LICHEE GARDEN (480 University, at Dundas West, 416-322-8898) In a stunning two-storey modernist room decked out in chic, luxe chinoiserie, this newly relocated 55-year-old institution returns to its Old Chinatown roots. But glam digs are matched with with laughable, overpriced Cantonese schlock like battered deep-fried chicken bo-bo balls swimming in sweet 'n' sour sauce and soggy MSG-drenched chop suey with bean sprouts that were best forgotten back in the 50s. Complete meals for $35 per person ($18 at lunch), including all taxes, tip and a Singapore Sling. Open Monday to Thursday 11:30 am to 11:30 pm, Friday and Saturday 11:30 am to 12:30 am, Sunday 11:30 am to 10:30 pm. Licensed. Delivery. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NN Rating: NN
Temples throbbing, ankles swollen and liver feeling like Anna Nicole Smith's after a vodka and Vicodin binge, I'm suffering day six of a monosodium glutamate bender. I haven't been this off my feed since high school when, in De Quincey-inspired debauch, I ate opium and couldn't stand up for three days. For a week now I've been evaluating takeout from Toronto's longest-running Canadian-style Cantonese cantina.
The assignment arrives after Lichee Garden - whose sign out front admits the resto's been serving Toronto since 1948 - moves back to Old Chinatown after a five-year stint in white-bread North Toronto. Before that Lichee spent time in the Atrium on Bay after exiting its original digs on Elizabeth.
Once the most glamorous McDonald's in town, this two-storey space has been further tarted up with chic chinoiserie. A deep-emerald-green carpet offset with splashes of raspberry-red lychees, glass-cut chandeliers and semi-circular leather booths give the room a sophisticated mid-century Manhattan ambience. You can almost imagine Audrey Hepburn circa Breakfast At Tiffany's gliding down the glassed-in staircase that leads to the second floor. If she were still living, of course.
But if Lichee's look has changed, its food is locked in a time warp: post-second-world-war North American faux Chinese in MSG-loaded sweet 'n' sour sauce. Here's a kitchen whose spice cabinet sings a one-note samba - Sugar Sugar.
Take Moy Tze Duck ($16) - please. Imagine the horror of opening a takeout container and seeing half a dozen eyeballs staring back at you. Actually, the peepers are translucent canned lychees stuffed with fluorescent-red maraschino cherries that come tossed over very fatty duck sauced with what tastes like corn syrup. A few canned pineapple rings add further sweetness.
We soldier on with Moy-Tun Stove ($19.95 for two), an unappetizing appetizer spread that includes Lichee bo-bo balls, a dish that disappeared off the culinary map at about the same time the Leafs last won the Cup. Like almost everything else on offer, these chopped chicken meatballs are battered and deep-fried. As are a quintet of butterflied tail-on shrimp and four flavour-free scallop rolls so devoid of seafood that I only taste dough.
But long, anise-scented pork ribs are mercifully unbattered and grilled, resulting in a meaty, near-tender product that's not far off Hong Fatt's. Two mahogany skewers of Mongolian beef might be shoe leather but are tasty, almost pseudo-satay. Advertised chicken wings are a no-show. Pedestrian house-made plum sauce is the usual dunk, but make sure to ask for Lichee's mustard sauce, an explosive wasabi-like flame-thrower unlike the wimpy stuff in packets from Wing's.
In the interest of science, I weigh Macau Ribs ($12.95) before and after my assistant devours these unsauced deep-fried nuggets that recall Portuguese chicharron: before - 11 ounces; after - 4 ounces of bone and gristle. And after dissecting Lichee Beef Tenderloin ($16.95), we find exactly 4 ounces of processed beef mixed with a few hacked button mushrooms in brown cornstarch sauce. With no onion or ginger and an indiscernible garlic presence, this is Chinese food for those who abhor Chinese food.
By describing them as Sizzling Dry Spicy Shrimps ($16.95), the menu's partially correct: they're dry, but as mild-mannered as Martha Stewart's macaroni. Wonton soup with minced-pork har gow ($4.95) is more cornstarch-riddled brown gloop. Vegetarian spring roll ($1.95 "each" as the menu informs) is a small greasy eggroll in my book. Spicy Peanut Chicken ($12.95) certainly contains whole roasted peanuts, but has little zing, its General Tso-style chicken the Eastern equivalent of Colonel Sanders.
We look forward to Dried Sauteed String Beans ("wok-tossed with garlic and chili paste," $8.95) and Salmon and Caviar Fried Rice ($10.95), but since both are unavailable we settle for snow pea pods ($9.50) and Thai-style noodle ($10.95) instead. For nearly 10 bucks, we get just over a pound of peas in thin, innocuous gravy. The noodles turn out to be tired pad thai, ineptly prepared and ketchup-laced.
Of the $7.95 weekday lunch specials, Shanghai noodles finds a standard tangle of thick egg pasta mixed with chopped shrimp, chicken, cabbage, bell pepper and carrot thread. Hardly the "spicy northern cuisine winner" the menu trumpets. Dubbed a "hot and spicy challenge," Szechuan chicken is exactly that: more General Tso fowl and huge chunks of fiery yellow banana peppers and halved jalapeos that painfully wreak havoc on the Test Kitchen's gastric system for the next several days.
An extra N for decor.