How far is too far for good yum cha? Though it may seem like a rhetorical question, there is, at least in the minds of aficionados of any kind of food, a sense that the quality of a restaurant is proportional to its inaccessibility; ask a ramen head where the best ramen is — it won’t be down the block, around the corner. Elegance Chinese Dining and Banquet in Markham is certainly not — it’s a few corners (up to North York Centre station), a few perilous bridges (a generous friend with a driver’s license + car), and a crocodile moat (a congested freeway or two) away from downtown Toronto. Once there, the lines, especially on weekend mornings, are long and tedious despite its 350+ persons capacity, as Elegance’s waiting area is relatively small and it shares its strip mall with one or two other restaurants and dubious-looking health stores extolling the benefits of certain tropical berries. Its staff, as is the case in the best of old school restaurants, are not even half heartedly concerned with making you feel ‘at home’.
So it goes without saying that it also has some of the best dim sum I’ve had in Canada.
Elegance’s excellence is telling from the moment the inevitable pot of oolong arrives. The pot of tea is accompanied by a pot of reserve hot water to dilute — if the tea is too strong — or to steep afresh. (And, unusual in my experience of yum cha, the teacups have small handles that bring to mind a certain British/colonial touch.) The tea itself is freshly brewed and delicate, a familiar and comforting opening that far from being pro-forma.
The menu at Elegance is short and divided into sections to help you find what you want. The ha gow is a must, as it’s often deemed the dish to judge a restaurant by; at Elegance, the seasoned and supple shrimps can be seen through the thin and slightly chewy skin. The chive and seafood dumpling, bbq pork bun, pork spare ribs with black beans, and shumai are all telling of the restaurant’s freshness and quality. Steamed rice rolls with shrimp and rice skins was, as they say, a revelation: The soft and chewy skin, perfectly seasoned shrimp, and the crunch of the mysterious ‘rice skin’ dipped in slightly sweet soy sauce — to borrow the hyperbole of Stephen Chow’s God of Cookery — cured the mind’s ailments born since childhood, namely the absence of said roll. The only steamed thing to avoid here is the xiaolong bao, or soup dumplings — I don’t know what happened at the kitchen, but it just wasn’t, by any standards, a xialong bao.
Elegance is much better at steamed dishes than at fried ones. The pan-fried turnip cakes were wrapped, for no apparent reason, in nori and served with XO sauce; the deep-fried tofu skin was dry; and, most egregious of all, they do not serve pork and chive dumplings.
However, Elegance‘s simply prepared vegetable dishes more than make up for what it misses in its fried section. The snow pea tips and gai lan (Chinese broccoli ), both blanched then prepared simply with oil and salt, were not only delicious but also palate cleansing. If you get a chance, do ask for the snow pea tips while they are in season and easily available; it’s subtle and flavorful and will make you reconsider charring all your vegetables.
Elegance is, I should mention, slightly pricier than most dim sum joints in the city. Each plate is around $4 and the larger plates or specials of the day cost a little extra. However, it should also be said that a local pub’s mediocre special on burgers is often upwards $15 and nobody complains. Or, on a more positive note, even with each plate costing slightly more, you can yum cha like a king and pay only double-digits.
Elegance Chinese Restaurant & Banquet is located at 20 Gibson Drive in Markham and is open daily from 9am to 10pm. On weekends, get there either as early as possible or slightly later in the afternoon to beat the crowd.