Mon.-Thu. 11:30 a.m. - 11 p.m.; Fri. 11:30 a.m. - midnight; Sat. 12 p.m. - midnight; Sun. 12 p.m. - 11 p.m. Licensed. All major cards. 866-7816.
Maybe I am wrong. Maybe a restaurant considered by many to be the best Chinese dining experience in the city consistently offers superb Szechwan cooking. Maybe the smell of lillies coming from a massive bouquet in the corner doesn't overwhelm everyone as it did our guest. Maybe the towering glassed-in wine cellar that acts as post and lintel for the elaborate entrance really sells crates of $1200 a bottle Petrus to go with the promise of a superb dining experience. Maybe, but the promise was all we got.
This is a beautiful restaurant in lovely pastel tones. It is a place where anyone can feel comfortable, whether dressed in tuxedo or t-shirt. There is a small but decent selection of vegetarian dishes. An impressive wine list. But what kind of Chinese restaurant is it? There is no hand-written menu on the wall, no daily special at dinner, no chopsticks dispensed automatically at the table, no additional bowl offered to a third diner when the soup for two arrives with easily enough for everyone, no knowledge of our first waiter as to what was in the dishes or where the meat or fish came from, no attempt to remove the bones from the small filet of dory ($45 - arghh!!); and worst of all-no flavour.
That is not quite true. There was flavour of sorts. Even water has flavour. But what we found was a universal blandness to the cooking that showed a lack of caring in the kitchen. Chinese cooking is wonderful not because of the ingredients but because of the way flavours work so well together. This is what can make a sweet and sour seafood soup ambrosial: a popping of sweet and sour, vinegar and pepper, along with the briny sweetness of fresh seafood. However we were served a starchy peppery stew as complex and interesting as a one-string erhu. The minimal flavour theme extended to the Taiwanese fried rice which was less inspired than a week-old rice cake. Then there was the braised duck, our waiter's recommended dish. This was comfort food. A little fat, a little skin, a mouthful of meat, braised with ineffectual soybeans. The (un)fortunate dish got a slash of anise but the overwhelming taste was of limp oyster sauce. A few large shiitake mushrooms showed the potential of the kitchen. These were served with the Hunan beef. They were fleshy, flavourful and had absorbed levels of flavour missing everywhere else. A meal of these would have been sublime. A taste of one or two showed how pallid the other dishes were in comparison.
The fish was a disappointment. The green onions tasted as if they had been in ice water too long. This dish is best with a few good flavour notes: the freshness of the fish, a little ginger, some scallions, a soy based sauce for braising. But ours was artlessly prepared and served. The sauce was weak, the flavour missing, and the bones left in. Strike three and we were out.
We went elsewhere for dessert and ended up at Guy and Dodo (1444 Metcalfe, 842-3636) with a spectacular cheese plate and port. The service was so friendly it was practically intimate; the atmosphere and music reminded us of Paris. The cheeses were at a perfect temperature and oozed with distinct flavours. The recommended port was inexpensive and a great match. The total bill (about $75 with tip for three people) was less than a third of what was paid at Le Piment Rouge. If we had had any cheese left on the platter, I would have taken it home; on the other hand, I do not remember being in a Chinese restaurant and not wanting to bring the leftovers home for lunch the next day. At Le Piment Rouge we left them on the table. And dear reader, if you feel differently, please write.
A final comment: This may be a bizarre way to eat a meal (dinner here, dessert there); but increasingly we find that if the meal does not deliver what was promised, why wait for dessert? Better to scuttle to a better restaurant and ask if it will serve just dessert and coffee or, in our case, the cheese and port. Reviewed by Barry Lazar