Rick McGinnis/Metro toronto
Grand’s Seafood House
Address: 611 Gerrard E.
Hours: Sun. - Thurs., 8 a.m. - 11 p.m., Fri. - Sat., 8 a.m. - midnight
Dinner for 2 w/tax & tip: $40
*** 1/2 (out of five)
There was a time when foodies used to keep their favourite dim sum restaurants secret, in some vain, selfish hope that they’d be able to avoid long waits on weekends and the disappointment of watching serving carts get picked clean within a few yards of the kitchen. Dim sum has crossed over now — like tapas, it’s a word used almost generically, to refer to precious little plates of food that bear little, if any, resemblance to the fare on offer in Cantonese-run restaurants all over the world.
Grand’s Seafood House in Chinatown East is one of the city’s originals — owner Peter Chan has been serving dim sum here since he opened the place in the early ’80s, after moving to Toronto from England in 1979. It’s a big space, two storefronts wide, and it’s as busy as you’d expect on the weekend when it pulls in a crowd from Riverdale and beyond.
Chan, affable but intense, has seen a lot of changes in the neighbourhood. There’s a group of photos on the wall by the door, of Chan and a younger Jean Chrétien at a Liberal Party event, and a few years ago, he was part of a group of businessmen who went to City Hall and Queen’s Park to plead for a bit of help in the aftermath of the SARS crisis. He points out the development happening across the Don, new condos that will bring in new customers, changing Chinatown East even more.
For most non-Chinese, dim sum is a weekend treat reserved for Sunday brunch, a menu usually restricted to the dumplings and pot stickers, steamed buns and leaf-wrapped rice dishes that have started taking their place in the frozen food section of the supermarket. As Chan explains, though, this is hardly the traditional way that dim sum is consumed: “In the south of China, for the Cantonese, it’s a snack. In the morning, they don’t want something heavy. They just want dim sum.”
As Chan explains, this is real Chinese food, more authentic than the chop suey and noodle dishes that, for non-Chinese patrons, stood in for a whole, huge cuisine. At the heart of it all are dim sum’s greatest hits — har gow and siu mai, the shrimp dumpling and steamed pork ball wrapped in egg pastry that outsell most other items on the almost infinite dim sum repertoire.
These two dishes and beef balls are what most people ask for first, Chan says. “After they’ve eaten them, if they’re still hungry, they’ll eat the other stuff.”
The other stuff, though, is where the real adventure begins with dim sum — the intriguing, “challenging” dishes that fill the stacked bamboo steamers, but often get ignored in the hunt for fried dumplings and steamed barbecue pork buns. Even the biggest dim sum fanatics admit that they’ve never had the nerve to try the little bowls of chicken feet or glistening chicken feet that Chinese patrons prefer even to har gow.
“When people come to a Chinese restaurant, sometimes they’re scared,” Chan says. “This is the problem, you have to try it. With the chicken feet there’s a lot of work going on, to make it soft and make it taste good. If you don’t try it, you won’t know it — you have to cross the barrier and try something different.”