While doing research for a recent article on MSG, one argument kept popping up: MSG was needed to make Chinese food taste good. Not so, I kept thinking. I know I've eaten MSG-free. And then I got to thinking that maybe I was wrong, and maybe MSG-enhanced food really was tastier.
Time to reassure myself, I think, that there are great places to eat without anything other than fresh ingredients cooked with an expert hand to make a great tasting and satisfying Chinese meal.
And what better place to restore my faith than the Brewery Market's Cheelin? This much-lauded eatery has one of the very best lunch buffets anywhere (Thursday and Friday, $12.95), and when I worked downtown, I often made my way there on a Friday afternoon to graze.
It's been a while, but not much has changed in Cheelin; the elegant, understated decor with curtained windows looking out into the market provide a soothing oasis in which to indulge.
Tonight, we're starting with a couple of stalwarts: egg roll ($1.65) and wonton soup ($4.25). The egg roll is not greasy, but I like my egg rolls to be a little more packed with filling; these are strictly ground meat with seasoning and while tasty, are skimpy.
The wonton soup, on the other hand, puts all other versions in all other Metro restaurants to shame. The delicately flavoured broth holds two toothsome wontons, plenty of sliced green onions and chunks ofpeeled tomato.
Our platters arrive, and soon the table is full and conversation halts as we pass around the plates. Woo Xiang haddock ($13.95), twice cooked pork ($12.50), Kung Bao chicken ($12.95), Singapore vermicelli ($12.50) and steamed rice ($4.25) are on our menu tonight.
The haddock, pork and chicken all come in a variation of a brown sauce---appearance-wise, they look like three versions of the same dish. But close your eyes and taste, and they couldn't be more different.
I've never had haddock prepared in this style, and it certainly won't be my last time. The fish is moist and delicious, the sauce perfumed with five-spice powder that provides a hint of fennel. Black beans add texture.
Twice cooked pork is so called because first it's boiled, then stir-fried. Past the point of chewy, this meat borders on the tough but is sliced so thinly that it's not problematic. There's a bit of heat in this dish, provided by chili flakes and a hint of ginger. Chunks of red and green peppers and onions accompany the pork.
Our mouths are on fire with the chicken, which is just the way we like it. Shredded chicken and vegetables with plenty of small but powerful whole chilies make this a powerfully taste-bud blowing dish. But like all hot dishes prepared well, the heat does not overpower the flavours of the other ingredients---in this case tender chicken and crunchy vegetables.
Forkfuls of the steamed rice provide an excellent foil for all three of these dishes; the vermicelli stands alone. Full of vegetables, shrimp, cooked egg and in a mild curry sauce, this is a Singapore noodle to beat all others, just as the wonton soup and its ilk.
So, nothing bland here. Nothing tasteless, devoid of flavour or lacking in any way. The only thing missing is MSG, and for that, I say thank you to Cheelin, for showing others it can be done so much better without the chemical help.