Toni Award

Some time ago, cocktailing at a pub called The Fox and Firkin, I was one of only two waitresses who laid no claim to being British. But customers often assumed I was and asked me my origins. When I replied "Jersey," they thought I meant the green English meadows, not the industrial American Meadowlands, and even the northeastern grunt of my syllables couldn't convince them otherwise.

The other woman, Chantal, encountered a different linguistic misunderstanding. She spoke her words with an indefinable, quickened cast, answering the bar phone with what sounded like, "'Allo, Fuckin' Firkin." Men were as charmed by her accent A Italian? Spanish? South American? A as they were by her shorts, cut to her butt. A typical conversation always ensued:

"Where are you from?"
"Montreal," she replied. "I'm French-Canadian."
"Oh, Canada," they invariably said. "I thought you were a foreigner."

"But I am," she'd say, slamming pint glasses of Firkin Gold into their hands. "Because I'm certainly not an American."

Americans harbor habits of assumption, especially where Canada is concerned. We view our northern neighbor like a poor cousin, a snow-locked state we feel sorry for, the 51st attachment. We hardly even respect the legitimacy of her boundaries.

Apparently I'm not above such ethnocentricity. Toward the end of a recent stroll around Toronto's Chinatown, I finally identified the source of a mild confusion. The signs above restaurants advertised Chinese-Canadian, rather than Chinese-American, cuisine. (And all this time I had thought Chinese food was American domain.)

In South Florida, it's the French-Canadians who bear endless stereotyping. Tourists are victimized for their driving skills, their fashion sense, their pronunciation. But as more and more Canadians move here permanently, what I feel is a truth has begun to emerge: we Americans have more to learn from the Great White North than ice hockey and an appreciation of Molson. Especially if Toni's Chinese Chrysanthemum, Miami Beach's newest and most consistent Chinese restaurant, is any indication.

Toni's comes laden with associations, owing largely to the man who lent it his name, Toni Kakarada. A partner in Chrysanthemum, Kakarada also operates Thai Toni and Toni's Sushi Bar, two enormously successful South Beach eateries. This latest restaurant not only marks his third on the same street (Washington Avenue), it establishes him as something of an Eastern emperor.

But the true impetus for Chrysanthemum comes from the North, not the East. Proprietor George Lau, originally from Hong Kong, started the family business in Montreal, where he still owns three restaurants bearing the bright blossom of a name. Lau also owned the highly regarded Chrysanthemum in Fort Lauderdale before selling his share to partners. That branch is now closed for vacation, with some doubt as to whether it will open again, according to Lau's brother-in-law and Chrysanthemum's manager, Roland Tezyen. When he couldn't find a suitable space in Lauderdale, Lau traveled even farther south, to the area Roland calls "the heart of the [restaurant] business," where "more sophisticated people" dine.

Truly, the residents of South Beach have proven themselves educated diners in search of all manner of eateries. So supportive have they been, in fact, that Joe's Stone Crab now has the distinction of being one of the only restaurants to close for the summer. No longer do trendy restaurants stick for season, then flee the heat. This year a handful of cafes and beachy bistros is actually opening first-time doors just as the sun opens up its own potential.

After a quiet debut in early March, the restaurant is phasing in a steady clientele that ranges from the tragically hip to the tragically hip-less (though as the night grows in age, the diners grow in youth). In its own baby stages, Chrysanthemum is warming up for an anticipated, busy autumn.

Which is not to imply that the crab meat and asparagus soup is any less than a silky, generous treat, vivid with crab and the stalky green. Or that the hot and sour soup fails to deliver the spicy rich breath of expert cookery. Already Chrysanthemum has distinguished itself among locals as the Chinese of choice. Even an old standby, won ton soup, lights the night, chicken-filled dumplings floating like sheeted Halloween ghosts in a brew so flavorful that chickens all over South Beach are hiring bodyguards.

And well they should. Chicken figures largely on this heart-smart menu -- rounding out dumplings and sliced into ten poultry dishes, half of which are labeled low-calorie (indicated with a heart) on the menu. One evening we had the pleasure of sampling the sliced chicken with Szechuan pepper and crisp spinach, a dish that had been recommended to me before my first visit. Though a trifle sweet rather than the spicy it's billed, this creation combined a delicate touch on the poultry and an unusual grasp on the vegetable. Fluffy, crunchy medallions of spinach garnished the plate, adding texture as well as taste. Hong Kong chef Wai-kwong Tse, schooled in the Montreal kitchens, does honor to a menu that is at once inventive, playful, and authentic.

On another visit, we ordered the sauteed chicken in sesame sauce, a treat that resembled in flavor the appetizer of ravioli in sesame sauce. Both concoctions boasted a brazen peanut butter flavor, smooth as Skippy but not nearly as thick and pasty. I'm always thrilled to find a peanut butter sauce so well prepared that I willingly forget about fats. In the case of the sauteed chicken, this needn't be a concern; this dish, too, earns a heart insignia on the menu. And a funny thing happened on the way to our ravioli A slippery in the grip of our chopsticks, we dropped a few of the comet-shaped pieces on the table before we could reach our mouths. I suppose in terms of what we actually ingested, this dish, too, could be considered dietetic.

Or would have been considered dietetic, had our waiter been less prompt and attentive -- he actually retrieved for us what goodies fell accidentally from our untutored utensils. Indeed, service in general was outstanding on all three occasions that I dined at Chrysthanthemum. Dishes were spooned in the style of the French, the waiters filling from each platter a generous plate of food. Second helpings were also served by the staff, the result being that diners have nothing more strenuous to do than open their mouths like baby birds.

My companions all agreed on the delicacy of sauteed beef in spicy garlic sauce, served in a beautiful snow of crisp Chinese vermicelli. Tender whorls of seared beef exuded a fantasy of garlic, though not the ultra-zing of Szechuan spice promised on the menu.

But our pleasure centers were nevertheless appeased, particularly by the eggplant in black Chinese vinaigrette. Stir-fried eggplant featured a crisp skin outside and a nutty, melted center. The sauce, tangy with vinegar, empowered the natural flavor of the eggplant. I couldn't help finding deficient every other eggplant dish I've ever had, the rubbery fingers of the vegetable nowhere near these sheer, delicious strings.

As is appropriate to Pekingese and Szechuan cuisine, noodle dishes factored prominently. Peking noodles with stir-fried vegetables were pliant, handmade treasures. Singapore noodles, with preserved vegetables and the appropriate light touch of curry, wound into an untidy but comforting nest on the plate, promoting contentment.

In the end, more than the superb cuisine satisfied at Chrysanthemum. The empty plates set before us radiated, like the day, a wonderful, superheated touch that kept food warmer longer. Varnished chopsticks, not cheap, splintered ones that taste like pencils, rested on ceramic Japanese eggplants, a tiny luxury at each place setting. And when the steam of the season falls too heavily upon us, the cool tiled floor and flower arrangements suggest a welcome trade: heat lightning for a touch of Chrysanthemum's own aurora borealis, those beckoning, crowning northern lights.

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