Sunday, January 23, 2011

Lai Toh Heen Tasting Menu

I never thought I'd go back to Lai Wah Heen after the Winterlicious experience several years ago when we went for a $20 dim sum lunch and walked away still hungry and feeling gyped. Many restaurants still don't understand that Winterlicious/Summerlicious is their chance to make a good first impression for new patrons with the goal of turning them into loyal repeat customers. Instead, they dumb down their menus and cheapen the quality and quantity of food provided in order to try to maximize profits during the 2 week window of this festival. Based on this experience, I've shunned this restaurant and refused to try the new Lai Toh Heen sister restaurant that opened in my mid-town neighbourhood. I was sceptical anyways about the concept of expensive "high end" chinese food. This just reaffirmed my opinion that it was all hype and not worth the money.

After several years of boycott, I finally was lured into trying Lai Toh Heen by a Groupon offer of $50 worth of food for the price of $25. Groupon offers discounts to various restaurants and shops, as long as enough people purchase the offering. Still leery and deciding that this might be the only time we'd go there, we decided that we'd go big and try their largest tasting menu of eight sampling courses for $90 to get a good feel of what this restaurant is all about.

The decor was beautiful with deep red hues in the walls, menus and plates. I was struck by the "Citizen Kane-ish" length of the tables which puts you barely within fork range of your eating companion. Luckily they provided unusually long forks too! We figured the table length was to provide room for communal dishes to be put in the centre, which is a typical way of eating Chinese food. However since we were each getting own our personal servings, it just served to put us at shouting distance from each other. I also noticed the bottles of Remy Martin XO Champagne Cognac prominently on display. From Chinese weddings that I've attended, I know that this liquour is considered a status symbol of propsperity.

The first course started with a huge steamed scallop served on its shell, sitting in a flavourful broth with glass noodles, garlic and green onion. Now came the dilema of how to eat this, since the shell was tippy and the scallop too big to stuff into one's mouth in one bite and too firm to sever with chopsticks. Rich valiantly wanted to prove his chopstick skills while I more practically retreated to the knife and fork. It was a funny sight though to see the White guy using chopsticks while the Chinese woman used the western utensils. Guess which one of us did not get scallop broth all over ourselves?

The next dish was the most fabulous both in taste and presentation. It was a perfectly seared piece of fois gras sitting on a bed of shredded duck meat - possibly from a Peking duck, like the ones that were being served more traditionally at other tables. The plate was then decorated with drizzles of plum and sweet and sour sauces, arranged like the petals of a flower.

The third course was disappointingly boring in comparison. It was a bowl of beef wonton consume with bok choy, which tasted not unlike wonton soups that you could get at any Chinese restaurant, or even in the T&T supermarkets. We tried to spice it up with the sauces that they had put before us, including the most authentic and fresh looking "XO" sauce I've ever seen, with the pieces of dried shrimp (one of the main ingredients) still visible.

The fourth course was an improvment - a plate of lobster chunks, cooked just enough to be sweet and succulent and sitting on the tail fin for presentation. Unfortunately it was served again with the same baby bok choy as the wonton soup dish, which made it a bit repetitve. While we were eating it, I was eyeing the crisp and bright green Chinese broccoli (Gai Lan) at the other table, wishing I was eating that instead. The dish also came with what looked like pieces of grilled onion, but the onion also tasted sweet somehow.

The fifth course consisted of two big pieces of chicken drumsticks served in a truffled gravy, with button and king oyster mushrooms. Mushrooms are one of my favourite foods so I heartily approved of this dish. I had previously eavesdropped on the table beside us who were also doing a tasting menu and heard the lady ask for "no mushrooms". I think I almost gasped out loud in dismay! By this point, the waiter had taken away our knives and forks from the previous courses and forgot to replace them. Looking at the size of the chicken pieces, even Rich was not brave enough to try to eat these with chopsticks alone, so we had to ask for more cutlery. It felt like an admission of defeat though.

The sixth course included pieces of beef tenderloin in a sweet sauce with asparagus, served in a "phoenix nest", which tasted a bit like a thin corn chip shell. If you've noticed that I have not been overwhelming you with details about the spices, flavourings and garnishes of these dishes, it's because the waiter only gave us the basics. I'm used to European and Continental tastings where the waiter or sometimes the chef describes in minute detail every ingredient of the dish, including some that you've never heard of before.

The waiter had come around so many times now to ask us how the meal was, that Rich decided it was time to dazzle him with his Cantonese. He replied "Ho sic" (good tasting), much to the waiter's delight.

The seventh and last course before dessert was again quite standard Chinese fare and therefore again seemed unexciting. It was a singapore noodle dish with the typical red and green pepper slices, topped with a large shrimp and a scallop. I've noticed by now that the courses we enjoyed the most were the ones that seemed less traditionally Chinese and were more "Western-fusion". I guess we've eaten Chinese food so often that we expected more unique and innovative dishes.

Now finally came the dessert. When you do a chef's choice tasting menu, they always start by asking whether there is any ingredient you are allergic to or really don't like to eat, so they can avoid it in the dishes (like the lady and her mushrooms!). I took this opportunity to say that I really didn't like Chinese desserts of any kind, so no red bean or sweet tofu soup for me! I knew that they had the option of serving European style desserts from Senses, and I was determined to get one of those. Mission accomplished in spades as I got a beautiful chocolate caramel cake while Rich got an Italian cheesecake.

All in all, it was a good meal and even the lesser dishes were tasty, but just unexciting. I'm glad we did this once but I think I'll return now to my traditional Chinese restaurants, where we could have eaten six meals for the price of this one.

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