369 Spadina Avenue
Dinner for two with all taxes, tip and soda: $50
I have a special place in my heart for Chinatown. Particularly on hot summer nights when the smell of black bean sauce, fryer grease, half dead crabs and that special rotting garbage smell of durian all combine to remind me of my youth. Twenty years ago, I wandered these streets, young, naive and fresh off the plane from the land of pork chops and two overcooked veg. Living in Chinatown was a huge culture shock, and my roommates and I delighted in wandering Spadina and Dundas West, watching the restaurant ladies pushing bins of raw chicken feet from the many slaughterhouses, and bringing home odd fruits or noodles, seeking guidance from our neighbour Mei Ling on what to do with the stuff.
We managed to eat at a lot of restaurants along the Spadina strip as well. The fluorescent lights and plastic table cloths were de rigeur at all of these joints, and not much has changed. The food is always cheap and usually good, but ambiance is generally low on the list in this part of town. Which is why I was so surprised by E-Pan.
It’s not that surprising when you think about it. They have modern architecture in China, and all flavours of Asian interior design are hugely trendy right now. So it makes sense that some restaurant along Spadina would throw aside the plastic tablecloths, cover the harsh tiles with carpet, and actually make their restaurant look nice.
Of course, in some places, that comes at a cost to the quality in the kitchen, but E-Pan surprises here again. With a typically long Chinese menu, just about everything is on offer, including some rare and high-end dishes that mostly appeal to the Chinese palate, such as Whole Abalone ($25), Braised Shark’s Fin Soup ($28.95), or Double Boiled Swallow’s Nest in Light Syrup ($18.95) for dessert. I explained each to our vegetarian dining companion one evening, leaving him aghast.
E-Pan offers a number of reasonably priced options, however, that are a little more accessible, especially to vegetarians. The lunch special ($7.95) includes a soup, trio of dumplings and one dish with steamed rice. The same special at dinner ($10.95) includes a vegetarian spring roll.
Both soups on offer with the special were superb; the chicken corn soup was a thick, cloudy chowder, with plenty of corn and pieces of chicken, while the hot and sour soup was spicy and fragrant, full of tofu, vegetable and greens. The pea shoot dumplings came in a small steamer; the size of large tortellini, they are vibrantly green inside the sweet gelatinous wrapper.
For mains, the Crispy Beef with Sesame floored us with thin pieces of beef covered in a sweet sesame sauce and dry-fried to the point of being caramelized. This was like eating beef candy and I have literally craved it every day since. The Braised Eggplant and Tofu was a huge portion laced with enoki mushrooms.
At a later visit, we tried some different dishes. The Crystal Rainbow Fold with Mixed Vegetables ($7.95) was a gorgeous and colourful mound of finely diced veg and tofu, served with a dark sweet sauce and lettuce leaves. We rolled these up and dug in. Hunan Dumplings in Peanut Butter Sauce ($5) are soft, wonton-like ribbons in a spicy and creamy peanut butter sauce laced with coconut milk. Unfortunately, the service at E-Pan is impeccable, and the dumpling-less dish was removed from our table before I could lick the bowl clean.
The pan-fried Stuffed Eggplant with Black Bean Sauce ($2.95) from the Dim Sum menu was the only dish that disappointed. For the second time in a week, we had ordered an eggplant dish at a Chinese restaurant that came with surprise shrimp. That was the “stuffing”. The flavours go well together, but I’m not a huge fan of shrimp, and our vegetarian companion couldn’t have any.
From the mains, the Crispy Chicken With Orange Peel ($9.95) was good, but not nearly as spicy as I had expected, and didn’t hold up to the dry-frying technique as well as the sesame beef. Stir-fried Clams in Black Bean Sauce ($10.95) made up for the chicken, however, with a massive portion of decent-sized clams that were not over-powered by the sauce. Eating clams with chopsticks is definitely a tricky skill, though, one that likely had the E-Pan staff wishing they had gone with the plastic tablecloths over that lovely white (black bean stained) linen.
While we couldn’t afford to try the bird’s nests for dessert, and didn’t have the guts to brave the Double Boiled Frog Jelly Soup ($3.95) – made with real frogs and yet again horrifying the vegetarian dining companion – we managed a decent cross-section of the rest of the dessert menu. The Crispy Yam With Lotus Paste in Pumpkin Shape ($3.95) officially qualifies as the cutest dessert ever. This was hot and crisp on the outside, filled with lotus paste that only a sweet tooth could love. Crispy Fried Banana ($2.50) was a strip of hot oozing banana in a fluffy golden batter, and Fried Rice Balls with Peanut Butter Paste ($3.95) were like tiny fried peanut butter sandwiches. We tried to convince them to add banana to these, but China may not remember Elvis as a culinary genius. Only the Egg Custard and Tapioca Taro Dumplings ($2.95) were disappointing, and we lay blame on the unexciting taro, but not the passable custard.
To say that my dining companions and I liked E-Pan would be a gross understatement. They have managed to combine a completely traditional, old school Chinese menu with a sophisticated, inviting space and impeccable service. The updated, modern décor makes the room welcoming to all, and there’s an air of professionalism and courtesy that makes the restaurant feel like it should be much more upscale than it is. It’s a vibrant dose of sophistication that may well bring the neighbourhood into the 21st century while respecting the roots of traditional Chinese cuisine. For a gal whose life was shaped by this neighbourhood, that’s a wonderful thing.