Say hello to authentic Chinese cuisine

Dinner_With_Liz_columnWe’re lucky in Toronto to have a large Chinese community, and consequently, to have some authentic Chinese restaurants whose menus stretch beyond sweet and sour pork or chicken chow mein.

My latest find, Lee Chen Bistro, is nearby at 832 Yonge St. in Rosedale, so you don’t have to make the trek north of the city. As an aside, is it mandatory to call all restaurants in the Yorkville vicinity bistros? With its bamboo curtain dividers and elegant Chinese decor touches, Lee Chen couldn’t be less bistro-like.

My guest has been here before and insists that I have to try xiao long bao. So we start with these plump, steamed, pagoda-shaped dumplings, filled with a pork ball swimming in soup ($6.50).

DANDY DUMPLINGS: A touch of ginger vinegar adds just the right zest to xiao long bao.

I have had this Shanghai specialty before and I find myself anticipating the satisfying squelch as the dumpling bursts in my mouth, releasing its rich broth. Lee Chen’s dumpling doesn’t disappoint. A touch of ginger vinegar adds just the right zest. It’s one of the best I have tried.

We steer clear of a few made-for-Canadians dishes and consult our waitress, Tiffany. After determining the level of asbestos on our taste buds, she suggests Szechuan shrimps, sautéed with water chestnuts ($15.95). The sauce isn’t super hot but has the spiciness of Szechuan cuisine, with plenty of garlic and a hint of sweetness.

Our vegetable choice is sautéed pea shoots and king mushrooms ($14.95). The pea shoots are much bigger than any I’ve ever seen, and the plump pleurotes have been thinly sliced so there isn’t as much mushroom as I would like. While the dish is a little bland, it makes a nice foil for the piquancy of the shrimp. And we can reassure ourselves that we’ve had our veggie quotient for the meal.

My favourite dish tonight, rice cake, is another Shanghai classic. An alternative to the usual steamed or fried rice one finds in Chinese restaurants, it is twoonie-sized oval slices of glutinous rice noodles.

These have been stir-fried with shredded chicken, cabbage, green onion and Chinese mushrooms ($12.95). Its smooth texture is a nice contrast to the other ingredients. It’s so good, I could make a meal of this dish alone.

In fact, while the prices may seem a little high, the quantities are enormous.

My guest and I dine heartily and still have enough food left for a substantial lunch the next day.

We press on and order a distinctly Chinese dessert, again at the urging of our waitress. Tang yuan in wine soup ($6.50) sounds like an odd finish, but let me urge you to try this dish. I know we seem to be consuming a lot of dumplings — and soup — at this meal, but there is no sense of deja vu here.

The wine soup is sweetened with a syrup prepared with osmanthus petals (a waiter actually brought me some to taste). Tang yuan are glutinous rice dumplings filled with ground black sesame seeds. My guest irreverently refers to these as eyeballs. The combination of crunchy sesame, smooth dumpling and sweet soup is seductive. It’s wonderful.

Lee Chen is a wonderful way to introduce yourself to authentic Chinese cuisine without wondering how to decipher Chinese characters in one of the spots in Chinatown or Markham.

The staff is helpful and the food is excellent. Portions are huge so be prepared to take some home. I’m planning a return trip to try their dan dan noodles — a famous Hong Kong street specialty which I fell in love with there (see last month’s travel story).

Lee Chen Bistro, 832 Yonge St. 416-901-8869,