There aren't many lengths to which I won't go in pursuit of a good meal, no distance I'm unwilling to travel for serious snacking.
Tonight's odyssey though is definitely testing my resolve. Through a conspiracy of missed opportunities and a nearly diabolical inability to adequately stock my pantry, I haven't eaten since breakfast and have somehow found myself driving into a snowstorm all white and staticky like a dead TV channel, with a ravenous pack of stray dogs in my belly yelping what appears to be an unrelenting selection of obscene sea shanties at me in some dialect of starve-ese, insisting they'll only be silenced by tearing in to some seriously top-shelf nosh.
Our reservations at Tanchikee aren't for an hour yet, the early departure a precaution insisted on by my merry photographer lest we be late. I'm momentarily distracted from gut-rumblings to notice we're already passed York Mills. I beg my canine chorus for patience as the car chugs slowly up a snowy DVP pointed north towards frost giants and Richmond Hill's Chinese enclave while, illuminated from the countless tail-lights of cautious northbound traffic, claret stained flakes collect across the windshield of our car only intermittently disturbed by humming wipers. Amid whispered hiss of highway noise a promise in a high-dialed, half-remembered dreamy dialect will translate this trudge through the snow into a tasty meal. At least I'm hoping it will. If this paragraph is any indication I'm becoming delirious with hunger.
I have one caveat for this meal: I want the specials. I haven't come all this way to the belly of the burbs for a dumbed down version of Cantonese for Canadian palates; no passable downtown versions, I want the real deal. You see, opportunities to eat the specials for a white guy like me are as illusive as an early spring-- what with all the menus liberally dusted in Chinese characters-- so it helps that tonight I've stacked the deck of dinner company with some of my own Chinese characters to compensate for my utter illiteracy and act as my own personal Brandenberg gate connecting East and West. I've been given assurances that this place rocks the wok, infusing its essence into all the dishes. Later, amid the the crumpled napkins, half empty cups of tea, spoonfuls of coconut custard and detritus of a truly exceptional meal I can honestly say that Tanchikee was definitely worth the drive.
Plazas abound in this neck of the woods and it's hard to tell all the places apart after awhile, though it's comforting to know that for all the culinary trends that come and go, the use of colourful neon signs is a charm that Chinese restaurants seem tenaciously proud to maintain.
Stamping the snow off our feet we're greeted upon entering this unassuming shop by incense and oranges from the ubiquitous tiny red altar adorning the threshold of this joint. We spot our dining companion (he's hard to miss since there are fewer people here than thoughts in a supermodel's head; apart from one or two intrepid families dining at a few scattered tables, the place is deserted... but return visits reveal a restaurant packed to the rafters on weekends so be forewarned).
Heading towards one of the colourful booths that line the far wall we shuffle off our coats, pour out very flavourful cups of tea and hearty bowls of "old fire soup"and get down to business.
Lobster's on special this visit and for $24.95 you get two weighing in at a pound each. The charming proprietress, who doubles as our server tonight, takes care of the introductions bringing a pair of live ones to our table just to make sure we're happy with the selections. They arrive back shortly after, having been chopped up, deep-fried and served with salty brown, soy-like Maggi sauce and golden minced garlic. The salty sauce plays an excellent counterpoint to the natural sweetness of the lobster and garlic. Quickly dispensing with chopsticks we greedily dig in with our fingers only briefly taking up the utensils again for long enough to scrape the delicious tamale out of the shells. I've always thought lobster was overrated for the amount of work involved but this version is as compelling as it is achingly tasty. And the price is definitely right!
The lobster is quickly followed by fragrant five-spice roasted pigeon ($13.95) chopped up and arranged playfully on the plate with everything including the head. The more seasoned of my Chinese companions informs me that his uncle used to love biting off the back of the head and sucking out the brain but when I did likewise I was slightly underwhelmed enough by its resemblance flavour and consistency-wise to a mild livery mousse to stop short of recommending it as a 'must-try' experience. The crispy skin conceals dark, slightly chewy meat with an equally mild and pleasant liver taste which gives way to familiar duck-like game bird flavour blending well with the five-spice. The roasted pieces of fowl are further enhanced by dipping into the worcestershire sauce and salt provided as condiments. This is an app you'd order as much for a conversation starter as for its taste and our party definitely gets some decent conversational mileage out of the experience.
The highlight of the night comes in the form of honey glazed oysters in black bean, chili and garlic sauce ($13.95). Amazing is all i have to say. Want more? Like redefine-how-good-a-mollusk-can-taste good. Like eye-popping-ear-smoking-flip-your-fucking-lid-like-a-cartoon good. Good enough to get the dogs in my belly singing a hallelujah chorus. The huge, plump oysters are dredged in corn starch and flash fried so they're crispy on the outside and still soft and almost creamy on the inside. Cross your favourite sweet, campfire-roasted-marshmallow-memories with the deep blue sea and you've got something approximating how spectacular this dish was. I wanted to take what little of the sweet, salty, spicy sauce was left on the plate after we'd shamelessly stuffed our gobs and dab a little behind each of my ears so I could feel as sexy as these oysters for the rest of the night. Holy-shit good.
Our final dish was an old stand-by: Stirfried beef and broccoli. It's simple and everyone's probably had it a million times. More than any of the other ones we've had tonight, Tanchikee's chef's take on this menu stalwart demonstrates his skill with the wok and his ability to impart "wok hei", the essence of the wok, to the food. It's illusive to describe but you definitely notice it in the slightly smoky flavour -- this dish is beef and broccoli in HD. The beef is buttery melt-in-your-mouth good and each slice is perfectly coated with a soy and cooking wine infused sauce yet no excess pools at the bottom of the plate. The beef is flecked with shallot and chili and rests on a bed of crunchy, brilliantly jade-green ginger-steamed gai lan. Tanchikee's rendition of this humble dish is so well constructed, its flavours so persuasive, it guarantees blanket amnesty for the ceaseless throngs of paler, more wretched versions that, thanks to hunger or high, have washed up on your desperate threshold like so much cheerful, sludgy medical waste in bright red paper delivery bags.
During the course of this fantastic feast, the conversation is equally good and is the subject of it's own post but sufficed to say it's always that much better to share a meal with people who are passionate about food. And both of my dining companions fit that bill. In fact, I'm convinced that most everyone Cantonese is a de facto foodie if the food they enjoy is as good as varied and as well executed as this and it makes the distance we've travelled for this meal utterly trivial. All this makes missing out on food like this because of a language barrier so much more sad and means moments like this be savoured as much for the exceptional quality of the food as for the fact that, like leap years, the space between these moments is few and far between. I can't recommend you'll have company as good as what I managed to wrestle up but you definitely can't go wrong with the specials at Tanchikee.
Photos courtesy Adrienne Tam