Crown Princess (Toronto)

Back to Canada. We took the train from Montreal to Toronto, a journey that takes longer than I’d thought it would before we purchased our tickets, and which mostly goes through rather boring countryside. Well, there may be things of interest in there, I suppose, but nothing very interesting to look at from the train. Arriving at our hotel around 2.15, we were all starving—we’d foolishly assumed there’d be food to eat on the train and there was nothing beyond snacks, and so very few of us had eaten anything since breakfast. Along with a few others I went out for a small snack to a Taiwanese place down the road from our hotel. This is not an account of that small snack. This is an account of the meal a few hours later that is the reason for our having gone out for only a small snack: a full-on Cantonese banquet dinner at Crown Princess, rated by many as the best formal Cantonese restaurant in Downtown Toronto. The best Chinese food, otherwise, I’m told is out in the suburbs of Markham and Scarborough. I’ve no idea where Crown Princess ranks in the Greater Toronto Cantonese hierarchy but I can tell you this was a very good meal.

The restaurant is located right past the corner of Bay and St. Joseph streets and is a pretty large and imposing space. The aesthetic is somewhere on the way from attractive to garish—how far along would depend on your point of view: it certainly is meant to signal luxe. Our reservation was early on a Thursday, at 6 pm, and the restaurant was relatively empty when we arrived. By the time we left, closer to 8, it had begun to fill up. There were lots of large family groups there for banquet meals. We weren’t a family group but we were there for a banquet meal as well. We were a party of 11, with two vegetarians among us. We ordered the banquet menu for 10 for the non-vegetarians and a number of separate dishes for the vegetarians. You might think the larger fraction callous for leaving the ethical eaters to their own devices but they were very happy with their food as well.

So, what did we get? The vegetarians started off with an order of spring rolls. This was followed by a stir-fry of mixed vegetables served in a taro nest, an order of braised tofu with two kinds of mushrooms, and braised eggplant in spicy sauce. All of it was good; the eggplant was probably the favourite. Portions being large, many of us carnivores sneaked tastes of their food as well.

Our dinner was considerably more baroque. There are 11 items on the set banquet menu for 10. It starts with Peking duck (though this came out second for us) and ends with an order of house made cookies. Along the way there was crab meat soup with fish maw (a highlight for me), a stir-fry of the non breast parts of the duck served with lettuce cups, stir-fried scallops and chicken with yam, braised snow pea leaves with enoki mushrooms and conpoy (perhaps my favourite dish of the meal), crispy chicken served with a spicy-sweet sauce, double-steamed sea bass with ginger and onion (another highlight), stir-fried twin lobsters with ginger and onion (ditto), seafood fried rice (perfect), and braised e-fu noodles with abalone sauce.

The emphasis, as is not unusual for Cantonese food of this genre, was largely on subtle flavours and textures. I’m not sure if every member of the group found this to be to their liking over the course of the entire meal—a few people I fear found more than a few dishes to be too bland. But I think almost everyone enjoyed the experience anyway, and there were a few dishes that were uniformly liked by all: the Peking duck, the stir-fried duck, the lobster, the steamed sea bass.

For pictures of the space and the food please launch the slideshow below. Scroll down to see how much it all cost and for thoughts on service and value.

Service was excellent: always present and solicitous without being overbearing; and our head server was quick to explain things to people who had questions or needed guidance on how to eat some dishes. We had a large number of dishes coming out but things never got frantic; and they were quick to transfer things to smaller bowls or plates once we’d made big dents in them. Price? With 11 beers and two glasses of wine the total came to just short of $780 CAD before tip and I want to say $940 with tip (I was in charge of ordering but not paying, which is always the preferred arrangement). So about $720 USD or roughly $65/head. For the nature, quality and quantity of what we ate I would say it was a screaming deal.

It is, of course, not surprising that the meal was so good. Toronto is second only to Vancouver in the strength of its Chinese, and particularly Cantonese food scene. And though both cities are superior to greater Los Angeles and San Francisco in this regard this meal did make me think that we should really do a proper Cantonese dinner at Sea Harbour or Elite in the San Gabriel Valley the next time we’re in Los Angeles—we only use them as dim sum houses but that’s not even their major strength.

Alright, the next food stop will be in Montreal. After that we’ll move to north Minneapolis before coming back to Toronto for a modern Mexican dinner.

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