ASIAN LEGEND (418 Dundas West, at Beverley, 416-977-3909) Complete dinners for $30 ($20 at lunch), including all taxes, tip and a Tsingtao. Open daily 11 am to midnight. Licensed. Access: 11 steps at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
We expect the chinese soup kitchens and noodle houses clustered around Dundas and Spadina to be high on value and low on decor. But communal tables layered with disposable sheets of white plastic and murky aquariums of last-gasping garoupa may soon be as much a thing of the past as fortune cookies now that a next generation of upscale Asian eateries have opened in this decidedly no-frills nabe.
Asian Legend, a suburban string of northern Chinese restaurants, opened its first downtown outpost last August in the former premises of the unfortunately dubbed OPM Den.
After demolition, the new two-storey eatery's interior - designed by Dialogue 38, the team responsible for Indochine and myriad Spring Rolls - is by far the strip's most sophisticated.
From the chaotic sidewalk, a wide slate stairway leads to a long, stylish space, all warm taupes and contrasting chocolate, that would look more at home on chi-chi College than here on dowdy Dundas. A stylishly rear-lit and ultimately uncomfortable banquette faces a wall painted with calligraphic murals depicting the five senses. Efficient multi-tasking servers race about the room in smart matching aprons to New Age plinky-plonk piano accompaniment.
Lured by the promise of a free Tsingtao ($4.25 for the rest of us), the Troubled Balkan joins me for dim sum, a meal deal Asian Legend offers daily from opening till midnight. A white Ikea-style teapot of loose-leaf green tea - no dented tin pot this - complete with matching cups and saucers (saucers!) arrives as soon as we're seated. We scan the 169 items on the lengthy card and, instead of ordering familiar fare like Cantonese Chow Mein ($9.95) or General Tao Chicken ($8.95), head straight for the unknown.
What foody worth his/her fleur de sel could resist ordering Braised Ducks' Tongues ($7.95)? We will next time, forgoing a plate piled with three dozen or so 2-inch boiled tongues that taste like cold, flavour-free rubber bands. Cold-cut-like Drunken Chicken ($5.95) leaves us cold as well - room-temperature slices of fatty boneless chicken roll marinated in Chinese cooking wine. Touted as a tonic for both post-natal women and the elderly, Chinese Herb with Black Chicken Double-Boiled Soup ($4.50) finds pieces of miniature loofah gourd swimming in medicinal ginseng broth. At least it's warm.
We're on more familiar turf with tasty Soup Filled Meat Dumplings ($4.95), a half-dozen steamed wonton pouches bursting with rich stock and minced pork. Delish Steamed Shrimp and Pork Shu Mai ($5.95) sees an equally explosive six dumplings dunked into sour Chinese vinegar, while velvety cubes of Deep-Fried Tofu ($2.95) come sided with red chili oil and raw minced garlic.
These same condiments make the perfect foil for House Special Crispy Chive Pancake ($3.95), a first-rate wrap stuffed with minced shrimp, Chinese chives and scallions. As does Onion Pancake Roll ($4.25), a foil-enclosed flapjack layered with thinly sliced beef.
Taking its name from the literal translation of its ingredients, Imitated Crab Meat By Fish ($12.95) would be better titled Fluffy Scrambled Egg Whites with Seafood, since that's what it looks and tastes like, complete with a last-minute plop of runny yellow egg yolk smack in the middle. Served alongside a mushy mess of wheat spaghetti tossed with cuke, the dish's relentless monochromaticity only gets relieved by the green of steamed broccoli.
There's nothing especially special about Chef's Specialty Meatballs Chinese -Style ($9.95 for three) except that they're the size of hacky sacks and just as useful. Dressed with strips of bamboo shoot, they're sauced with an underpowered five-spice gravy strewn with the occasional chunk of chewy Chinese mushroom. But where's the garlic, the ginger, the fire?
Garlic shows up boiled and packing the limp punch of water chestnut in Braised Asparagus ($8.95), and though visible in Hot and Sour Soup ($4.25 small), neither garlic nor ginger adds noticeable zing to this timidly spiced cornstarch-thickened starter swirled with soft tofu, crunchy wood ear and slippery carrot.
And despite its handle, randomly hacked Szechwan Smoked Duck ($9.95 half) arrives skin, fat, bones 'n' all virtually devoid of heat and tasting as if it was smoked next to a tire fire.
With a stylish setting and professional service, Asian Legend turns out the best dim sum nosh in old Chinatown. But let the diner beware: some of its Old World home cookin's far from fabled.