The first time David Schwartz traveled through Southeast Asia, many years before opening Sunny’s Chinese and the New Yorkville location Mimi Chinese (265 Davenport Rd.), He found himself gravitating toward the flavors of regions where food was most heavily influenced. by China. because they shared a border or because of a historical connection.
The Toronto restaurateur and executive chef had grown up eating in Cantonese stalwarts like Wah Sing, and the now-closed Lee Garden and China House, but it wasn’t until this trip that he realized that many of those dishes didn’t originate in Guangdong. There were regional differences within the Chinese cuisine, or rather, the “Chinese food” of his youth.
“It’s like the Maine lobster roll and the Texas brisket are American, but they are completely different food cultures. In China, food is multiplied tenfold in Sichuan versus Guangdong, ”says Schwartz of his epiphany and the beginning of his obsession with Chinese cuisine.
Schwartz made his way to the kitchen, but language barriers limited his opportunities to cook Chinese cuisine in Toronto restaurants except at DaiLo, the College Street spot known to modern Asians. It was there that he met Braden Chong, a third-generation Canadian with Guangdong roots, and now his executive sous chef at Mimi. While the couple worked together on DaiLo only briefly, they became fast friends, having dinner together while chatting about the Chinese restaurant Schwartz wanted to open one day.
Chong’s career took him abroad, where he worked at the three Michelin-starred Chinese restaurant Sazenka in Tokyo, before returning to Toronto to start the Schwartz concept in spring 2020. The pandemic, of course, had other plans.
Putting their idea of a physical location on hiatus, Schwartz and Chong teamed up with fellow chefs Keith Siu and Joseph Ysmael to create Sunny’s Chinese, an Instagram-based pop-up that offers a multi-course take-out menu, exploring a different place. cuisine of the region monthly. To place an order, diners had to join their email list.
It was an easy way to test Toronto’s appetite for his vision, but the response was greater than they expected. At the end of their 11-month run, they had 11,000 subscribers and the attention of the city’s food critics. This month, Sunny’s Chinese won the title of Best Takeout on Air Canada’s list of Best New Restaurants in Canada in 2021.
“It was more than just the food,” Chong says of the demand for the 185 meals they cooked each weekend. “It was the complete experience. Dave worked very hard to make sure there was proper wording [to go with each meal]and we asked our friend Justine Wong to draw the pictures. “
Sunny’s served as a gateway for those unfamiliar with the nuances of regional Chinese cuisine. For example, chefs delved into Muslim influences in Shaanxi, addressed the authenticity of American Cantonese food, and explained the numbing sensation of Sichuan peppercorns and the role of MSG and cornstarch in the kitchen.
They incorporated the range of textures found in Chinese cuisine, addressing the “grip factor” coined by cookbook author Fuchsia Dunlop when it comes to foods with bones. On Sunny’s menu, this meant Shaanxi rack of lamb that retained a popping against a braised consistency.
However, the main problem they are still working on is the stigma that Chinese food is always cheap. By putting Sunny’s on hold to focus on Mimi, which officially opened in late October, Schwartz hopes to change that bias. Pronounced “Mei-Mei” (which means beautiful), the reservation-only partner restaurant serves regional flavors with natural wines, sake and baijiu, all in an atmospheric, cavernous space with luxurious red velvet booths and an 80s soundtrack. and 90. hip hop.
Unlike Sunny’s, which explored the cuisine of North and Southwest China, Mimi focuses on the South, specifically Guangdong, with an emphasis on seafood. The menu recognizes the provenance and ingredients of each dish, and will evolve as chefs delve into their vast collection of Chinese cookbooks, scour the internet for technical videos, receive feedback from trusted palates, and eat at Chinese restaurants. out of town for inspiration.
“It’s about 80 percent representation and 20 percent creativity,” says Schwartz. “We try to make sure we have a point of reference when we cook it: does it taste or look like it’s supposed to? But it still has to be through our personal angle. Otherwise, why would someone come eat our food? “
His creativity is reflected not only in the contemporary presentation of his dishes, but also in decisions such as retreating from the heat of Hunan’s traditionally spicy dishes. Despite these freedoms, they follow sometimes complicated culinary techniques with traditionalist rigor.
Making your home char siu (barbecued pork), for example, is a four-day process that involves brining, marinating in spices, steaming, and more marinating before roasting it in your pizza oven, and finishing with flower honey. Ontario wilds.
The resulting dish has a firm texture, similar to a pork shoulder, like the versions that Schwartz enjoyed in China and Hong Kong, served with caramelized soybeans. It’s the restaurant’s signature, even if it’s priced at $ 36.
The latter may come as a surprise to those who aren’t used to spending the same amount (roughly $ 100 per person) on Chinese food as Western dinners, although a higher price is not uncommon at upscale Chinese restaurants like Yu’s Seafood in Yorkdale. Lai Wah Heen in Toronto or Markham’s Providential 9. (At mimichinese.com, chefs list a high-low combination of their favorite spots across the city.)
Those looking for a more casual experience won’t have to wait too long: Schwartz has plans to revive Sunny’s Chinese in late spring 2022 as a restaurant that’s “less picky about decor,” he says. “We are very excited about that as well.”
Chong and Schwartz attribute the ability to open both restaurants to having a strong team, hinting at aspirations for other concepts, from Sunny’s hot pot to Sunny’s silken tofu shop. Whatever comes next, both chefs are convinced that the experience is always focused on the true flavors.
“The most important thing for us, if we are going to do what we are doing, is to have to represent him correctly,” says Schwartz. “People have to leave feeling that this was done correctly, and that is what I have in mind with everything we put on the table.”