevity enhancing effects, this dessert soup is the most expensive food item I've ever eaten. Soup for six people came to nearly five hundred Canadian dollars.
How was "Imperial swallow's nest soup?" Well, after being double-boiled in a light syrup, the nest takes on a gelatinous, slippery texture, and is then served in a powerfully sweet broth with a noticeable ginger taste. I didn't especially enjoy its texture, which I would describe as somewhat mushy. It was interesting and unique, sure, but that still leaves room for disappointment, doesn't it? After all the research I've done about bird's nest soup, I have yet to find someone who raves about this soup for its taste, which is first and foremost why I eat anything.
Research subsequent to our meal has pointed us towards some troubling facts about both the shark fin and swallow's nest trades. It appears that the demand for shark's fin has led to some truly horrific practices in the shark fin trade, as well as a rapid decline in the global shark population. Similar issues have begun to emerge in Thailand over the harvesting of swallows' nests. Had we been aware of the issues beforehand, I think we would have ordered differently.
Lai Wah Heen is a sublime dining experience. The food is skilfully crafted and the service rivals that found at the best formal French restaurants. I'm especially keen to return for dim sum, which the New York Times has described as "maybe the best in North America." Most of all, I'm grateful to have finally had the opportunity to sample a series of Chinese delicacies that had previously been unavailable to me. The chance to open one's palate to new flavours is the best part of living in Toronto, and Lai Wah Heen is a special part of that.