Sikong Tu of the Tang Dynasty once said to a poetic friend, “you cannot speak of poetry if you cannot tell taste.” Golden Court, with its lavish décor, sparkling chandeliers, and dazzling display of Cantonese craftsmanship brings out the poet and the palate in us all.
Entering the Opulent Golden Court Abalone Restaurant, we are ready to place ourselves in the hands of masters of authentic Cantonese cuisine. Peter Tam has promised to guide us through a menu of spectaculars, rare dishes that one might find in a traditional fine-dining restaurant in China. Golden Court is renowned among aficionados for true-to-source cooking and its specialty: dried abalone.
Dried abalone is re-hydrated in cold water for five to seven days, then carefully cooked for two to three days to make it soft and tender. Served with fanfare, it is our first course. The flavour is mysterious; hard to describe; it is delicate with an essence of the sea, akin to a scallop, but the texture of the flesh is firm. Its most striking feature is its smooth luxurious texture. It is low in fat and, we are told, has many health benefits for our eyes and skin.
We’re treated to a display of four different kinds of dried Abalone. The smallest, from Iwate Prefecture in Japan, is known for its richness of its flavour. The largest, from South Africa, has a more meaty consistency. There is a range of quality and preparation for this, the world’s most expensive gastropod mollusk. I can’t believe I ate a $900 abalone.
From our seats at the table, dried abalone is a luxury edible. However, traders in comestibles see dried abalone as an investment. Harvested in only a handful of countries. It takes a minimum of 21 days to dry abalone.
As it dries, it shrinks to 1/4 of its weight. The longer you dry it, the more money it is worth. A 20-year-old abalone can cost more than $10,000. Historically available only to emperors, it is steadily gaining in popularity in North America, simply because of its exclusivity factor.
The best abalone in the world comes from Japan. “Since Fukushima happened,” says Tam, “They don’t harvest enough abalone to export any- more.” He asks rhetorically, “So where do you get it from?” And answers emphatically, “The past!” At this time, Tam has acquired enough abalone in storage to last for decades. For now, “If you want to taste it,” says Tam, “You have to come here or go back in time.” That is why it is so expensive—because it is so rare. Tam is the biggest supplier of abalone in Canada and supplies 80% of the restaurants in Toronto.
Cantonese cuisine is lively, refined, requires craftsmanship and offers the widest selection of Chinese dishes. This kitchen has outdone itself with extravagant presentations. Every detail of each plate is meticulously tended. Cuttlefish stuffed with shrimp mousse is beset within a garland of vibrant green broccoli overlooked by two dueling dragons carved and sculpted from carrots. Colossal stir-fried shrimp rest on a raft of Chinese broccoli. Huge plump scallops lightly dusted with spice, are arranged as the catch of a carrot-sculpted fisherman. The time and effort required for presentation are as inspiring to the eye as the ingredients are to the palate.
Golden Court relies on fresh flavours and exquisite presentation rather than aggressive spicing. Classic dishes served table-side by well-trained staff extend the flare of the kitchen to the front of house as traditional dishes like Peking duck, whole roasted suckling pig, and deep-fried crispy pigeon are served to surrounding tables. For our table, the richest chicken soup we’ve ever tasted seduces us. Two hundred chickens are cooked in the base, along with Chinese preserved ham, for five days. The result is a clean and intensely concentrated stock that soothes the soul.
In ancient times weary travelers would stop along the Silk Road for tea and small bites. A tradition grew. Friends would get together and sample a variety of flavourful dishes. Dim Sum became a pastime, an art form, and an accessible luxury. In Toronto, the options are few. We want authenticity, but we need clean, fresh and healthy. Dim sum is made for sharing, as are the Cantonese dishes that we mix and match. Since many ingredients are seasonal, the menu changes at least four times per year, and there are frequently new items on the menu. Dining at Golden Court is a social and culinary delight, and also reflects the yum cha tradition of tea service that pairs with dim sum. High-quality jasmine, pu-erh, and green teas are all aromatic and nutraceutical.
At Golden Court, we indulge in authentic Cantonese cuisine from dim sum to roast duck and that rarest of oceanic gems, abalone.
Adam Waxman is an award winning travel journalist focusing on food, wine and well being. As well as an actor in film, television and formerly, the Stratford Festival, he is the Associate Publisher and Executive Editor of DINE and Destinations magazine.