Whoa. I knew that Mum’s five-day stay was a protracted length for her standards but I hardly knew what it would all entail! On the first day, I thought all of my plans had gone down the tube with Mum’s rejection of Halal, Bulgogi Brothers turning out to be Korean BBQ (no, thank you), and PF Chang’s not open yet. But things kind of fell in place and we sampled widely across the city and Asian cuisines. Totally fun stuff.
Graceful Vegetarian Restaurant
A few months ago, I heard that the Market Village/Pacific Mall corner will be drastically different in coming years when a fancy new condo/retail complex is built on the spot. And amidst the discussion, or so I recall, I learned about Graceful Vegetarian Restaurant tucked in the back of Market Village where some really delicious vegetarian dim sum can be gotten. Given that it seems Graceful has a limited life, its name is similar to mum’s and we usually go for a round of dim sum, those seemed like solid reasons to give the place a try!
We went on the first of July, a holiday Sunday and the place was not packed to the gills like many other traditional Chinese restaurants offering dim sum were. I don’t know what it was about the size of the restaurant or the cuisine offered but the feel reminded me of the last vegetarian Chinese restaurant we went to, Gourmet Vegetarian. Mum started off the ordering and it included the fried egg tofu (because she knows I love tofu), the unique sounding pancake served with curry (roti?), pan-fried Korean buns, and the pea shoot dumplings. She was reluctant to order siu mai which is the vegetarian approximation of the fatty and savoury dish but I wanted something “familiar”. Lil Sis added the order of rice rolls.
As the first dishes arrived we were vaguely disappointed. Mum already rued ordering the wrong items and that everything was deep fried or pan-fried and soaking in oil. I love tofu and especially egg tofu but I have ready access to it and did not need a heavy-handed and unattractively presented version. The “pancake” arrived at the same time and while we hoped it would be pan-fried, like the way a lovely roti would have been, it had bubbles like it had been dropped into a deep fryer. The curry was very blah, Chinese-style and bland. When the Korean buns came, I thought things were turning around, but Mum lamented that it was also greasy from being pan-fried (which I had chosen over steamed). I liked the buns: the pastry was not as fluffy as Chinese steam buns and tasted a little sweet and nutty. I liked the vegetarian mixture inside that tasted a little odd to Lil Sis but I identify it a bit like the taste of some Italian seasoning, for lack of a better description.
Then the “siu mai” arrived and I was gleeful. They were really sticky and approximated some kind of meat flavour. The filling was not springy like meat would be but a great complex mixture from preserved tofu (or so Mum identified), mushroom and whatever else. As the dumplings cooled a little, they held their shape a little better.
Then we were back to regular old dim sum staples. The pea shoot dumplings were nice looking but Lil Sis also found the wrapper really sticky while I thought the wrapper was par for the course because I don’t generally like the glutinous wrapper. The pea shoot mixture was really bland. The last dish, fried dough sticks wrapper in rice roll, was kind of brilliant in colour but in the wrong way. The rice roll was glistening in oil and even I found the dough sticks were a little too crispy and especially so for the dish. The dough sticks had been fried alone first and then wrapped in rice rolls and baked lending the severe crispness.
We ordered somewhat unwisely in regards to three of the six dishes we had but they are also really heavy handed with the oil and frying.
After bombing out on one dessert spot recommendation (Full House), I pointed us in the direction of a local (i.e., somewhere in Vaughan-Thornhill-Richmond Hill region) Yoghurty’s and hoped they would accept my Dealfind voucher pulled up on my phone. They did! Mum hadn’t been to a Pinkberry/Red Mango/Qoola style shop before and was eager to sample the flavours before committing. I like that the shop did not leave sample containers for potential customers to grab and sample to their appetites’ content (instead, the cashier gave out containers) as that leads to decreased sales, nuisance from non-customers dashing around for their umpteenth sample, and increased mess at the machines as they try to maximize frozen yogurt dispensed to a thimble-sized container. For all I know, more shops that allowed unlimited sampling have also clamped down these days. I certainly hope so.
The fun part of Yoghurty’s is the flavours which that day included vanilla, espresso, chocolate hazelnut, butter pecan, tart honey, Greek yogurt, taro, green tea, grapefruit sorbet, strawberry and a few more, in machines that also dispensed a twist that blended each of the above in pairs of flavours. I used an $5 introductory offer for Dealfind to buy the $10 voucher from Yoghurty’s and we could mostly freely dispense and create two yogurt cups. Lil Sis made the chocolatey cup and I made sure we sprinkled Almond Roca and drizzled Ghirardelli caramel syrup. Meanwhile, I created the fruit cup with the tart honey, Greek yogurt, strawberry and grapefruit where the latter tasted a little chemically and good thing I only got a dollop. On a holiday Sunday, it was a really fun and light-tasting way to cap off the evening.
I was a little ho-hum about going to Congee Queen again (my third time) although it is the congee spot that I prefer above all because it is bright, modern and clean. And since I was around immediate family, I could push to get the ultra-risky six-grains congee that I spotted long ago and have wanted to try ever since. We put in an order for the congee (small size), rice rolls and dough sticks and said we would order more, treating the place like a dim sum restaurant! After lunch from the day before, we were loathed to order more fried food but you just have to have dough sticks with congee!!
When the congee arrived, I almost stopped the server to send it back because it didn’t look right. Why were there mushrooms? And where were the grains? Well, it does say “assorted fungus” in the name and the promo photograph obviously was a little staged to make the congee much more grain-enriched. The way it is actually served, it is not a risky congee order in the least. When conferring with Mum before ordering if it would taste good, she made a face and shook her head but she does defer to me when we are out, sometimes. It was tasty though! The grains were nutty and chewy and it was a light but delicious congee. I also liked the chicken and mushroom rice rolls which very fortunately were not laced with cilantro. I delighted over the tender pieces of chicken which Lil Sis pointed out is the result of cornstarch and I say bring it on–it’s not like it was powdery.
As we munched on the first 2.5 dishes, Mum and I decided to order a noodle dish and other than really premium creations that involved eel, smoked salmon and the like, everything else didn’t interest me. Mum did hit on one of my favourites of the regular lot ordering the satay chicken rice noodle since I like a “wet-fried” as opposed to “dry-fried” rice noodle dish while the latter with beef is one of the the most popular Cantonese dishes. It was a big dish and as we dug in, Mum placed an order for vegetables. I wanted to stop her but she ordered garlic pea shoots and that is because I’m wary about pricing for vegetables–the premium pea shoot dish advertised and sprinkled with dried scallop was $15.99. We would undoubtably be overpaying for a common vegetable we can get in Toronto (but not in Halifax where Mum resides). The satay chicken dish was greasy and that made the fresh rice noodles separate and not stick. I thought the noodles tasted a little funny (too fresh?!) and only ate chicken and peppers in my second serving.
I loved the pea shoots because they were also crazy greasy–too greasy. All the vegetables were stir-fried to consistent and desired tenderness. I was right because this mound of pea shoots (which was impressively piled high) cost $12.99 when the grocer’s price is, what, $3?
Chinese Halal Restaurant
I reminded Mum how I wanted to try the Chinese Halal Restaurant next time she’s in town when we were at the Vietnamese restaurant across the hall last time she was here. But with the 30+ degree weather in Toronto these days and lamb is a “heaty” food, she was really afraid we would react badly… like start having nosebleeds! I highly doubted that would occur and when Big Uncle told us he went to a Halal restaurant at Sheppard and Brimley recently, Mum was swayed to believe we would be just fine having lamb.
The restaurant is more modern than I expected with an adorable mural painted in the foyer depicting the animals to be found in the region: horses (for transportation) and lambs and cattle as livestock. Mum and I had a great deal of fun looking at the menu and selecting six dishes. Lil Sis abstained from making any decisions after seeing a picture of rank-looking green-hued lamb tripe.
Mum’s jellyfish and my cumin beef arrived first. It’s kind of funny and noticeable how mum tries to order jellyfish when it’s on the menu while I would normally consider it “banquet food” or something that comes with a set dinner for a smaller party. The jellyfish was swimming in chili oil and thus very spicy and could share its spiciness with our neutral dishes. And the jellyfish was not the best quality, thin and flakey. The cumin beef was good, well marinated and spiced and dry.
Our three barbecue lamb skewers arrived on long metal rods and I wanted to get my meat off them before I poked someone or made it flip off my table. The lamb was as good as advertised and my favourite of the evening. I also wanted to show Mum and Lil Sis the northern China dish of shredded potato and it turned out to be a great starch for our dishes as we did not order rice.
The lamb noodle soup was the last to arrive and capped off the list that I thought fairly well represented a Halal meal. I was really nervous about the lamb noodle soup being stinky but that was not the problem. The thick handmade noodles were undercooked or of such a formulation it was really doughy and it started to shed into the broth and make it even more milky looking. The lamb was a little bland but not smelly and we were tossing cumin beef and jelly fish to add flavour.
Was my second Chinese dessert recommendation going to be a bust as well? After Halal dinner, we walked across the plaza at Finch and Leslie and found 31 Kitchen which I noted “looks fancy” from the exterior signage. We stepped in and the place was full with a short queue for seats which gave us ample time to figure out what to eat. The menu displayed on the window showed very few desserts making me wonder what possessed some reviewers to say such kind things. Still, we figured out what we might order from the 10 items listed. As we waited for a seat, we realized the dessert menu was in fact extensive and wonderous and I took pictures to remember it by. The interior was cool and updated Hong Kong style cafe with some inventive lighting. It was a bit young there (and increasingly so as the night would wear on) but the service, staff and atmosphere is reminiscent of old school and deferential enough during their rush that older people need not feel out of their element.
We couldn’t help it and ordered a small appetizer although we had just eaten. The rice noodle “nest” spring rolls were a nice crispy bite and took just a little while in coming. Thank goodness they abided by our request to serve the desserts after (or perhaps they were too busy to prepare them anyhow) because we ate the spring rolls and cleaned our palates before desserts arrived. There were so many desserts to choose from that could please everyone that we each got one.
Mum was jonesing for some sweet almond dessert and for a while considered ordering it with hasma. She gave up on the idea in case hasma was not served enough and it would be a dealbreaker. Then Lil Sis thought she would get a hasma dessert but she looked it up on her Blackberry and after we got over our shock and awe about what it is, she ordered a mixed fruit sago and ice cream dessert. A big dish but hugely satisfying. Mum ordered a plain and tasty sweet almond dessert soup (not pictured) . And I went with a Chef’s Recommendation (one of many) and got the chocolate “soup balls” (湯丸) in coconut milk. I love black sesame “soup balls” very much and chocolate was something different as was also the coconut milk “soup”.
I had several sips of creamy and fragrant coconut milk before venturing into my first chocolate ball that looked like a giant Cocoa Puff. The glutinous rice exterior was a little chewy and lightly cocoa flavoured and, although I should have expected it, there was a chocolate fudge center and I let it melt over my tongue and mix with coconut milk. I thought it was a brilliant fusion Hong Kong dessert.
Yang’s Fine Chinese Cuisine
We were late getting out for lunch and it seemed that we might not make it in time for ramen lunch in Markham so Mum suggested a dim sum lunch. But didn’t we have it just a couple of days ago? But wasn’t it kind of (really) disappointing? I don’t know the area and was loathed to return to Chili Secrets (for like the fourth time) or to Regal which has a senior’s discount and feels pokey. Yelp told me that the top three restaurants in Richmond Hill are Yang’s, Ambassador and Dragon Boat Fusion. Ambassador, I seem to recall, has been around for a long time and is a proper place for banquets and Dragon Boat sounds too new-fangled located in that big-box restaurant “plaza” at Highway 7 and Woodbine. Yang’s had the highest Urbanspoon rating and was really close insofar as suburbs go.
We were immediately impressed with the establishment from the nice place settings to the maitre ‘d actually wearing a well-fitting suit to the separation of the dining room from vulgarities like a cashier and bar counter. We took our time ordering and, I think, selected a good sample of innovative and traditional dim sum dishes. Lil Sis and I made our usual jokes while we tried to order and we honestly wondered how much the meal would cost. (Answer: small dishes were $3, medium dishes $4, large $5, extra-large $7.20)
The last minute addition of Australian abalone chicken pie was the first to arrive. It was an extra-large dish! The pastry was buttery and sweet and the filling was subtle in order to let the chicken, mushroom, and abalone mixture show through. The rice roll was a premium creation with sea scallop and XO sauce and the scallop was generous, fresh and well prepared. The radish cake, I found to be quite blah at the time but when I had them at leftovers, I then realized how good it was. It was still moist and the daikon mixture, which could be offensive to some, was authentic. Lil Sis says that I’ve been spoiled by Mum’s homemade radish cake from years ago that were loaded with mushroom and Chinese sausage. Perhaps.
The steamed barbecue pork buns (with the premium added ingredient of dried scallop) were very average. We were unanimous that the bun was not great and I didn’t like the filling too much either, not popping too much in flavour. The sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaf was tasty but I inherently like the dish. It was not heavy-handed, not greasy and heavy.
I loved their siu mai. I prefer it to the ubiquitous shrimp dumplings “har gow” but they are often so average. The pork filling of the siu mai was lean and it was a satisfying hunk of pork and fresh shrimp. Mum happily munched away on her beef tendon au jus. Nice name, though.
The crowning glory, for me, was the Golden Fried Sesame Balls Stuffed with Soft Custard. By “soft custard” they mean that coconut egg filling that I discovered of late in steamed buns but this time it came in a sesame ball. The sesame ball filling is often red bean paste (yech) and less frequently it is black sesame (yum!). This dish combined my favourite Chinese desserts in one fragrant toasted sesame covered glutinous ball with rich eggy filling! Mum and Lil Sis made way for me and I ate two of the balls!
When we pulled into Niwatei, it was only then I remembered the comedy of errors that occurred last time Mum visited. We pulled up to the J-Town complex housing Niwatei and several other Japanese establishments but I was afraid that our appetites were bigger than the offering of a ramen joint and they don’t serve sushi that Mum wanted. We had arrived at Niwatei after pulling up to a Chinese steakhouse that did not look promising but Niwatei not offering sushi was swaying me back towards the steakhouse. We were driving in circles, talking in circles and shouting good-naturedly about where to go to eat! That’s a good kind of argument.
Mum remembered from her last visit that I had a Groupon to Niwatei and we planned our meals and arrived to this point of her trip and overeating to just want a simple meal. We ordered one ramen set in order to get some gyoza to share and a green tea ice cream for Lil Sis. After that, we sampled the broths widely from Lil Sis’ light fish-based shio to Mum’s pork bone tonkatsu to my rich miso broth. The noodles were plentiful and springy. There was not a great deal of differentiation amongst the ingredients with each soup–shio and miso had the same while instead of corn and bean sprouts. The tonkatsu had pickled ginger to cut the pork bone “stench”, Mum explained.
What is a visit without a Korean mean? By yesterday night at the ramen meal, Mum observed that (1) we had noodles at every meal by then (Taiwanese, Halal, Japanese) and (2) we had barely eaten any rice. Thus Lil Sis continued and got Korean noodles while Mum and I got dishes with rice. Our Toronto cousins, learning we like Korean food very much, wrote us a list and that guided us to Ka Chi which had the note “V. Cheap” next to it.
After some really great meals in the Korean area of North York, I didn’t think it was so very cheap at Ka Chi and shrugged and figured it was the Downtown Mark-Up that one should expect. Nevertheless, it was reasonably priced for what you get! Lil Sis ordered the Korean noodle soup with seafood on a swelteringly humid day and wished she got cold noodles. I got pork bone soup partly to show Mum the style and Mum got a beef bulgogi bibimbap.
My pork bone soup was plentiful with meat that fell off the bone easily and I could share the plenty. I love the mung sprouts they used with the slightly crunch beans. I tried the bibimbap at the time and as a leftover and it was pretty good with fresh ingredients and a light bulgogi flavour infusing to all the ingredients from the beef.
The BFF has a ritual of going for Ethiopian food in the Annex area and then wandering down to Dolce and I nearly joined her and her hubby once but did not manage to. So Korean was also in the area and we capped off the Korean meal with gelato at the bustling Dolce Gelato E Cafe. It was easiest to decide to get three flavours, a large. Then to decide the flavours….
Mum threw in the suggestion to get mint so it was set, Lil Sis seemed to favour a traditional gelato flavour like “Dolce Rocher” (chocolate hazelnut) and I picked a mild pistachio because–it seems to me–it pleases Asian palates. The “large” container looked dinky but then when you see how they paddled (scooped) gelato in and it is overflowing, it was hilarious and turns out to be a satisfying quantity. All three were creamy and true to advertised flavour.
They sell tubs of gelato where you can pick two or three flavours and we observed a family with several small children settle in next to us with a tub. It was a great amount of gelato even for that number of people and we wondered if we were really gypped and could have gotten that deal instead. And I was mildly horrified as all the family dug into the same tub with their spoons. I guess one member of the family realized it was not a good idea to leave their spittle in the container with what they could not finish and went to the counter to ask for the mini sized containers and that is when the staff realized the family was attempting to eat a to-go tub on the premise while it was (perhaps clearly) marked to be take out only and no tax had been charged. Sigh, that was awkward.
I wanted first of all for Mum to experience the hustle and bustle of the PATH in full swing but I think it was lost on her. Then the two things I wanted her to try most was my favourite Design-Your-Own salad from Druxy’s and Toronto food court-style Chinese food from Szechuan Express. But no food hall in the PATH has both those establishments and Lil Sis and Mum were running late. All I did was take them to the TD Centre food all. It is new and pretty big and has neither Druxy’s nor Szechuan. It does, however, have an iQ which has extra roped off area to hold their lunch queue. What is the deal with this place?
I ordered a hot box and growled that several options were off the table for me because they included cilantro and lime vinaigrette. The marathon sounded so ho-hum and I left Lil Sis to wait amongst the suits to pick up some other food. “What, we’re only getting one thing here?!” and enduring the queue for it? Yes, and thank goodness for that.
Lil Sis brought the $10 long and tall box to the table and opened it up. I asked, “Where is the rest?” For the food did not come up to but a quarter of the height of the long box. I suppose you could be assured not to lose your precious food while eating out of such a large container. It was a nice mixture of flavours and the kind of salad I want to make at home and bring to work for lunch. The ingredients like brown rice, chickpeas, lentils and tuna make you feel satiated but Lil Sis observed that everything in the box came from a can/jar (tuna, sundried tomatoes, chickpeas, yogurt dressing) or was prepared on enmasse and very cheap (brown rice and lentils). The only fresh ingredient was cucumber. And the box wasn’t particularly hot. Well, that was an experiment to see what the suits are lining up for every day!
While Mum lined up for subpar udon soup noodles at Made in Teriyaki, I went next door to order a Hero burger, a chain I have not yet tried but has 31 locations in GTA! I just got a Signature burger and no fries because of the other food we had. It was an expensive lunch, $30 of fast food! But, experiences and time with family, etc.
This was a $7 burger but the patty was thick and moist and the creamy sauce was lubricating and tasty. I thought it was the best part of lunch.
Mum went to her mum’s birthday dinner at the nursing home and that started too early and at the far end of town for me to get there after work. Lil Sis and I were instructed to wait for Mum in the Yonge and Finch area because she knew how to get their and together we would head back downtown to my place. Yonge and Finch is packed with Korean restaurants and I’ve tried many of them with little desire to have two back-to-back meals. There were chicken wing joints at every corner (Puck ‘n’ Wings, Crazy Wings, Wing Machine) but that defied my mostly-Asian meals week with Mum’s visit. So after passing on Dumpling King-nervous about going in without a real, authentic Chinese-speaker in tow-we went around the corner to Pastel that was a far more comfortable place to relax.
We decided to split a savoury crepe followed by a dessert crepe. I was boring and ordered the first item on the menu, a savoury crepe with chicken, spinach, cremini, Swiss cheese and cream sauce. A salad lightly tossed in sundried tomato dressing was served on the side. The chicken was perfectly cubed like they got pre-cut in mass quantities from Costco. The crepe was fresh and fragrant and a luxurious and light carb for the delicate mixture. I was also glad the cream sauce was not heavy. I felt like Lil Sis was leaning towards their Frankfurter creation which I would also often favour for being unique and it had hot dogs! But I would have wanted to remove the mustard and ketchup and then I’ve spoiled the creation.
We also ordered the Green Tea crepe with perfectly formed hard balls of homemade green tea ice cream. They were rich with matcha flavour. The crepe formed a closed envelope holding red bean paste, sponge cake and cream. Mum had arrived by then and we dug into to this creation that is very suitable for Chinese palates and polished it off in record time.
Mum must have abstained mostly from dinner at her mum’s birthday, a take-out affair served in the party room at the nursing home because she was inquiring about our satiety level, offering to eat with us if we wanted more! It was late, after dinner hour, but the Chinese have a ritual and name for this kind of late night eating, siu yeh (宵夜). What hadn’t we covered? It would be sushi since the ramen place did not offer any. We would either go back to Oyshi for salmon don or Lil Sis had tried a take out restaurant on the ground floor of one of the other condos in the complex.
Mum and I made a run to the restaurant to order and I hemmed and hawed over the Downtown Mark-Up prices. We first ordered an avocado roll, salmon roll and spicy scallop roll. And afraid it wouldn’t be quite enough salmon (just two pieces each, just two pieces for her), Mum added the spicy salmon which seemed to appear on all of the sushi combinations. When we opened the boxes, I was treated to the sight of a lot of avocado! Apparently their salmon roll is a “salmon avocado roll” and their spicy scallop is a “spicy scallop avocado roll”. Had we known, avocado rolls would not be necessary! So, the addition of avocado seems to make it so they need not use as much seafood ingredients but their rice was fairly thin (low carbs??) and it was all satisfying.
Bonus review: Szechuan Express
On the day we had out food court meal (iQ and Hero), I had actually wanted to bring Mum to one of the food halls with a Szechuan Express, the downtown Chinese fast food stand. There was no doubt that neither of us would like it but it’s all in the name of “research”.
Someone I know gets lunch from Szechuan Express every day. Szechuan tofu from Szechuan Express which both intrigued me and made me snark. For said person is a vegetarian who at times boasts about his culinary prowess like some kind of connoisseur. I bit my tongue and let someone else ask him why on earth he doesn’t cook his own food and have that for lunch. His time is important (pish) and ingredients are too many (ugh) and he honestly thinks Szechuan Express is good food.
So after a rough Monday (nearly a full work week ahead, ack!), I went down to the Royal Bank Plaza Eatery and got the two-item rice combo at a small discount to clear the steam table at the end of the day. Szechuan tofu of course was one of my choices. I asked what the other dark sauce laden meats were and had my choice of Szechuan Chicken, Szechuan Beef, General Tao Chicken, Chicken Black Bean Sauce, and Chicken with Cashew. I almost ordered the cashew dish but thought it was better “research” to get General Tao, you know? Gosh, the combo looked pure evil and salty and I am the salt hound.
Szechuan tofu was overly salty, some mild Chinese flavouring, and spicy. General Tao Chicken was lightly battered and grudgingly generous in portion and a touch sweet, a bit like honey garlic but just a bit more complex. It’s an inoffensive introductory dish to Chinese food. Granted, the combination would have looked better and been healthier if I had gotten a colourful vegetable dish but how would that showcase their style, or lack thereof?