GOLDEN LEAF (307 Spadina, at Dundas West, 416-597-1000) Complete meals for $25 per person, including all taxes, tip and a $1 (!) pot of green tea. Average main $10. Open daily 11 am to midnight. Unlicensed. Cash only. Access: two steps at door and tight tables. Rating: NN Rating: NN
A boîte that labels itself the best Chinese eatery in town - spelled out on its front window - before it's even opened is tempting fate. Or restaurant critics. Same thing.
An off shoot of pricey King's Garden on the King West resto row, an upscale spot popular with the Bay Street crowd and American tourists who don't know any better, Golden Leaf has been designed to bring previously unheard of elegance to Dundas and Spadina. Instead of multiple layers of disposable white polyethylene, the tables are topped with linen.
Beige carpeting on the floors runs up the walls, banded with chocolate ceramic tiles. Staff are formally dressed in black, some stern, others so laid-back they're virtually horizontal.
Close scrutiny of the photos here of smiling visiting dignitaries, mostly Chinese, to the King Street operation reveals the most unlikely of dinner guests: Mike Harris, Preston Manning, Adrienne Clarkson and Bill Cosby, regrettably not at the same time. So far, the scattering of locals slurping soup underneath them don't seem to notice. But once word gets out to the well-heeled suburbians who regularly line up at nearby Lee Garden, Golden Leaf will be the hottest ticket on the strip.
Bypassing starters of thick vermicelli with vegetarian goose liver and deep-fried fish skin, we begin a week-one noontime nosh with one of the few less familiar items on the menu, a rice-paper-wrapped Smoked Vegetable Roll ($5.95).
Served on a knot of sesame-oiled noodles, the diagonally cut cylinder comes stuffed with not unpleasant but hardly tasty carrot and daikon threads and sauced with sour vinegar and too-salty Chinese hot sauce. The following brown-on-brown hot and sour soup ($3.95) is as timidly spiced and not particularly hot or sour.
Deep-fried Shredded Beef Tenderloin ($2.95) finds four pounded and aerated strips of honeyed meat dusted with sticky sesame-seed-studded rice flour. The same pounding technique elevates the minced pork found in Szechuan Eggplant ($9.95) above the renditions of so-called standard-bearers Peter's Chung King or Jing Peking on College. Leaf's kitchen treats Sauteed Chicken Chui Chow Style with black pepper sauce ($13.90) in the same manner, the result a flavourful but paltry 12-ounce portion of breast slices puffed up to look twice as big.
The house Cantonese Chow Mein ($12.95) - a fresh stir-fry of barbecued pork, scored squid, chicken shreds and vibrant veggies over crisp dry-fried noodles - appears indistinguishable from that served elsewhere but costs $3 more. And a steeping pot of green tea - a lovely white ceramic one, actually, and something traditionally served free in every known Cantonese cantina - adds another buck to the tab.
A back-to-back comparison of Golden Leaf's Singapore Turnip Cake and the same dim sum favourite from King's Garden (both $8) favours King's, six big butterflied shrimp as opposed to four smaller cocktail-sized critters tossed with scrambled egg, strips of pink barbecued pork, bell pepper and onion in curry powder over bland cubes of fried daikon.
But a trio of tiny curried Chicken Puffs in sweet flaky pastry ($3.30) turns out to be not just the cheapest thing on the card, excepting tea, but by far the most flavourful.
The dim sum parade continues with four feathery curry-dusted Sui Mei dumplings full of minced pork and finished with slivered scallops and a delightful topknot of tobiko roe.
Another equally enjoyable dumpling quartet, Ha Kau come bursting with succulent butterflied shrimp (both $4.30). We're back in less successful territory with deep-fried spring rolls full of ground chicken and pasty taro ($3.30 for three) and a dish of deep-fried tofu and eggplant stuffed with finely diced seafood. Drawn by the intrigue of Deep-fried Squid Fingers ($4.30), we're disappointed to find a pile of rubbery tentacles brushed with cinnamony five-spice powder.
Over a finishing slice of Steamed Thousand Layer Cake ($3.30) - four layers of lemony Duncan Hines sponge interspersed with semi-sweet chestnut cake - we make sure to drain every last drop of green tea from the teapot.
After all, we paid for it.