East of East Dining Series: Dim Sum at Canton Garden
The presence of dim sum in Halifax is nothing new, but I’m willing to bet that more of us are familiar with sushi and Thai food than we are with Chinese food. No, I don’t mean that deep fried saucy mess you burp up with a fortune cookie. There are an increasing number of Chinese restaurants in Halifax serving – gasp! – real Chinese food!
While Haligonians are more of a pub-going, pizza-eating, deep-fried-sweet-sauce-loving bunch, the crazed look people get in their eyes when they talk about sushi or, more recently, ramen, gives me hope that Halifax will celebrate more amazing dining experiences from the east.
This is the first chapter of the East of East Dining Series in which I will showcase different types of East Asian dining experiences that are available to us here in Halifax.
My friend Helen Fong (from my Ramen Quest) suggested that we get a group together to celebrate a belated Chinese New Year (which was celebrated earlier this month) by going out for dim sum. Last Sunday she organized a group outing to Canton Garden, her family’s favourite dim sum spot.
So… What is Dim Sum?
I like to think of dim sum as Chinese brunch. It was originally centered around tea, and this is still the accompanying, bottomless drink. The food is an assortment of snacks for sharing: dumplings, buns, noodles, sweets, steamed and deep fried things.
When most people think of dim sum, they think of the roaming steamer carts, but we don’t have these in Halifax as far as I know. You just check off boxes and specify the amount of each item you want. Dumplings and buns generally come in orders of 3-4. You may want to request chili, vinegar or soy sauces if they don’t come automatically.
I wouldn’t say that dim sum is particularly relaxing. It is an overwhelming swarm of dishes coming at you, swivelling around the table with chop sticks attacking. Just take a breath, pour your neighbour some tea, and try something new!
To learn more about dim sum, check out the Serious Eats Guide to Dim Sum.
Dim Sum at Canton Garden
30 Farnham Gate Rd (Clayton Park)
We arrived early (11:45am), which was smart, because by the time we finished up the restaurant was bumpin’. There were 9 of us around a big table with a facilitatory lazy susan in the middle. Tea and water came quickly, and were continuously filled. Service was very good and prompt. Our bills came to about $19.50 per person.
Taro Wraps (Wu gok) ($5.45)
Taro, a purple root vegetable, is cooked and mashed and formed around a savoury pork filling. The dumpling is deep fried, giving it a full head of hair! I’ve actually never had these before, but they were fantastic! A great play of textures and flavours.
Shanghai Noodles ($13.95)
These familiar noodles were well prepared and a nice starchy backdrop to the rest of our meal. Other options are Youngchou fried rice, Singapore noodles, Rice noodles with beef in soy sauce, and others.
Pro-tip: Use the back ends of your chop sticks to help transport noodles to your plate. No one wants your cooties!
Won Ton Soup ($6.00)
This is a decent portion for the price. We divvied up the dumplings and broth into our little bowls. The broth was neutral but the dumplings were quite tasty. This isn’t something I would normally think to order for dim sum, but people seemed to like it.
Deep Fried Spicy Squid ($5.85)
This is a good price for a squid dish. I’m used to paying $10-$17 dollars for salt & pepper squid, (which I find more flavourful and satisfying), but these little tentacles will do in a pinch.
Steamed Chicken Feet ($5.45)
Off-putting to some, these are quite rewarding for those who appreciate flavour and are texturally open-minded.
Chicken feet are cooked until they get plump and puffy, readily absorbing whatever sauce they are stewed in. These were particularly tasty. There’s not a lot of meat on them, of course, but a depth of sauce penetration that makes you wanna suck the sauce as if out of a sponge… clumsily, with chopsticks, while lots of little bones get in your mouth.
I’m not kidding when I say these are one of my favourite dim sum items.
Fried Fresh Vegetables ($12.95)
Helen believes (and so do I) that no good dim sum session is complete without some stir-fried veggies. Dim sum has the effect of making people hell bent on carb overdosing, so it’s good to balance the table with veg-e-tables!
The only vegetable listed on Canton Garden’s dim sum menu is at the very end of the rice and noodle section, as if to say, “Yes we have vegetables, but look at all these wonderful carbs!”. The “Fried Fresh Vegetables” turn out to be a nice heap of Gai Lan (Chinese broccoli) sauteed with garlic. I like the balance of crunchy and wilty bits and there is plenty to go around.
Shrimp Dumpling (har gow) ($5.85)
My favourite dumpling is har gow, a translucent, steamed shrimp dumpling that should be delicate yet sturdy, tender with a slight chew and fresh crisp shrimp. I really enjoyed these.
Pork Shui My ($5.45)
An open dumpling of shrimp, pork and mushroom that sometimes gets dotted with a bit of orange fish roe. I didn’t get to try any of these 🙁
Pro-tip: Always order extra dumplings!
Steamed BBQ Pork Bun ($5.45)
Soft, slightly sweet steamed dough envelopes savoury sweet ‘n saucy barbecue pork. One fellow at the table exclaimed that it was heaven in his mouth, while LuShark snarked her usual snark, “Sweet with meat… bleh”.
“Steamed Sweet Buns” (not pictured, $5.45)
These were probably the highlight of my meal. Similar to the pork buns, but rounder and smoother and filled with a delightful yellow egg custard. Dim sum likes to intersperse sweet with savoury, adding to the chaos and excitement!
Pro-tip: Remember to remove the paper from the bottom of your bun before biting into it.
“Shrimp Rice Roll” ($6.85).
I’ve had this before and didn’t like it, but I just had to know for sure! These are large rice noodles wrapped around a filling, in this case shrimp, and drizzled with a sweet soy sauce. I didn’t like the abundance of glutinous rice-flavoured wrapping here. In terms of texture and flavour I found it hard to get down.
Rice rolls are a beloved dim sum classic, but I guess they just aren’t for me. “That’s why I wasn’t going to order them!” said Helen, who also isn’t a big fan.
Steamed Minced Beef Ball (ngao yuk) ($5.45)
Ngao yuk are generally infused with watercress and flavoured with orange peel, but LuShark’s telltale recoil suggests that Canton Garden may use cilantro in theirs.
I quite liked these moist and savoury, herbaceous tidbits. Typically they are served atop a layer of bean curd sheets, but Canton Garden opts for lettuce.
“Sticky Rice Wrap” (lo mai gai) ($5.85)
Sticky rice is wrapped in a lotus leaf (or banana, as the case may be). Unwrap it and you will behold a flavourful mound of sticky rice with chicken, mushrooms, scallions and Chinese sausage!
As far as I could tell, this one only merited chicken and barbecue pork. It wasn’t as flavourful as other leaf-wrapped sticky rice I’ve had and I was definitely missing the Chinese sausage.
If you’ve never had dim sum, I hope I’ve encouraged you to try it! If you’re a dim sum pro, I hope you enjoyed going on this journey with me and please chime in with your thoughts and best/worst experiences you’ve had in Halifax and beyond!
The dim sum at Canton Garden wasn’t quite as good as what I’ve had in Calgary, and I’m sure you Toronto and Vancouver types know your way around a dumpling! But this was a fun and satisfying meal, and I would definitely go back. Much thanks to Helen for organizing this outing! Happy New Year!
Here are a few places you can enjoy weekend dim sum in Halifax:
Canton Garden (30 Farnham Gate Rd, Halifax)
Kee Heong Cantonese Bakery (1532 Granville St, Halifax)
China Town (381 Bedford Hwy, Halifax)
The Great Wall (1649 Bedford Row, Halifax)
Fan’s (451 Windmill Rd, Dartmouth)
New Asia (1252 Hollis St, Halifax)