A Tale of Two Palates: Sara Waxman and Adam Waxman dine-out in Toronto’s restaurant scene and share their views.
They have never had a slow night for over fifty years. Saturday nights, you could wait at the bar for over an hour. The policy was no reservations. Sunday dinner, House of Chan was like a private club, with a lot of table-hopping and multi-generational families meeting and greeting.
It was the first restaurant to which we brought our children. When the original owner had to sell, a group of regulars bought the place, each one owning a $15,000 share or two. Their photographs still grace the wall at the entrance, along with paintings of the G.M. and the last owner, the late Donny Lyons, affectionately known as Doc. Some believed it was a Chinese restaurant, but that was secondary. The regulars came for the USDA Prime steak, and a huge lobster chosen from the tank, with a few sides of classic Cantonese and Szechuan. Years rolled past in the blink of an eye. When we heard the land at Bathurst and Eglinton was expropriated by the city for a new subway station, and that this Toronto institution was moving to a new location, we made a reservation for old times sake. And like the song goes, “everything old is new again.”
SW: House of Chan has had more than a facelift – it’s a full body makeover, and they did a terrific job. The same décor and color palate, but more compact. Even the name has been changed to Chan. The same chef has been here for forty years, as well as the same front of the house management, Rigby and Peter, who I wrote about in my restaurant reviews decades ago. And, looking around, I see many of the same customers. If the quality of the dishes, the flavors and presentations are the same, we will have stepped into a wonderful time warp.
AW: Reaching for the door handle I felt a wave of nostalgia. I have so many fond memories from my childhood of family dinners at the House of Chan. These are the same great doors. It’s like they picked up the façade and moved it a few blocks east. Inside, it’s the same setting, but more quaint. Sinking into the red leather banquet, unfolding the same laminate menu, with that unmistakable font, I feel at home. All the classic dishes I remember Dad ordering for us are still here.
SW: Servers all know exactly what this finicky crowd expects and every idiosyncratic demand is met without the blink of an eye. Except once, in the 1980s. We asked the manager, Aaron, if he could serve some bread. His answer: “When the bank gives me a buck, I’ll give you bread.” We had a good laugh and ordered an appetizer.
AW: There is certainly a level of professionalism and hospitality here that comes from experience and respect that you would sooner find in a hotel than in most restaurants today. I appreciate it. These days, typically, restaurants focus on food, not service. Here, service is what runs the ship.
The Main Event
SW: 12 oz. U.S. Prime New York sirloin cut with all the Chan trimmings is the dish I came for. The salad is the same: sliced beefsteak tomato, celery hearts, red pepper rings and a thick slice of salad onion. Nostalgia comes in the form of crisply fried onion rings and home fried potatoes. And here is the steak, medium rare, naked on the plate, with the aroma of the delicious char on the outside, and the inside, a perfect medium rare. Oh my. It is a carnivore’s delight, sliced and ready to be reluctantly shared. A dab of hot Chinese mustard, just to remind us that this is a Chinese restaurant. Sense memory kicks in. Yes. This is the same delectable steak we enjoyed as a family for years of Sundays.
AW: Apparently a lot of people don’t even open the menus here; they just know what they want: simple dishes; quality ingredients; great flavours. I like the ribs. If I were here with my friends, we would order them all: the back ribs, short ribs, long ribs, dried, breaded, salted, barbequed, Chan’s special and General Tso’s. The bbq’d long ribs are so meaty and lip-smacking tangy. The selection of shrimp is also diverse from Doctor Lyons shrimp with dynamite sauce and three kinds of mushrooms, and sesame shrimp with lemon sauce, to butterfly shrimp with oriental sauce. All plump and boldly flavoured. This is how I remember it. Beef with sizzling rice is a feast for the senses. We hear its arrival at our table. We see the steam and the vibrant colours of peppers, and smell the enticing aroma of the stir-fry. “Taste is king”, as they say, and the medley of vegetables are cooked perfectly crisp, the strips of beef are tender, and the rice is like toasted popcorn. These are the same recipes as before, the only difference is that I think the quality of ingredients is better now. We have better access to higher quality ingredients today, and we’re more health conscious. I am immediately impressed that the chow mein is a clean and healthy stir-fry, and the General Tso chicken and beef tastes sweet and spiced, and not overly breaded or sauced. Most people know House of Chan for steak and lobster. We’ve ordered the steak–perfectly charred, juicy and robust—and are reminded why Chan is one of Toronto’s great steak houses. House made plum sauce is unique, the best in the city, and I would order anything on this menu as an excuse to taste it. Its richness makes a mouthwatering pairing with the succulent seasoned strip loin. On any given night, you can see a celebrity crowd here: politicians, professional athletes, musicians, and the names in the news. Owner Penny Lyons attentively mixes some soy sauce and mustard for me to pair with the steak, and casually says, “Try this. This is what I made for the Rolling Stones when they came here.” Well…that is “Satisfaction”.
The Last Word
SW: Classics reign supreme: Frank Sinatra. Bentley. Chan. Doing it right.
AW: Some traditions only taste better with age. I want to come back here with my son.
~House of Chan, 514 Eglinton Ave West, 416-781-5575~
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 Publisher of DINE and Destinations magazine.