Kum Koon's tables are covered with layers of plastic but there are touches of elegance in the lovely Chinese paintings and golden bas reliefs of dragons on the walls. This veteran Chinatown institution is a popular site for banquets and special events, and if you drop in for dim sum any Sunday morning you may have to wait in line for one of its 600-plus seats.
But turn up for a mid-week dinner and odds are you'll find an almost empty cavern of a place. At least that's how it was on two recent visits when even the smaller front room was half empty.
It probably isn't because of the food, most of which is delicious. Possibly the prices have something to do with it, since they are higher than the usual Chinese price range, with most entrees from $14.25 to $19, more for certain specialties. On the other hand, the portions are copious and the selection is larger than most, with 253 items on the main menu, and 34 more on the Chef's Specialties list, an embarrassment of riches that always leaves me dithering about what to choose.
But there's one thing I never dither about. I know I'll want lobster, and Kum Koon is one of the few restaurants of any persuasion with a tank that regularly holds lobsters up to and over three pounds, which is how I like mine. I also like them frisky, and our server obliged by picking out the biggest and friskiest for our approval before it met its fate.
The price, which is determined by the market, has recently been $20.50 per pound, but it pays to ask about the frequent specials -- $14.50 when I had mine about a month ago, $13.50 this past week (phone to be sure). Assured by our server that it was the best way, we had ours deep-fried, finished with ginger and scallions, cut into chunks and perched on crisply fried noodles. And he was right -- it was superb.
Dinners still start the way they used to in all Chinese restaurants, with complimentary consommé -- a nice, old-fashioned custom, much rarer these days. The list of appetizers is relatively short for such a huge menu, and some of them are also old-fashioned -- breaded dry ribs, veal or shrimp, and deep-fried wonton, for instance (and yes, there are still chop suey and egg foo yung as well). But the more adventurous can have the terrific sesame-seasoned, cold, noodle-like jellyfish, with or without sliced pork hocks. If they'd prefer it with chicken, they'll find it on the specialty menu, which is where we also found the excellent moo shu with pork (listed as mok sui). No dumplings, though, and I didn't find out until later that it is now possible to order from the dim sum menu at dinner.
One of our top main courses was fried shrimp with onions -- no breading, no batter, just wonderfully flavourful big shrimp that pop with juices between your teeth. Another was the tender, delicate pea tips (the leafy tendrils of the pea vine), stir-fried with squiggles of pork; they are also available with Chinese mushrooms, or in chicken broth.
There wasn't much chili in the eggplant with chili and beef but it was still a savoury and satisfying dish. Chinese-style crispy chicken -- half a chicken subtly seasoned with five spice, deep fried, and cut into chunks across the bone -- was tasty, if not as crisp as its name implies. We also loved a casserole of bean curd with assorted meats, particularly fine silky bean curd and meaty Chinese mushrooms.
There was only one real disappointment. Described as steamed cod with ham and Chinese mushrooms, it turned up with slightly fishy-tasting cod, shiitakes and chunks of broccoli in a cornstarch-gluey sauce. No ham, though, which was what had intrigued us in the first place and which might have added some much needed flavour.
I often order at least one noodle dish in Chinese restaurants -- at one time it was Cantonese chow mein, which offered a good test of the quality and freshness of the shrimp, meats and veggies that garnished it. Lately, though, I've fallen in love with chow fun, and Kum Koon's is a winner -- seductively soothing and slightly smoky flat rice noodles tossed with slices of tender, flavourful beef and bean sprouts. The slippery noodles are a challenge to chopsticks, and even accomplished chopstick wielders may need a fork for this one.
Dinner concludes with a plateful of quartered oranges -- a lovely, refreshing touch. I can't generalize about the service, since there were so few other diners -- ours was excellent on both visits, and there was no problem with communication. That's something I can't say about the noon-time dim sum service, when most of those wheeling the carts speak little English.
Prices appear to be on a par with others in town -- $3.50 small; $4 medium; $4.50 large; $4.80 extra large -- but only a few are listed as small, and with so many of them listed as large it's easy to run up a sizable tab. The selection is probably one of the largest in the city, at least on Sundays; on a recent weekday they were surprisingly limited.
The best of those I tried involved shrimp -- on their own in har gow, as a topping for eggplant slices, or combined with scallops. Also good were pork dumplings with peanuts, steamed barbecued pork buns and, for the non-timid, gelatinous chicken feet in a light black bean sauce.
Few of the others wowed me -- the pan-fried pork dumplings in particular had little flavour, and the sticky rice had none at all. Perhaps they save all their wows for Sundays.
Adjacent parking is $5, but will be validated; save your stub, and present it when you pay the bill. It's a big lot and the coin machines are annoyingly located at the far end -- not a problem in summer, but probably a hardship at a windy - 20 C.
Kum Koon Garden
257 King St., 943 4655
Four stars out of five