Thursday, September 07, 2006

The Shock of the New

When is the last time you tried food that was completely foreign to you? If it was when you were six and had broccoli for the first time, your tastebuds are overdue for a shock. Even if you are an adventurous eater who would embrace cod cheeks and mangosteens with open arms, you may find that you can still treat yourself to new experiences.

That is what happened to me and Mike a few days ago. I had the pleasure of spending the Labor Day weekend in Toronto because Mike was there for the consulting project he's been doing. On my last trip to this cosmopolitan city, we were met with so many more wonderful gastronomic options than we had time to enjoy. So, I was thrilled to go back for another chance to taste Toronto.

The highlight of this food-filled weekend was undoubtedly the dim sum at Sam Woo Seafood. Toronto has a large Chinatown section and the traffic jams to go along with it, but we found our dim sum palace in the suburb of Scarborough, about 15 minutes out of the city. This area is full of Asian restaurants of every nationality, Asian groceries and other businesses catering to the area's large asian population. An article on the internet tipped us off that the best Chinese food was not necessarily found downtown, but in the outlying areas where most of Toronto's Chinese community actually lives. This same article directed us straight to Sam Woo. Unfortunately, it did not specify that we should look for Sam Woo Seafood, as opposed to Sam Woo Barbecue. After an embarrassing scene in Sam's Barbecue, we were directed to the opposite end of the strip mall where we found Sam Woo Seafood. All was right with the world when we were seated in the bustling, circular dining room with windows all along the outside wall, ornate fixtures and pink linen tablecloths. Sam Woo is actually a small chain with restaurants in the Los Angeles area, as well as Las Vegas. Since we were the only two people in the restaurant who were not speaking Chinese, this chain was good enough for us.

We soon discovered that Sam Woo does not serve its dim sum from a cart. I had been hoping for this visual aid for my first ever dim sum experience. Instead, we got a menu and a pencil to mark our selections. Sam Woo is kind, offering descriptions in Chinese and English, but we still had no idea what our selections would look like when they arrived at the table. It may have taken a minute to deduce which item was which, but all of it was freshly made, steaming hot and bursting with exotic sweet, sour or spicy flavors. It is hard to believe that both Mike and I have lived this long without eating dim sum. It is like tapas, except it is Chinese, and it is for breakfast! Sure, we could have gone all out and ordered the fried duck feet, but even the simplest dishes were totally new to us in their flavor and presentation. Here are our favorites:

A moist, steamed rice patty with vegetables and meat, wrapped in a lotus leaf.

I thought we mistakenly ordered a strange Chinese version of creme brulee, but it turned out to be our steamed turnip cake. It was soft, gelatinous and incredibly comforting with its wonderfully bland flavor.

Shrimp and scallop dumplings in pretty green wrappers.

The simplest was my favorite: Juicy pork meatball dumplings with a sour dipping sauce.

I almost hesitated to write about Tutti Matti, an Italian restaurant right on the fringe of Toronto's Chinatown. It's another Italian restaurant in a city full of exemplary Italian restaurants. Still, the fact is that the food at Tutti Matti is excellent. It is a small place on a quiet side street with a long, narrow dining room, open kitchen and dim candlelight. Ducking into this lively, welcoming space on a cold, rainy night (thank you, Tropical Storm Ernesto), we were instantly enveloped with the warmth of this little neighborhood restaurant. It felt like we happened upon an undiscovered gem.

Tutti Matti is real Italian food by my definition, meaning fresh pasta, deeply flavored meats and light, creative dishes. One of bite of our appetizer of seasonal veggies with cheese and truffle pate in a chickpea flour crepe told us that we were going to enjoy this meal very much. Although the menu made choosing extremely difficult, Mike and I both ordered pasta dishes. All the pasta is handmade, so it is thick and rustic in appearance. My long hand-rolled noodles, much like thick spaghetti, could have used a bit more salt. They lacked the chewy bite of dried pasta, but the soft strings of dough were light and so different from dried spaghetti, that they fall into a class of their own.

My hand-rolled spaghetti with wild mushroom ragu and artisanal sausage. I enjoyed the dish, but could not distinguish enough strong, individual flavors of mushrooms and sausage. Mike's penne with duck ragu had a more dominant meaty flavor that we both preferred.

A trip to Tutti Matti is worth it for their amazing tiramisu. The mascarpone topping is lightened with cream and the soft lady fingers are flavored with just enough espresso so there is not a hint of sogginess. We have eaten enough mediocre tiramisu to be quite jaded, but this simple, single-layer, homemade version was the best one we have ever had.

Good Italian food is hard to beat, but try to find a restaurant or type of cuisine that throws you for a loop once in awhile. Now that I am hooked on dim sum (you could eat it every day, and never have exactly the same things--the combinations are endless!), I will have to remember to follow this advice myself.

Sam Woo Seafood
325 Bamburgh Circle
Scarborough, ON M1W 3Y1
(416) 502-2888

Tutti Matti
364 Adelaide St. W.
(416) 597 8839


christine said...

Sounds like you had a great culinary adventure Julie. I've never been to Toronto but it's on my list of cities to see and eat (in)!

J said...

hi julie, great dim sum is hard to find outside of asia but the meal you so wonderfully described sure looks like it fits the bill ;)

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