Review of Cheelin
April 14, 2007 § 1 Comment
Cheelin’s many virtues can solve any number of problems.
Cheelin is a great place to take a big family, when satisfying so many different cravings is difficult. It’s a fine place when you have vegetarians in your midst, and want to ensure that everyone enjoys their meal. Cheelin can also be a culinary adventure, for food lovers who wish to sample a variety of tastes and textures at dinner without breaking the bank.
And it’s a good place to go if you want Chinese — because it’s metro’s best Chinese restaurant.
Sure, not everyone agrees. Cheelin fell to the level of its competitors about 18 months ago, and was inconsistent at best, and we’ve never been a fan of food they serve at the Saturday Farmer’s Market. But throughout 2006, the kitchen has been first-rate, and we’re smitten.
Cheelin sits in the Brewery Market, an unassuming dining room located just around the corner from Mary’s Breadbasket, near da Maurizio. It’s a comfortable, quiet, casual room.
For this visit, it’s a family affair, with three generations at the table. My mother likes the place; on our last visit, she almost bit the server’s hand when he tried to remove her cucumber salad. My grandmother, though always game for something new, has never seen so many traditional Chinese items on a menu.
I start with the Pan-Fried Vegetable Dumplings, my partner has the Szechuan Shredded Cabbage and Pork Soup, and we split the Kimchi. My grandmother orders the Egg Roll and my mother gets her favorite Cucumber Salad.
The dumplings are my culinary compass here. When the food quality slipped in 2004, the dumplings led the downhill charge. They weren’t crispy anymore, they often stuck together, and— worst of all— some were waterlogged!
These days, though, they’re back on form: Crispy, tender, savory little packets of seasonal vegetables. Such bliss! My partner’s soup is a thin, spicy broth filled with strips of pork and cabbage. It needs salt, and then it’s Chinese comfort food. The salad is nice, too— cool cucumber with a bite of garlic and the deep, smoky flavor of sesame oil. Even Grammie’s Egg Roll looks tasty, both crunchy and meaty. And the Kimchi is fabulous, both garlicky and spicy. But too much fire for the uninitiated.
In Asian restaurants, we adhere to the n+1 rule. That is, the number of main dishes we order is equal to the number in our party plus one. Of course, we want to taste everything, which includes Szechuan Noodles, Egg Foo Yong, Lemon Chicken, Crispy Fried Scallops, Moo Shu Vegetables, Mapo Tofu, and Mushroom Fried Rice. Something for everyone, and a little bit more, because one of us couldn’t decide (or count).
The kitchen handles it all with aplomb.
The Szechuan Noodles are thick and delicious, with crisp vegetables and shrimp served in a savory brown sauce with just a lick of heat. Hoisin is slathered on the Egg Foo Yong to create a nice sweet-and-tingly counterpoint to the thick vegetable omelet. I normally shy away from scallops in Chinese restaurants, since they’re often rubbery and flavourless, but these— my grandmother’s choice— are fine; deep-fried batter surrounding a pillowy scallop. Fresh seafood, simply prepared. We liked it. Mapo Tofu is a spicy melange of Chinese vegetables and soft tofu; a Szechuan standard that few do as well as Cheelin.
Moo Shu Vegetables are a surprise hit. The thin pancakes are coated with hoisin sauce, and filled with stir-fired veggies at the table. Everyone loves them, and the plate is quickly emptied. Lemon Chicken is essentially Sweet & Sour Chicken with a high school diploma, but there’s a couple of generations out there who love these faux-Cantonese dishes. It’s sweet and citrusy – a guilty pleasure that is better than expected. With a tad more fresh lemon juice, it would be better still. Mushroom-Fried Rice was delicate, if not distinctive, but works as a foil to the stronger flavors.
Service is kind and pleasant at Cheelin, though hardly formal. Occasionally, the pacing of meals stutters. We have also seen people come in, and just put themselves in the chef’s hands for the night. Regulars love Fanny Chen’s cooking.
We can see why. Our meal was a tricky order designed to feed a vegetarian, two guests who expect Chinese food to be sweet, and two people who read food magazines for entertainment. People tried dishes they ordinarily would have avoided, and the meal was animated and fun.
All left happy. And that’s pretty impressive for any restaurant.
1496 Lower Water Street