My happy place!

House of Gourmet Restaurant – Toronto, Canada

We all have our happy place. That one place that, whether you”re there in spirit or in person, can make everything alright regardless of the conditions you may find yourself in. For some it”s a beach in the South Pacific, for others it can be the Eiffel tower, or the nook behind a tree where they had their first kiss. For some it may even be a postcard of a place they will arrive to some day.  For me, it”s the place that I”ve dubbed “Perfect Won-Ton” – The House of Gourmet Chinese restaurant in the heart of Toronto”s Chinatown.

I”ve been going to this place since I was a teenager.  I eat with chopsticks, but I don”t speak a word of Cantonese or Mandarin, and the servers there aren”t particularly even nice to me – I would say that they are indifferent to my presence, and sometimes surprised that I know their menu so well  – but it”s home to me. And I smile warmly when they slap the menu on the table and say, “OK, you ready to order?” Once or twice I”ve thought about hugging the server, but I would hate to be asked to leave. So I”ve held back and simply smiled.  No matter what time of day or night I arrive to Toronto, no matter how heavy the rain, wind or snow, this place is always my first stop without fail. It”s my happy place.

So, what is it about this place that makes me so happy? Is the food really that good? To answer that, I should first describe the restaurant.

House of Gourmet sits near the corner of Dundas and Spadina Avenue in the heart of Chinatown. Over the years it has become surrounded by a bunch of encroaching neon and lit plastic signs. As Chinese business owners carry their traditions from China, where space is very limited – where a North American will set up one business, a group of Chinese will open twenty. All sprung from the same building, vying for daylight like tropical plants overtaking a jungle tree. The House of Gourmet beckons with its original red and yellow sign. One window hung with glistening roast ducks, and through the other window the same cook, an old Asian man with thinning white hair, a master of his trade, stirs a huge, aromatic steam kettle that holds the flavorful stock for all the soup dishes on the menu.

The inside is no-frills. A dated, white-tiled interior with as many tables as can be crammed into the space with a wall of fish tanks at the back. The same old, depressed-looking tilapia, dungeness crab, lobsters, and oxygen-starved eels. They watch the customers eat, hope of rescue lost with every bite.

As a chef, I recognize two things above all else when it comes to food. One, is that it should have a wow-factor, and two, is that it should be consistent. House of Gourmet is the only restaurant I have ever known that can wow me with every dish, and it can do it every single time. And while this may not seem like a big deal to some, it takes a huge amount of skill and discipline to pull this off on a daily basis, let alone over decades.  In fact, if you start to look at the most successful restaurants in the world, they all have these two factors in common.

The old guy that stirs the steam kettle may never know how much I revere what he does – the way he manages to put together a magical combination of flavors and aromas in his soup stock, the internal clock that tells him the exact second egg noodles are cooked to perfection, as he swishes them through the bubbling stock before placing them in a bowl with giant chopsticks, the uniformity of every single dumpling and won-ton he makes by hand, each exploding with flavor, each with perfect shape and firm, silky, texture – I tried to tell him once, but he waved me away and called a server – he didn”t speak much English and must have thought that I was trying to place an order. He is humble and quiet, and insanely good at what he does. I may be his biggest fan.  The other cooks in the kitchen, I have never met, but I have big respect for them too – every single dish that comes out of that kitchen wows me.

Most of their dishes are Cantonese, and instead of describing them in detail, I have posted some pictures of my favorite ones, as they are each worth a thousand words.

My never-fail role call of dishes is usually: Cantonese chow-mein, deep-fried spicy squid, shrimp in lobster sauce, and shrimp won-ton soup. When I”m celebrating with family and friends, we”ll add a Cantonese fried lobster and special fried rice. When I”m just there for lunch, it”s a noodle soup with beef tendon, tripe and other fine vittles, and some of their roast duck and roast pork on steamed Jasmin rice. I don”t think there is a single thing on their menu that isn”t perfectly executed!

Any time I have felt in the dumps, this place has been my refuge. Any time I have celebrated with friends and family, I have sat near the fish tanks and looked across the table at their smiling faces. This place is home.

If you are ever fortunate enough to find yourself in Toronto for even just a few hours, you owe it to yourself to visit the House of Gourmet at Dundas and Spadina. If you enjoy Chinese food as much as I do, it might become your happy place too.