MADE IN CHINA (371 Yonge, at Gerrard, 416-596-1516) Complete dinners for $20 per person (lunches $13), including all taxes, tip and a domestic beer. Average main $9/$6. Open daily 11 am to 11 pm. Licensed. Access: barrier-free, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN
Forget swanning around in some Yorkville hot boîte with the Hollywood glitterati. For the next 11 days, most of us attending this year's Film Fest will be grabbing a quick bite to eat at a cheap noodle house in the immediate area in between screenings of obscure Icelandic documentaries.
Just down the block from Ryerson Theatre, Made in China is the latest offshoot of Korean Grill House - those popular barbecue joints where customers cook meals on gas stoves built into their tables - and specializes in what's described as Asian fusion food.
A closer examination of the menu reveals an all-too familiar lineup of Chinese and Thai stalwarts with a few additional side trips into Malaysia and Indonesia. Spring Rolls, anyone?
But where Made in China differs from the formula is its decor. A postmodernist mix of Maoist imagery and chic chinoiserie, the stylish white-on-white room features backless vinyl banquettes, stark white tables - some of them communal - as well as photo-murals depicting happy proletarians, cuddly panda bears and a beaming Chairman. Why, you can even score a souvenir shoulder bag silkscreened with his likeness for 18 bucks.
But the real deals here are the daily $5.99 lunch specials. What's listed as "vegetable and oyster sauce with chicken fried noodle" turns out to be a brimming bowl of wide rice-stick topped with boneless bird, baby bok choy, cauliflower and scallion. The sauce is rich with butter and crushed black peppercorns, but garlic and ginger seem nearly absent. Back at the Test Kitchen, our takeout order checks in at a whopping 26 ounces.
Another special, Singapore vermicelli ($5.99/$7.95 à la carte) - curried rice vermicelli studded with loonie-sized shrimp - could also use an infusion of garlic. But not even the stinky bud can save MIC's ketchup-pink pad thai ($5.99/$7.50), a rudimentary rendition at best. And MIC's ordinary but pricey shrimp har gow ($3.95) and greasy pork shiu mai dumplings ($2.95) taste no better than those at any other run-of-the-mill dim sum spot.
While sticky rice in banana leaf ($3.50) might be half the size of what you get for the money in Chinatown, its hidden bottom layer of shredded barbecue beef in sweet teriyaki sauce almost justifies the expense. There's no faulting MIC's house salad ($4.95), a delicious combo of commercial greens and miniature Roma tomato in a tangy miso vinaigrette.
Besides lunch specials, the card also offers what it calls "rice platters." I'm particularly impressed by thinly sliced lamb cut Korean-style across the bone in sweet hoisin gravy thickened with tapioca and caramelized spring onion ($9.25). But I find no comfort in MIC's breaded chicken cutlet ($7.25, both with steamed rice) unappetizingly sauced with egg drop soup thickened with cornstarch and creamed corn.
So far, I've pointedly avoided MIC's ballyhooed $9.99 tasting menu. The resto's website and print ads treat it like a joke. (Q: "What is in there to eat exactly?" A: "How the heck do I know?" Q: "If there's something I don't like to eat, can I change it?" A: "Don't take the stupid meal, then!"), so I'm wary. But what follows is the culinary equivalent of expecting dinner from Ho Lee Chow and finding Susur Lee in the kitchen.
Today, it begins with cream of corn and egg drop soup, the same horrendous gloop that comes with the chicken cutlet. My heart sags. Not wanting to insult my friendly server by leaving the large bowl untouched, I decide to make the best of it by adding a dash of chili oil. In an instant, the starter goes from abysmal to ambrosial, each successive slurp revealing a contrast of textures ranging from slippery to crunchy.
Next, a long white rectangular plate of aps appears. A diminutive wonton-wrapped and deep-fried spring roll comes loaded with mushrooms and shoots; a crisply fried pork and Chinese chive pot-sticker arrives bursting jus; a turmeric-tinged bundle of smoky chicken breast gets steamed in a banana leaf.
The mains are even more striking. Substantial chunks of meaty garoupa are heavily dusted Szechuan-style with salt and pepper. Plated over stir-fried Asian greens in syrupy soy, thin slices of rare roast beef stuffed with slivered sprouts make an unlikely but inspired marriage between French roulade and Chinese egg roll.
Lastly, a ripe Thai-authentic mango salad tossed with sesame seeds and a plain bowl of rice topped with a frazzle of deep-fried ginger finish this stellar nosh. All of this and leftovers, too, for 10 bucks!
At first bite, Made in China is just another noodle joint. But factor in its exceptional - and exceptionally cheap - tasting menu and MIC's competition goes MIA.