Is there a resurgence of good Chinese restaurants downtown? Perhaps hope will triumph over experience.
Dundas on an early Saturday evening is a like a slice of life lifted from any city in China and plunked down in Toronto. But good fortune has smiled on us, and we have a parking spot at the front door of Asian Legend. Its modern, sleek, taupe exterior is carried through to the inside. Wall coverings depict ancient explorers maps, and stylized Japanese lanterns hang from the ceiling. Downstairs
, there is a series of private dining rooms. With restaurants in North York, Thornhill and Markham, the owners felt it was time to crack the downtown market. And we're glad they did.
The best Chinese food I've ever eaten was at source-in China-and the memories linger on. The country is huge and each region has its own specialities according to its geographic location. So when Ping, a friend from Beijing asks me to join her for dinner, I quickly agree, knowing that she loves the explosive flavours of northern Chinese cooking. Beijing borders on the Mongolian desert and the climate is cold and dry so the ingredients are limited, but much of the cuisine that was developed during the time of Imperial Court remains as tradition. While the emperors dined at banquets on the most rare ingredients, the peasants lived on rice, millet, local vegetables and pork. Todays northern China cuisine is an amalgam of both.
Ping orders in Chinese, while I stroll over to the rear and look through the window to the kitchen where two cooks are making fresh dumplings at top speed. Back at our table, I wait for the feast to begin. But first, our server asks, "do you like garlic?" We're a unanimous yes. Chinese herb and Black chicken soup which is famous for its restorative powers, particularly for women, is fragrant and satisfying. Soup-filled shrimp and pork dumplings; half moon shaped steamed vegetarian dumplings almost bursting out of shiny translucent dough; and the dish Ping ate for breakfast at home, rolled onion pancakes filled with beef. This large pancake is rolled in foil then sliced into sections. How she can eat that raw minced garlic and fiery chili dipping sauce like its ketchup, I don't know. One drop sends me screaming for water.
Balance is important is most Asian cuisines. Shredded chicken with noodle is a cool dish, yin for the hot and spicy yang, with a presentation and taste that is unique. Glassy large noodles cover a mound of shredded chicken encircled by matchstick shredded cucumber. Ping pours an entire bowl of garlicy peanut sauce onto the dish and tosses it like a salad with her chopsticks. Subtly seasoned peanut and other elusive flavours keep me coming back for more.
Szechuan smoked duck is our choice over Peking duck this time. This dish is not the deli-smoked duck of our experience. Utilizing all those wet tea leaves, the cook places ducks on a rack in an airtight smoker and sets the leaves to smolder and smoke, cooking the birds with aromatic smoky heat that imparts an unusual and delicious flavour.
I love the deep fried tofu here, the crispy outside skin hides a heavenly light interior. And fried prawns with chili sauce look daunting at first. Prepared with the shell on in a chili sauce bath. Ping flicks the shells off with her chopsticks in one motion, it takes me a little longer, but they are easily removed. And this chili sauce is subtly seasoned, not in the same league as the condiment.
There are too many fascinating dishes to try at once. Over the summer, I'll make Asian Legend my commissary. When a combo for one includes two appetizers, daily soup, steamed rice, soy bean milk and a choice of a main course for about seven bucks, it's a lot cheaper than eating at home. And much more interesting.