After scurrying through the colourful China Town streets, R&D’s sleek black sign on a normal looking building seems so out of place. There’s no large sign out front packed with too much information or walls covered with colour slips of hand written menu items. Instead, the cavernous dining room with soaring ceilings features walls adorned with vibrant paintings and an opened kitchen where fans can watch the Master Chef himself cooking away.
Indeed, most of the earlier R&D visitors are likely MasterChef Canada fans. I can still remember the episode when Eric Chong presented the lobster chow mein ($25) to the judges, looking apprehensive as they tuck into it before a smile erupts on their face. So, it was one of the must eat dishes for this visit … I want that smile to erupt on mine.
It’s an interesting idea to use the thicker chewy chitarra noodles in lieu of the thin egg noodles normally assimilated with chow mein. Personally, the chitarra noodle’s (“yow mein” or “oil noodle”) texture is more enjoyable for me. But, the downfall is its thickness requires a stronger sauce to stand-up against the doughy pasta - in this case a ginger and green onion gravy with an overpowering ginger element. Sure, it smelled amazing when presented, but the ginger’s spiciness leaves a sting at the back of your throat and causes the lobster’s sweetness to be rendered non-existent. Possibly, a lighter XO sauce combined with green onions would alleviate the need for so much ginger?
The shiitake polenta fries ($8), an airy concoction of smooth polenta and micro-fine pieces of mushroom, is delicious. Dusted with mushroom powder and served with a side of mushroom infused ketchup, it’s definitely not a traditional but so good that you shouldn’t care. Adding chopped green onions on top makes it even better (especially if you don’t like ketchup) – some pieces were on my plate from the lobster chow mein and they tasted quite nice with the fries.
The scallops ($23) with its intense sear and just cooked through doneness is what people look for with this seafood. But the sear, in part, seemed to develop from a crystallized sauce rather than a high cooking temperature causing the salty crust to be more chewy than crisp. Even so, it had great flavour and although I was worried the R&D chilli sauce and Sichuan hollandaise’s spicy elements would overpower the scallop they were actually quite muted and paired well.
Strangely, other than a single full scallop, the rest were served in half pieces as if they were cut through to see if cooked. C’mon R&D, for $23 it’s not unreasonable to just serve full sized scallops – cutting some in half to make it seem like there’s more pieces is really unnecessary.
Despite taking forever to arrive the General Sander’s chicken ($25) was a satisfying way to round out the meal. The chicken stole the show: the crispy salty coating encapsulating juicy succulent chicken. It really didn’t need either the kung pao sauce or Sichuan maple syrup as there was already so much flavour in the breading.
The waffles were a great novelty item to include but sadly didn’t showcase these eggy delights the way they are meant to be enjoyed – lightly cooled but straight off the waffle maker so the thin crust and airy centre remains; at R&D, it was warm but dense and soft. Although the drizzles of kung pao sauce added colour to the dish’s presentation, the sauce’s ultra-salty flavour is just not for me and I wish it were left off so I could have the waffles purely with the maple syrup instead.
R&D has three tempting desserts – the kahuna being a massive banana split that’s meant for sharing. Stuffed from the four pieces of chicken, we opted for the coconut sugar crème brûlée ($8) instead. The combination of palm sugar and coconut gave the dessert a warm caramel colour and a flavour reminding me of a candy I used to eat at my grandmother’s house – I want to say Riesen. The sugar crust was executed perfectly an even thickness across the entire dish. The scoop of sour cherry ice cream paired nicely in the dessert to balance the sweetness.
Serving their piña colada with tapioca pearls ($13) is a great idea. As an aside, when bubble tea rose in popularity in the 90’s I thought it may be a fad but with the continued success it’s proven the drinks are here to stay. Afraid it would be overly sweet, I requested less of the chai syrup which may not have been the smartest move as there’s a hefty dose of run in the cocktail.
Sprinkling toasted coconut on top is an interesting idea but the hard slivers somewhat detracts from the silky drink and chewy tapioca. What would be even better is if R&D allowed diners to add tapioca to any cocktail as it could work well in the Shanghai sour as well. Too bad you’ll never be able to get this boozy concoction in those sealed cups to go.
I’m glad R&D opened in the heart of Toronto’s original Chinatown – a once vibrant busy community, to me, seems to be waning as the suburbs of the North built up. Hopefully, R&D will bring some fresh blood to liven up the neighbourhood, attracting younger individuals to the area once again. Because, yes, they will come for the trendy restaurant, but while walking there perhaps become enticed to shop at a local supermarket (has amazing prices on fresh produce that’s often sourced daily) or return to tuck into a bowl of plump dumplings and noodles.
Along the way it’s great to see Eric Chong’s succeed, an example where pursuing his dreams allowed him to do what he loves in life. For those who have “Tiger” parents pushing them become a white collared professional, even more reason to bring your parents to R&D! Personally, it’s inspiring to see his story unfold as I too want to give up my desk job and work in the culinary world instead.
Overall mark - 7 out of 10
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Gastro World's Grading System
- Anything under 5 - I really disliked and will never go back
- 6 - decent restaurant but I likely won't return
- 7 - decent restaurant and I will likely return
- 8 - great restaurant that I'd be happy to recommend
- 9 - fantastic restaurant that I would love to visit regularly and highly recommend
- 10 - absolute perfection!
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