Ryan and I just took a quick trip up to Niagara Falls and Toronto. He had never been to Canada so I tried to throw together a few things I loved about my road trips as a kid.
We took a straight shot drive up to Niagara Falls for about 6.5 hours from New York City on a Friday night. We just missed the falls lit up, so definitely check the schedule and plan accordingly.
The Sheraton on the Falls Hotel is a great deal–we paid ~$90 for the most basic room and were upgraded to a high floor with a great view of the falls with Starwood Gold status.
In the morning this is what we woke to:
After a quick drive and walk along the falls to see them from different vantage points on the Canadian side (arguably the better view), we drove up to Toronto.
Our first stop is a New York Times favorite–Lai Wah Heen. First picked up by FloFab in 1997 and reappearing many-a-times, the restaurant claims many dim sum hearts as people’s favorite Cantonese stop in Toronto. Everything was spot on and came out piping hot (often an issue with dim sum in North America and the popular cart style service). Make sure to order these cute pig shaped glutinous rice meat fritters with garlic ears:
After dim sum and driving around Downtown to see the CN Tower, we struggled with what to do. As a kid all I did in Toronto was visit family, see Blue Jays vs. Yankees games, go Chinese goods shopping and eat Chinese food. Not to discount how awesome the Chinese shopping and food is, but I could understand the lack of appeal for someone in Toronto for the first time, and January isn’t exactly baseball season. Luckily, Ryan had a great idea: hockey.
With the Toronto Maple Leafs out of town, we were left with a minor league Toronto Marlies game. It was actually a lot of fun and I definitely recommend it!
Same day online tickets are limited–by the time we decided to go, they were no longer for sale. Luckily Ryan wasn’t dissuaded and we walked up the ticket counter at Ricoh Coliseum with a bunch of well-garbed fans (and an unpleasant scalper who tried to sell us tickets for 20 CAD). Turns out there aren’t many levels at the stadium–just the 100s and the ~5 row lower level by the ice so all the seats are great. Our tickets in Row G of section 101 face value was 37.50 CAD, but a lovely woman approached on the ticket line to give them to us for free (so nice!). The stadium capacity was 7.8k and our crowd was at 7.5k so even for a rivals game, I’m sure there were plenty of last minute seats left.
The local crowd was great and really into the game–this furry guy, Duke, teasing a fan from the opposing team helped too:
That night we ate some awesome Cantonese style casual food and checked into the Sheraton Parkway Hotel. A no frills decent Sheraton with a really low rate at ~$90, the hotel is right in the center of really great Cantonese food! We woke up and went to eat amazing rice noodles and congee at Sam’s then started our trek back.
On the way back to New York we stopped at Anchor Bar in Buffalo, home of the original Buffalo wings.
All in all, a great quick trip! If we had flip flopped and did Toronto first then Niagara we would have made it back in time for the last tour at 1:30 of the Frank Lloyd Wright Darwin D. Martin House and seen the falls at night, but there’s always next time!
When you’re a cute little Chinese girl, it seems that your parents and all their friends will feed you only cute little Chinese things… har gow (round Chinese shrimp dumplings), gai don jai (Chinese mini pancakes as my parents called it), little Chinese white buns filled with yellow custard, and basically anything else round and small. Seeing a little girl eating these things is akin to that great video of the slow loris eating a rice ball.
I of course didn’t pick up on this until I had a revelation much later in life–probably why as a kid I was so punky and eventually developed a shrimp allergy. It is simple: I was popping too much of this cute food! These shrimp dumplings are about the size of a golf ball and whenever my family went for dim sum they’d put an entire tray of four in front of me at a time, which is prohibited in typical dim sum etiquette!
The mini Chinese pancakes are just that–pancake batter poured into a special pan that yields tiny, airy, crusty nubs of “cake”. It’s closest Western cousin is probably the cross between a pancake and less sugary, less dense madeleine. You have to eat them hot and fresh, and unfortunately they do not travel well. I’ve only ever seen them in street-carts and on the ends of ready-made food markets like the ends of Deluxe Supermarket in NY’s Chinatown. They are around $1 for 15 or 20, but when I was a kid they sold them by the whole sheets and wouldn’t break them up!
I haven’t been as active of a foodie as some of my friends used to know of me (but I’ve also lost a lot of weight-WOOHOO!!), so anytime I go out for an epic meal that is exactly what I expect.
Hakkasan, however, completely failed me.
I first heard of the restaurant through my bff foodie friend Leeann who sent me a link. Looked like a high-end in a trendy sense (not quality sense), Chinese version of Nobu so I was pretty excited.
Last minute before our reservation, I did a check to see where it was and did a quick glance at what I should be expecting. CRAP. CANTONESE FOOD. Now, I’m not too sure. Coming from a Cantonese family who often goes to SF, Vancouver, and Toronto for family AND FOOD (not to mention living in HK for a summer), I was nervous. I no longer wanted to spend a fortune on something that I expected to be mediocre.
Even though I am not always fair and partial when going into a meal, normally once I try the food, nothing else matters.
Unique Decor/Entrance – Finding this restaurant was a bit of an adventure. I’m in a cab and went right past the restaurant on an otherwise residential block. If I hadn’t looked up the restaurant earlier and recognized their logo, I probably would have been embarrassedly searching for an additional five minutes, haha.
So I walk into the entrance and down a long hallway that appeared to be the entrance of a swanky hotel. I thought WHOOPS! because no one greeted me at the door and halfway down the hallway I walked by a desk (which I think was the coat check? or something?), then walked by a strange booth and curtain that was more like a coat check… then finally a desk at the back. OK–weird, but different in a neat way. If you’ve been to The Modern, it was kind of like that, except the front of Hakkasan didn’t have a menu posted!
I see my friends and new pals, we sit, and open up the cocktail menu.
Cocktails - Junoon-style, I wanted to see what type of funny fusion flavored drinks they had. Awesome–my friends all ordered the very sweet Hakka, and I wanted to take the route less travelled with a delicious Tanqueray No. 10, pear, all around delicious cocktail (pictured above).
YUM. Okay, things are looking good. We were set up at this amazing and beautiful table in a “room” of sorts. The whole restaurant was like a labyrinth and the walls were made of those ornate Asian-inspired wooden partitions that weren’t really walls so there was still this great open feel. I would say it is a perfect place to bring someone you want to impress (as long as they/their family isn’t from Hong Kong)
Now the menu. Nothing too detailed in the descriptions with things like Pipa Duck, Duck with Black Truffle, jasmine roasted pork ribs (which didn’t taste like jasmine–picture below), spinach tofu, spicy prawns etc etc. I didn’t think much of it, just that if I were going to pay a pretty penny relative to Chinatown, I expected each simple thing to be executed perfectly.
We ended up ordering two steamed dim sum platters, one fried dim sum platter, and one jasmine roasted pork ribs for appetizers. They weren’t amazing, but definitely still delicious. I hadn’t had amazing Chinese food in a long time and I assumed the prices reflected the quality I was going to get (though you can never really be certain when a new restaurant opens). Needless to say, I was really looking forward to this.
I basically set myself up for disappointment.
Steamed Dim Sum: If the real goal is to deliver amazing food (how else can a restaurant be sustainable?), then I think the steamed dim sum was risky on their part. If you are going to serve people har gow at those prices…it has to be amazing. It was definitely NOT amazing, and I’d prefer a har gow from Ocean Jewels or any ghetto dim sum place with fresh shrimp dumplings. The skins were not fine, the shrimp was mediocre. Considering how much that dim sum was…it was not worth it. I wouldn’t go as far as saying you should instead get an entire pack of frozen for the price of one har gow, but I am tempted…
What else was in there…some pumpkin/duck thing that was underwhelming. Just because something is orange doesn’t make up for the fact that I don’t taste pumpkin.
Fried Dim Sum: The fried dim sum was delicious, but overpriced. (sensing a theme here?). Nothing special here.
We ordered their special spicy shrimp (which was just ok), their truffle duck, the wagyu beef, spinach tofu, and some others.
I think there is definitely some hype that goes along with a restaurant, but it’s your choice to buy-in or not. Obviously this can enhance your experience, and if you prefer that, great. For me, life is harder!
Wagyu Beef - The wagyu beef was nothing phenomenal. It definitely was nothing like kobe beef in kobe, and also cost significantly more than what I would have priced it based on quality and not the marketing gimic. I honestly think my garlic marinated skirt steak at home is better than their wagyu beef–and that is insane. The prep I’m sure is not too different–thin slices with some tastey gravy.
Truffle Duck – we wanted to go out and make sure we got the full experience (without spending the $888 on their abalone), so we ordered the $88 duck. Ok, yes, it was good. By the time it came to our table is wasn’t exactly hot, but I can’t remember the last time I had really hot duck anyway. It tasted like…wait for it… wait for it… truffle and duck. Nothing surprising here, and nothing too phenomenal. If you are a truffle junkie then you may feel the need to try it, but honestly it just wasn’t worth it. A whole duck is probably under $20 still these days in Chinatown (cut up and everything), and at Hakkasan you get half? Less? Then think about the cheapie truffle oil they probably used instead of real truffle. Now, that is just frustrating and I feel like a fool! There was of course no sign of real truffle anywhere on my plate.
Spinach Tofu (pictured above) – I was definitely impressed by this simple dish. There were a lot of flavors, and the tofu had an amazing texture. BRAVO!
Some birdsnesty seafood dish (pictured above)? Don’t remember what exactly it was, but it was okay too.
Service - I thought our waitresses were hospitable in their gorgeous red dresses, except after all our entrees came out they never really came back to us. Considering we had a big party, I find that so hard to believe! I also think it’s really funny that this one waitress was so obviously uncomfortable in her super hot dress because she kept holding the front of it closed! :-/.
Alternatives - I think all-in-all I would have preferred to spend our $100/each check on a delicious dim sum at Ocean Jewels with perfect dim sum, and fresh steamed shrimps, garlic crusted crabs, but hey, maybe that’s just me. Oh wait, and even with the crab it probably would have been significantly less per person -.-.
This experience reminded me of a video my cousin send to me last week on the truth of bottled water: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XfPAjUvvnIc. Basically, the people were fooled with the marketing of the fancy presentation of the water… and thought different bottles tasted differently despite it all having the same source, haha. It’s pretty funny–you should definitely watch it!