LAI WAH HEEN (108 Chestnut, at Dundas West, 416-977-9899) Complete dim sum brunches for $40 per person, including all taxes, tip and a pot of jasmine tea. Average dim sum $6. Open for dim sum Monday to Friday 11:30 am to 3 pm, Saturday and Sunday 11 am to 3 pm. A la carte dinner Sunday to Thursday 5:30 to 10:30 pm, Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 11 pm. Licensed. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NNNNN Rating: NNNNN
Coinciding with the first new moon of the lunar calendar, Chinese New Year is a celebration of rebirth. Not only is Wednesday (February 9) the first day of the Year of the Rooster, but it's also everyone's symbolic birthday as well.
To celebrate, extravagant gifts are exchanged (usually cash sealed in red envelopes called laisee packets), ancestors are honoured and relations re-established. And there's no better way for friends and family to bond than over a communal brunch of dim sum.
For 10 years now, Lai Wah Heen in the Metropolitan Hotel has been considered Toronto's top Chinese restaurant. It's certainly one of the most lavish. The New York Times has gone so far as to deem the luxe dining room's dim sum "maybe the best in North America." "A sense of Hong Kong's new culinary design," gushes Gourmet magazine. "Edible masterpieces," reports Air Canada's in-house rag (as if an airline knows digestion).
But there's no denying the superiority of chef Terrence Chan's delightful daily dim sum spread. Seated in the hotel's muted dining room - all blond wood, beige and deep carpets - the Literary Device and I arrive prepped for a once-a-year extravagance.
It begins with Bumble Bees, spectacular panko-crusted deep-fried crab fritters spiked with foamy calamari mousse and bits of cured Chinese ham, dipped into pungent Thai-style fish sauce. FYI: the dish gets its name from the bugs' faux wings fashioned from slivered almonds.
Crystal Butterfly Dumplings follow, a delicate duo stuffed with buttery chopped scallop and shrimp, finished with parsley stalk antennae. Imperial Roll almost qualifies as dessert due to its sweet Delicious-apple-meets-crab filling and glazed egg roll wrapper (all $7 for two).
Chan's eponymous Lai Wah Heen Dumpling finds a trio of tobiko-topped wontons bursting with al dente diced shrimp and baby bok choy. Three folded sheets of rice noodle reveal super-moist strips of beef tenderloin laced with pickled cabbage and sauced with sweet soy (all $5.50).
Our unequivocal favourite is the chef's obscenely rich Steamed Mousse Ball ($3.50), a gossamer golfball of shrimp swimming in oyster-infused broth embellished with shredded shark's fin. We finish with a diminutive triptych of warm puff pastry shells filled with creamy custard and dusted with subtle slices of swallow's nest ($5.50). If you were wondering, swallow's nest means bird spittle.
Through this weekend, Lai Wah Heen salutes the Year of the Rooster with a festive lineup of New Year dim sum, among them Lucky Windmill, a lotus-paste pastry, and Golden Fortune Cake, a sweet red bean-paste layer cake (both $18), and something called Deep Fried Puffs with Birds Nest and Cherry Filling (a snip at $28). Or for the same price, his annual 3-D goldfish-shaped trifles, two puddings - one Chinese New Year Sweet, the other Chinese ham and turnip. Cock-a-doodle-do indeed.
Pricey? No contest. Worth it? Hey, how often is Chinese New Year?