Thursday, April 23, 2009

Lai Wah Heen - 04/12/2009

Metropolitan Hotel Toronto
108 Chestnut Street
Toronto, Ontario M5G 1R3
(416) 977-9899

Lai Wah Heen came highly recommended, with critics and diners alike proclaiming it to be the finest Chinese food in Toronto. The restaurant's website even has the lofty claim "the best dim sum in North America." If a restaurant posts that on their website it must be true; I mean why would they lie about that? To its credit, the restaurant employs ingredients not typically found in Chinese cooking like truffle and foie gras. It would be interesting to see if the chefs could pull it off.

Lai Wah Heen's decor is reminiscent of the typical Chinese restaurant, albeit gussied up a bit as befits its location in the Metropolitan Hotel. I must admit to some trepidation when I realized the "best" Chinese restaurant was in a luxury boutique hotel. Still I had faith, perhaps foolishly, in the collective wisdom of the food reviews on the Internet. Surely so many people couldn't all be wrong, right?

XO Sauce
I was pleased to see the restaurant put a small dish of XO sauce on the table after we sat down. XO sauce contains dried seafood (scallops, shrimp, fish) cooked in oil with chili, garlic, onion, and ham. When I was young I assumed it also had cognac, hence the name XO. Turns out, while XO is a reference to extra old cognac, there isn't actually any of the alcohol in the sauce. The name came about because Chinese people in the 1980's were enamored with the drink and the phrase "XO" came to denote high quality.

Fresh Dungeness crab and fish maw bisque
Interesting on a menu where most dishes are listed to feed 4, the soups are individual servings. The soup came generously laden with fresh crab meet and gelatinous pieces of fish maw but suffered from a serious lack of flavor. There were muted hints of the sweet crab but none of that subtle sweet-savory contrast from the combination with the fish maw. A bit of vinegar might have helped matters but that wasn't available either.

The dim sum was coursed out singly similar to what one would expect from a Western-style tasting menu.

Steamed mini crab dumpling stuffed with fresh crabmeat, shrimp mousse & vegetable sprout
Shaped like a crab with a translucent pink wrapper and two black sesame seeds for eyes, this was the cutest dim sum I have ever laid eyes on. Sadly, no amount of presentation was going to save this bland and dull course.

Steamed crystal purse filled with five spicy shredded duckling & heart of garlic
Less elegant than the last course, conversely I was hoping this course would have more flavor. I got my wish, sort of. There was such an overabundance of five spice powder I couldn't taste the garlic let alone the duck.

Crystal shrimp dumpling
Shrimp dumpling or Har Gow is one of the two most ubiquitous forms of dim sum and my hands down favorite growing up. Without fail, this is the one course I must compare across all dim sum restaurants. This was a solid presentation, the dumplings didn't stick to the paper and the shrimp tasted fresh, but there was nothing here to justify the $6 price tag.

Classic style steamed bun filled with chicken, sea cucumber, assorted meat & mushroom
The bun came out piping hot and soft, too bad it was also sickly sweet. I actually preferred peeling off the bun and eating the stuffing on its own.

Steamed golden pipi clam & platinum scallop in a dumpling
Not so sure if golden pipi clam and platinum scallop are actually species of shellfish or if the restaurant was just trying to associate this dish to precious metal in order to charge more. The clam did have a nice snappy texture but was again utterly flavorless.

Abalone & shrimp mousse coiled with fine Taiwanese vermicelli
Taken alone, the abalone had a subtle sweetness and a texture that was both firm and lively. Pity that it was paired with watery sauce, lettuce and a fistful of vermicelli; diluting the lovely flavor of the shellfish.

Steamed dumplings of Waygu beef accompanied with thinly sliced Waygu beef, in chili oil
I don't understand why you'd take high quality Wagyu beef and cover it with a thick filmy layer of oil. The dumplings were prepared in such a way I couldn't even tell they were filled with Wagyu beef. I would have been much happier had they just served the thin slices of Wagyu beef with some salt and pepper.

Steamed filet of sole & fish mousse filled with mushrooms, garnished with shredded chili pepper
Throughout the meal, the one bright spot has been the quality of the seafood, but the chefs at Lai Wah Heen wouldn't even let me hold onto that small victory. The fish was mushy and tasted slightly foul, when I thought I couldn't be disappointed further, Lai Wah Heen finds a way.

Dim sum for two people ended up being $100USD. By comparison, my family typically spends ~$20 for three people when we go out for dim sum. I know my price is biased by proximity to Monterey Park, but even so the price should not be 5x higher. Part of this was my fault, since I let the waiter cajole me into ordering two of each of the special dim sum. I seriously believe that Lai Wah Heen is a giant conspiracy by the entire population of Toronto to fool unsuspecting visitors. That is the only way I can explain the disparity between the reviews by local critics and my experience.

The typical Chinese restaurant business model relies on getting a large number of people in and out while spending as little time and money on each customer as possible. I truly believe there is a market for Chinese restaurants employing high-quality ingredients with a staff concerned about the holistic dining experience and consequently charging a higher price. Lai Wah Heen seemed to promise all of that (especially the higher price), but they forgot the most vital element: make sure the food tastes good first.


Charlie Fu said...

This is a transgression against all that is good and kind about Dim Sum!

Do you know if they prepare each dish on the spot like a normal restaurant would? or are all these dishes sitting in a steamer somewhere?

Otherwise, this seems more like a High end Chinese restaurant that serve Western Portions for Chinese Haut Cuisine.

Sucks that the food sucked!

Tangbro1 said...

I didn't see any of the ubiquitous metal pushcarts so I am pretty sure the dim sum is made to order. The staff brings one or two courses out at a time very much like a Western restaurant and they all came out piping hot.

Kung Food Panda said...

Jesus....$100 for 2 people at a dim sum place. Plus, it's not like you guys ate an insane amount of food to justify that.

BTW, what's up with that 12-13% tax? It's that normal in Toronto?

Tangbro1 said...

Seriously... the price so horrific that I have a new appreciation for the SGV.

The taxin Toronto is indeed 13% on food and 15% on alcohol.
Federal Goods and Services Tax: 5%
Provincial Sales Tax in Ontario: 8% and 10% on alcohol in restaurants

ila said...

omai! that crab dumpling sure is cute. too bad it wasn't tasty :[

Anonymous said...

I seem to remember recommending someone from the west coast to Lai Wah Heen, as well as Colborne Lane. I looked through your other review, glad you liked Colborne Lane, it's not WD 50, but we try.

I know what you mean about $100 for dim sum, it's like we can all spend $20 and get the same elsewhere. But why is it that no one bats an eye for a $500 tasting at a French resto?

Sorry about your dismal experience at Lai Wah Heen. Us Chowhounders like to conspire, lol. As for the're complaining cause it's 13%, lol, it use to be 15%. Hope your trip to Toronto's resto scene goes better next time. Check out Scaramouche (why you didn't go here blows me away), George, and Auberge du Pommier.

Tangbro1 said...

Hey Anonymous,

Maybe part of it is being Cantonese and eating dim sum on a weekly basis with family or being so close to Monterey Park where dim sum is less than $2.00 per order that disturbs me about the price. Though had the food been good I think I could have overlooked the price tag.

You know I wanted to try Scaramouche, but there were so many places to try. I tend to enjoy lots of courses so when it came down to Scaramouche or Splendido I went with the restaurant that had a tasting menu. I will make a point to try Scaramouche next time I visit Toronto.