Lai Wah Heen – Toronto’s Golden Child of Chinese

For a few wonderful days, we were joined by our generous friend, M, who inspired my strange desire to document food. Overjoyed to see him, we celebrated his arrival someplace where we’d been tempted to try for a while but had never gotten to: Lai Wah Heen.

I must admit that I was expecting something a bit different. Given the ratings and reviews of the restaurant, I had it in my head that Lai Wah Heen would have a feel more akin to what I suppose I’ve come to associate with Western fine dining (a few of which we sampled later on in our time with M). Instead, it had a texture that was still very much like what I am used to at most Chinese restaurants, simply raised to a superior level of quality and service. That’s not a bad thing, I suppose, but now what I expected. (Those darn expectations will be the death of me one day…)

The menu was simply overwhelming, teeming with more choices than we knew what to do with. After much flipping of pages and hemming and hawing, we decided it was only appropriate to begin with an appetizer, the Lobster Escaolopes, coupled with strawberries and mango and topped with house yogurt dressing. The lobster was still a bit tough and the flavor either too subtle or simply lacking for my taste. The fruit and dressing stood out much better, and something in it, I couldn’t determine what, added a pleasant crunch to the texture. I was a little disheartened by this opening, but not tremendously so.
Lobster Escalopes: 3.0/5

Dinner was family style, with all of us sampling whatever we wished and however much we wished from the dishes in the center of the table. The first to arrive was the Pan Seared Cakes of Scallop Mousse in Truffle Sauce with truffles and broccoli. This was easily the most intense truffle flavor I have encountered, perhaps to excess. The earthy tone was significantly stronger than the scallops, though not entirely overpowering, and it lingered on the palate for quite a while. The broccoli, like the unknowns from the appetizer, added a pleasant texture to contrast the almost gel-like texture of the scallop mousse, though they didn’t quite match one another; you couldn’t take a bite of both simultaneously without some flatware and oral gymnastics. Still, it’s hard to complain too much with the rich savor of truffle wafting through your mouth, and though it was perhaps a bit too intense, I wouldn’t turn it down on a second encounter.
Scallop Mousse with Truffle Sauce: 4.0/5

It did not occur to any of us as we ordered the Deep Fried Pork Tenderloin with Sweet and Sour Sauce and Lychee Fruit that we were effectively ordering sweet & sour pork. It wasn’t even until we took a bite that it hit us: it’s sweet & sour pork. That’s not a bad thing, and the exchange of lychee for the typical pineapple was an interesting touch that added, for me at least, just a touch of delight. Still, it wasn’t significantly different from what one might order from any Chinese restaurant in any city in North America. It was done far better, with fresher and higher quality foodstuffs, but it was otherwise too typical to be of any note.
Sweet & Sour Pork with Lychee: 3.0/5

I like my food a little interesting. I like the chef to be a little creative in crafting something unusual and different, especially at this level of dining. This lack was the one and only drawback to the Honey Glazed Chicken with Sesame Seeds. There was nothing particularly interesting about it: chicken, honey, sesame seeds; check. This did not, however, stop any of us from inhaling them. Like little nuggets of gold or ambrosia, we kept taking just a couple more and then a couple more until the plate was stripped of any of this heavenly food. I can’t actually even tell you what about it was so delectable. The chicken was well cooked and had a wealth of flavor, covered in a light but crispy batter. The honey was sweet and combined nicely with the meat without being at all overwhelming or syrupy. The sesame seeds were little more than a garnish, though even they added a light nuttiness to a bite occasionally. Essentially, the dish was one done exceedingly well. I would take another plate (or three) of these in a heartbeat. A definite yes for any trip.
Honey Glazed Chicken with Sesame Seeds: 4.5/5

Rather than stuffing ourselves to the gills (which would come later in the weekend), we wanted something potentially a tad lighter for our final dish, though I’m not sure we quite succeeded in that endeavor. We selected Vermicelli with Shredded Duckling and sprouts and vegetables. The duck was tender and flavorful, which I actually don’t always find to be the case, as I often encounter it rather dry. The soy sauce was a bit heavy for the vegetables, unfortunately, and the vermicelli was adequately satisfying. It was a fair dish and a nice addition to our collection, but unremarkable.
Vermicelli with Shredded Duckling: 3.5/5

None of us seemed to have much of a lust for dessert, so we ended our meal as it was. I might note at the end, here, that the service was actually a bit lacking. In removing the appetizer plates, my fork disappeared, and no attempt was made to replace it. In addition, my water glass remained rather empty throughout most of the evening, which was particularly distressing when the truffle sauce had become a bit overmuch. Altogether, I wasn’t disappointed in trying Lai Wah Heen, though I was a tad disappointed with the dinner itself. With the praise from others and the wonderful experience at their former daughter restaurant, Lai Toh Heen, my sights were a bit higher than they could deliver on.

Of course, they are known, I believe, more for their dim sum than their dinner. Perhaps this was our error? Coming at the wrong time, for the wrong meal? Maybe we’ll find out another day.

Lai Wah Heen: 3.60/5
108 Chestnut St., Toronto
Lai Wah Heen on Urbanspoon

About Matthew

I am a student and teacher of Christian spiritual formation, currently engaged in Ph.D. work at the Toronto School of Theology and University of Toronto. I also serve on the advisory council for Grafted Life Ministries and occasionally mentor others via various means. For fun, I dabble in multiple unusual art forms, collect gemstones, and read whatever strikes my fancy.
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