Readers had questions, and today's column is all about answers.
QUESTION: Is the new Dim Sum Garden under the same ownership as the former one on Rupert Street?
ANSWER: Yes. What's more, although the dim sum had been good at the old address, they seem to be even better now in this gargantuan new space, its only decor a single huge gilt and scarlet dragon-adorned panel. It's on the second floor in what was formerly Grand Garden, and has the distinction of being the only dim sum house with access by elevator.
The best time to go is on the weekend, for more than one reason. On a weekday visit, shrimp in any of their variations were good, but other items were bland, and the choices limited, which is understandable for a weekday. A return visit on a Saturday was dramatically different with some of the best dim sum I've had in years.
Regular prices are $2.90 to $4, but most are $2.40 during happy hour, which comes at some surprising times. During the week it's the usual 1 to 5 p.m., but astonishingly, on the weekend it's during prime time, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., with a much larger selection that included such relative rarities as cold tiny octopus in chili oil and patties studded with pork, shrimp and corn. Shrimp were excellent in steamed dumplings, on slices of green pepper or eggplant, or -- a wonderful must -- on skewers, sprinkled with bits of fried garlic (a chef's special at $6.80). The woo kok was superb -- a puff of crisp shredded taro with an almost creamy filling dotted with bits of shrimp and pork.
For the intrepid, there are chicken feet (spicier on Saturday than mid-week), tripe and omasa (beef stomach lining) with ginger and scallions. For the timid, such familiars as steamed or pan-fried plump pork dumplings, with or without chives, silken rice rolls with barbecued pork, and steamed chicken or pork buns. On weekends only there are luscious egg tarts and a refreshing mango pudding.
There's an extra happy hour every night from 8 p.m. to midnight, when the dumplings go for $2.80. All the cart-wheeling young women were friendly, helpful and attentive. There's also a parking lot, but it fills up fast.
QUESTION: Are Diana's Gourmet Pizzas as good as their international awards would suggest?
ANSWER: Owner Diana Coutu has competed in some of the world's biggest pizza competitions and the only decorations on the walls of her long narrow dining room are her framed certificates and awards. And the answer is, with the occasional exception, yes.
The crusts come thick or thin, of unbleached or whole wheat flour, deep dish, gluten-free or the award-winning Moosehead beer crust, which is flavourful and beautifully balanced between crispy and chewy. There's a variety of cheeses and sauces, and an infinity of toppings. Choose one of the award-winners on that fine beer crust and the answer should be a definite yes. They are pricey, though, from $20 for a small to $32.50 for a large BLT -- Canada's best pizza in 2006 -- with no sauce but loaded with blended cheddar and mozzarella, capicolla, bacon, romaine, Roma tomatoes and ranch dressing. The Ultimate Pepperoni (Canada's best in SSRq07) -- two dense layers of excellent pepperoni with havarti, mozzarella and Parmesan -- is $21 to $34.
The standard, medium-thick crust for Pierre's Pick (a specialty pizza) was good, the topping of excellent marinara sauce, capicola and little meatballs even better (from $21 small to $35 large), but our classic Italian Capri came on a super-thin crust that was cardboard-dry and tasteless. And why, I wondered, would one desecrate the delicious San Marzano tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, capicola and fresh basil with slices of tasteless canned black olives?
There's still takeout and delivery, but these days you can have your pizza in the restaurant, with a top-notch Americano coffee, a glass of well-selected wine (three whites, three reds) or one of about a dozen beers, Moosehead among them. Naturally.
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Three words strike terror into the hearts of many -- MSG, gluten and salt -- and I can't count the number of requests I've had from people trying to escape their effects. I can't reassure them completely about MSG, which, even when not added directly to the dish, is often in some of the bottled flavouring sauces (one study states that an extra 50 mg of vitamin B6 might reduce MSG sensitivity).
Gluten-free dishes are turning up increasingly on many menus -- not as many as some would like, but most decent restaurants should be able to comply with requests.
Salt is hard to avoid -- you can ask for less (and hope for the best) and avoid adding extra salt, but that's about as good as it gets.
I know of one establishment that complies with all those wishes. It's not a restaurant, though, but a butcher shop, the Sausage Makers, on Nairn, just past the overpass and easily identified by the cow on its roof (although a pig might be more appropriate). There are fresh meats and shelves stocked with East European packaged and bottled essentials. But what makes it of interest today is its vast selection of cured deli meats, which, its ads proclaim, contain no MSG, no gluten and less salt (most from $10.60 to $23 a kilogram).
The results are delicious. To mention just a few of the standouts: the emperor and kaiser hams; Krakowska ham sausage; pungent garlands of coarse garlic sausage (regular or double smoked); the even more garlicky, tongue-studded headcheese; smoked turkey breast that is superior to any I've found in a supermarket deli; a range of salamis; and -- if you don't mind a few minutes at the stove-- great old-fashioned wieners and smokies (regular or bison). For those prepared to do some real cooking, they also carry Manitoba-raised rabbits ($6.73 a pound).