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10 November 2012 @ 08:45 am
Emu and other unusual dim sum at Lai Wah Heen  

Originally published at Scott Edelman. Please leave any comments there.

I try to scoop up a group of friends at every convention I attend and go out for dim sum at least once. I know where I want to head when I’m in Maryland or Philadelphia or even Vancouver, but since I was going to be in Toronto—well, Richmond Hill—I put out the call. Who makes the best dim sum in town? The answer I received from both friends and strangers was Lai Wah Heen.

Some friends wanted to know why I was bothering to drive 30-40 minutes into the heart of Toronto when there were plenty of dim sum parlors right by our con hotel. Well, all that advice, for one, but also because of what one reviewer had to say over on Yelp: “If your idea of dim sum is $2 steamers and old ladies yelling from carts, then go back to Richmond Hill.” That slam on the entire neighborhood in which I was staying made me laugh.

Not that there’s anything wrong with dim sum at the basic level of comfort food. I do that all the time. But dim sum prepared by an internationally recognized chef, and incorporating such ingredients as lamb, emu, and foie gras? That’s not something you get a chance to eat every day. (Or, come to think of it, at all. At least, I’ve never seen any of that offered before.)

And so four of my friends—Sharon Kier Patry, Shelly Rae Clift, and Karen and Charlie Newton—piled into the car last Friday, and we bombed into town, dealing with Toronto’s marvelous midday, midweek traffic. But what we found when we got where we were going was worth it.

Everything on the menu was enticing, so we just kept checking off boxes on the order sheet until we feared we’d be unable to ingest all the promised wonders. I wasn’t disappointed in a single choice, but here are the ones that most amazed me.

My first dim sum was the “Jumbo Siu Mai wrapped with glutinous rice & foie gras.” My eyes popped wide as I bit down. Very rich, very decadent. Not at all a flavor I ever expected to find in shiu mai, and I immediately knew the drive had been worth it.

Then came the “Wonton of lamb loin flavored with cumin seeds & garlic.” I love lamb, but once again, it wasn’t anything I ever had or expected to have as part of a dim sum meal. There was a strong but not at all gamey flavor to the lamb, with just the right amount of cumin, not overpowering the taste of the lamb.

This was followed by (at least for me; we often ordered different items that arrived as singles and were unshared) “Steamed dumpling of Australian Wagyu beef topped with thinly sliced Wagyu beef, in chili oil.” While I enjoyed it, this was the one dish that didn’t seem as well-conceived, because when I lifted it to my lips and bit through, the beef on top distracted from the delicacy of the dumpling on which it sat. But I’m willing to own that, as I’m thinking now that perhaps I should have eaten the slivers of wagyu topping separately first before diving into the dumpling. But don’t worry—the flavors were still wonderful.

After that, the “Deep-fried soft dumplings of Berkshire pork” arrived, and while these were not as unusual as my previous bites—plus I’ve had pork dumplings prepared equally as well elsewhere—they were certainly the cutest dim sum I’ve ever eaten, with almond ears and doughy pig noses.

See?

Which resulted in the obligatory photo of one attempting to escape my maw. (Hint: It didn’t make it.)

One of my other favorites was the “Deep-fried crispy taro paste dumpling filled with seasoned minced emu.” It was my first experience with emu, which reminded me of suckling pig in terms of the texture of the meat. The spices certainly complimented the emu, though someday I’d like to try a few bites of the animal sans spice, so I can get a true understanding of what emu meat really tastes like.

As you can see from these pics, Lai Wah Heen’s presentation was often whimsical. But be assured that the restaurant wasn’t relying on that alone, and that the cooking lived up to the excellent presentation.

To accompany our dim sum, we ordered some steamed bok choy, plus one of Lai Wah Heen’s special fried rice dishes—”Foie gras and diced shredded duckling fried rice flavored with deep-fried garlic.” I had no idea what to expect from the latter, but the combination worked, though the strong garlic flavor made me glad I was among friends.

As for the non-food part of the experience—the restaurant was elegant, the service was excellent, and our parking beneath the Metropolitan Hotel which housed the restaurant was validated, so we didn’t have to pay exorbitant Toronto rates to park the car.

What I liked best about Lai Wah Heen is this. I’ve been eating dim sum for years, and it’s been a long time since I’ve been surprised. I always know what I’m going to get, and the only issue is whether what comes to my table meets, exceeds, or falls short of my expectations. But every dish at Lai Wah Heen was a revelation, sometimes to the eyes, but always to the taste buds. And that’s not something I’ve experienced since I was a dim sum newbie.