I first came across the best dim sum in North America in the ideal way—completely by chance. While covering the Toronto film festival back in the late nineties, I interviewed a famous Hong Kong director who, unlike the Hollywood hordes overrunning the Four Seasons, was staying at a hotel called the Metropolitan. We met in the lobby, and as we were heading to the lounge two equally well-known Chinese filmmakers stepped from an elevator.
"What's going on?" I asked. "Why are all the Chinese directors staying here?"
He smiled and said, "Have you tried the restaurant?"
I hadn't, but I noted its name, Lai Wah Heen. And I came back the next day at lunchtime for dim sum, promptly ordering the har gau, or crystal shrimp dumpling, the sheer simplicity of which makes it a traditional test of a restaurant's quality. From my first bite—the thin, sticky, translucent wrapper yielding to a rich, pink whole shrimp—I felt that I was finally tasting the platonic version of a dish I'd been enjoying for years without knowing how delicious it could truly be. So this is what har gau should taste like!
I began ordering like mad, and everything they served was great—so great, in fact, that the next day I invited friends to join me. They were equally dazzled. As we sat there drinking tea and marveling at dish after dish, I couldn't get over my astonishment at stumbling across such an amazing restaurant. The surprise wasn't that it would be in Toronto, which has more than 400,000 Chinese inhabitants, or that you'd find it in a hotel (many of the world's best Chinese restaurants have been attached to hotels), but that Lai Wah Heen wasn't more famous. How come I'd never even heard of this place?
For years I've had a love affair with dim sum. I have made pilgrimages to such shrines as the thirties Luk Yu Tea House in Hong Kong and gazed dreamily across the harbor while eating shark-fin dumplings at Kowloon's former Regent Hotel (now the Inter-Continental Hong Kong), often reputed to be the best dim sum restaurant on the planet. Back home I've crossed the United States questing for the perfect siu mai (steamed dumplings, usually with pork or shrimp). I've downed artery-murdering pot stickers in San Gabriel Valley strip malls and slurped soup dumplings in trendy East Village haunts like Chinatown Brasserie; I've gobbled shrimp-stuffed eggplant at the Bay Area's seafood restaurant Koi Palace and devoured deep-fried taro cake at Sun Sui Wah, which is not to be missed if life takes you to Vancouver.
But despite these many meals—after the first 20 or 30 places you start to lose count—my subsequent trips to Toronto only confirmed the wisdom of those Chinese filmmakers who pointed me to Lai Wah Heen. To find dim sum of comparable refinement you must go to the best restaurants in Hong Kong, the center of Cantonese cooking, which the late New York Times reporter (and gourmand) R. W. Apple once dubbed "dim sum nirvana."
It might seem a tad odd to associate dim sum with ethereal bliss, for it is not considered fancy food. Chinese chefs traditionally put their imagination into banquet cooking, producing elaborate multicourse dishes known for their richness, such as crispy suckling pig; rare ingredients like abalone and shark's fin; and colorfully named casseroles, for example, Buddha Jumps Over the Wall. By comparison dim sum can seem almost plebeian. In John Lanchester's fine Hong Kong novel Fragrant Harbor, the hero wryly ob-serves, "The thing visitors liked most was dim sum, whose name, like many Chinese food names, is a metaphor, meaning 'touch the heart'—a highly poetic name for dumplings."
He is, I'm happy to say, kidding. Far from being limited to dumplings (though there are quite a few varieties), the dim sum universe boasts a range that is dizzyingly vast; some restaurants rotate among hundreds of dishes. Whether steamed or deep-fried, roasted or braised, there are scads of things to eat, from barbecued duck and stir-fried bok choy to deep-fried cubes of tofu, spare ribs, scallop mousse, stuffed buns (or bao), and glutinous balls filled with black sesame paste. And this abundance is more than welcome. For dim sum belongs to that increasingly popular kind of eating that comprises small dishes, the Cantonese version of tapas, Middle Eastern meze, or sakana, those tiny plates they serve at a Japanese izakaya. While we in the West often enjoy such meals with alcohol, the Chinese accompany them with tea, which is quite sensible, as dim sum is eaten only in the morning and early afternoon.
The Chinese elite have always had chefs who prepared elegant, little courses—in the country's north they're known as dian xin—but it's said that ordinary people only began eating dim sum with the development of teahouses, most famously along the Silk Road, where travelers would stop by to wash these bites down with tea. Over the centuries it became a Cantonese speciality, and though dim sum is now more commonly found in restaurants than in teahouses, the association remains strong. When somebody asks if you want to go yum cha, which literally means "drink tea," it's like saying "Do you want to get a little bite to eat?" They're proposing you go get dim sum.
Such proposals are a big part of the everyday dim sum experience, a social ritual known for its easygoing good cheer. When I lived in Singapore I'd often see Chinese families out for a big Sunday evening banquet, and the rigid formality of the culinary performance—the waiters carefully low-ering the pricey delicacies onto every plate—nearly al-ways dampened the whole table's spirit. Almost the op-posite would happen when I saw families out for yum cha. Indeed, part of the joy of eating dim sum is the informality. Steamer carts roll by, servers wave bamboo baskets to see if you want the food in them, everybody's flashing their chopsticks to pick morsels from the communal plates. Even at the fabled Luk Yu—with its booths, ceiling fans, and notoriously grumpy waitresses—the whole thing feels loose, pleasurably chaotic, and somehow harmonious. But as with anything, there are levels. And just as Chez Panisse can roast a chicken with a perfection you never imagined and Masa can make you feel as if you've never before tasted sashimi, so the finest Cantonese restaurants show you what majesty can be lurking in the simplest of foods: a spoonful of broth, a slice of roast duck, a fish steamed with ginger and soy.
It's that level of skill you find at Lai Wah Heen, which, unlike so many good Chinese restaurants, does not occupy multiple floors or sprawl across a cavernous space. Although the name means "luxurious meeting place," Lai Wah Heen is, in fact, a neat, uncrowded, understated room with blond wood, black lacquered chairs, and a blissful air of quiet relaxation. (My favorite seats are in the tiny raised alcove.) While families do come and yak away happily on weekends, its scale means that two can eat here comfortably, and it is an ideal spot for a business lunch. This is clearly a room designed for serious—not solemn—eating. You order off a menu, not from a cart, and what this costs in exuberance is more than made up for by having your dishes individually cooked.
High Cantonese cuisine is renowned for its devotion to purity, for taking the finest fresh ingredients and bringing out their natural essence. Because it is so minimalist, such cooking is often easiest to describe in negative terms: not greasy, not salty, not heavy. All these happy negatives are true of Lai Wah Heen's dim sum.
Nowhere is this clearer than in one of the most basic dishes, the pork bun known as char siu bao. It's a hard recipe to wreck completely—few things are tastier than salty-sweet barbecued pork inside a bun—but even at good restaurants a cloying sauce often overwhelms the meat's flavor, while the steamed buns can be as leaden as a politician's jokes. At Lai Wah Heen, however, the feathery light bao brings out the pork's natural flavors. In fact, this char siu is so delicious, you may be tempted to order the house platter of roasted meats. Let me urge you to succumb. Although not on the official dim sum menu, the platter offers dim sum staples: that same barbecued pork, ravishingly good roast duck, soy sauce chicken, and jellyfish delightful enough to convert the most squeamish nibbler.
You would also do well to sample other such classics as the crystal shrimp dumpling, the char siu bao, and the sticky rice in lotus leaf, a creation done so delicately (the individual grains of rice shine like pearls!) that it seems the work of a Zen master. I always order the stir-fried pea shoots when they're in season and can't imagine leaving Toronto without having the lobster rice roll—an upscale riff on the classic shrimp version—with its big, succulent bites of shellfish all but bursting from a skin that manages to be, paradoxically, both firm and soft. It's a perfect dish, as is the cream custard in puff pastry (commonly known as an egg tart); my wife, Sandi, who's been eating this dessert her entire life, says it's the best she's ever tasted.
I had been dining at Lai Wah Heen for years when, one recent afternoon, I finally met the chef who had prepared all these great dishes. Terrence Chan is a hearty Hong Kong native who got his start at Luk Yu in 1978, worked at the Peninsula Hotel, and won a prestigious dim sum contest be-fore moving to Canada in the mid-eighties. He's been at Lai Wah Heen since its opening in 1995 and says his success lies in using fine local ingredients such as pork and duck—"The quality control in Canada is much better than in China," he deadpans—and taking enormous care with presentation. Chan has studied with Western chefs to enhance his ability to make creations that are pleasing to the eye; he has learned to bring panache to a dumpling through the witty use of color and to celebrate, say, autumn by forming orange-tinted glutinous rice into the shape of a tiny jack-o'-lantern filled with sweet pumpkin purée.
"Dim sum is getting better everywhere," Chan tells me. "This started in Hong Kong in the sixties and seventies. As people grew wealthier, they demanded higher quality. That's still going on today. As China gets richer, Chinese food grows more innovative. Dim sum is going through an evolution—it's always changing."
And its high end is aiming even higher. Talking to Chan, you sense he's riding an entire wave of cultural confidence brought on by China's economic boom and rocketing international prominence. In his kitchen this means new opportunities to experiment. Just as Wolfgang Puck and Jean-Georges Vongerichten have introduced Asian elements into their cooking—culinary imperialism at its most delectable—so Chan has begun expanding the dim sum repertoire by incorporating such luxurious Western ingredients as black truffles and foie gras. Chinese food in North America, in all its regional forms, is becoming ever more visible, from the increasingly sophisticated restaurants of southern California to Mr. Chow's recently opened downtown Manhattan location.
Before I leave, Chan guides me back into the kitchen, which is hearteningly spic-and-span, and introduces me to Ken Tam, Lai Wah Heen's affable executive chef, who has expanded the menu beyond the Cantonese to include many specialities from the mainland. "He is a very good chef," Chan says.
Frankly, he is preaching to the choir. The previous night my wife and I had reveled in Tam's Peking duck—the finest I've had outside Beijing—and a lobster with ginger and scallions that was a sublime example of inspired Cantonese simplicity.
And this, I realize, is the final reason why Lai Wah Heen is a peerless dim sum restaurant. If you can't make it here in time to touch your heart with the small dishes—or if you simply want to come back and eat again that evening—you're in luck. "Believe it or not," Sandi says happily over mango pudding, "this place may be even better at night than it is during the day."
Dim sum for two at Lai Wah Heen starts at about $80. At 108 Chestnut St., Toronto, Ontario; 416-977-9899; metropolitan.com/lwh.