Monday, June 21, 2010

Mr. Wilson Lee

During the weekend that my dear husband was on his mini holiday in “Grease” I planned to spend some time with my dear mom. As you know she is in her twilight years but is full of vitality and loves to go out to "TRY" new places to eat. Please note “TRY” is the operative word here. The problem is this....once she finds a place she likes that restaurant now becomes the ONLY restaurant that's acceptable to her. It's a good thing that I talked her out of a career as a restaurant critic. Let me take you back to the days when Lichee Gardens was still on Elizabeth Street in downtown Toronto. Who remembers Lichee? Well, I grew up in that establishment. I believe my parents started going there in 1948 before my entrance into this world. Every Sunday night my father, mother, brother, sister and yours truly ( a toddler) made our way down to Lichee G.


Remember the blog that I described myself in the role of Elevator Operator in the back of the car amusing myself by opening and closing the windows? That's what I did en route (with my imaginary friends) to our chinese hangout every single week.

Okay, so we arrive at Lichee Gardens and were greeted by the hostess who knew us by name and also knew that my father would only sit at certain waiters tables. For the life of me I could not tell you any of my teachers names throughout school but ask me to name all our favorite chinese problem. There was Mr. Wilson, Kenny, George, Peter, Charles, and Mr. Lee. Here's a quick fact for you. Mr. Lee and Mr. Wilson was the same person. Confused? No they were not identical twins. No he didn't have multiple personalities or an alias. Mr. Lee was Mr. Wilson because his name was really Mr. Wilson Lee. I think my father just simply titled them ”Mr.” once he heard what their first or last names were. Let's continue. Once we were seated at Mr. Wilson Lee's table we didn't need to order. Why? Because Mr. Wilson/Mr. Lee knew exactly what we would eat on a weekly basis. There was also another good thing about Mr. Wilson/Mr. Lee. He had connections in the Chinese Food underground. When Mr. Wilson/Mr. Lee disappeared past the large red double doors that led to the kitchen he emerged within 20 seconds bearing a plate of sizzling hot appetizers. This included 5 bowls of wonton soup laden with sliced pork, 10 egg rolls, 20 deep fried wontons, 20 pieces of bbq long lean spareribs and 10 mongolian beef skewers. Did 5 people really order that amount of food? The answer to that question is NO. Why did we receive that humongous PuPu platter? The answer is simple. At the end of the meal when all was said and done Mr. Wilson/ Mr. Lee was rewarded handsomely by my father. I figured his tip was definitely more than the total of the bill. If Mr. Wilson/Mr. Lee's children are reading this blog're welcome. I believe my family paid for your university education by not ordering food.

Oh, I forgot to mention the “free” plate of assorted chinese cookies that Mr. Wilson/Mr. Lee stole for us out of the kitchen. Almond cookies, Fortune cookies, chinese rice crispie squares and these really weird sesame coated jelly squares which my sister loved and I hated. My favorite end to the meal was this... I always made a gourmet chinese concoction from various leftover items on the table. Ingredients such as hot mustard, rice, sweet and sour sauce, onions, pieces of napkin, a doily, some pepper, soy sauce, toothpicks, a piece of silk flower and a splash of tea. I stirred it up with my chopstick and like clockwork EVERY SUNDAY got yelled at by my father when he discovered that I was making a mess for Mr. Wilson/Mr. Lee to clean up. It used to drive him nuts but I was really cute so it didn't matter.

Unfortunately Mr. Wilson/Mr. Lee set a precedent for all chinese food waiters worldwide. There was no one that could hold a candle to Wilson Lee. In fact, when Mr. Wilson/Mr. Lee was off duty my father would spend the entire meal telling us that the food was not prepared in the same way. Only Mr. Wilson/Mr. Lee was “tight” with the chef who ensured us that only the freshest ingredients were used. I started to believe that Mr. Wilson/ Mr. Lee was more than likely the waiter and the chef once he entered and exited those double red doors in lightening speed. As time passed, we followed Mr. Wilson/Mr. Lee to all the new locations that Lichee Gardens had opened over the years. What I couldn't figure out is this....Mr. Wilson/ Mr. Lee looked really old to me when he was waiting tables in 1961. Some 25 years later he still looked the same. Ancient Chinese secret? Maybe.

The reason behind this story is this. My parents really only liked one restaurant back then too. All others paled in comparison. Lichee couldn't last forever and neither did Mr. Wilson/Mr. Lee. The restaurant did close over a period of time and then one day a few years ago they reopened Lichee Gardens in a location north of the city. Once they opened this new Lichee G. it was all the rage. The only problem was my parents were their only regular patrons. My father was almost 97 when he passed away. One of his last outings was at his favorite restaurant... Lichee Gardens. Soon after the restaurant closed its doors so did an era of memories. My mom now visits the Paradise Chinese Restaurant...week after week because its the only restaurant that's “good“. The manager there knows when she pulls into her parking spot and she has a favorite waiter...his name is Mr. Raymond. Not sure if that's his last name or his first? Most importantly without my mom requesting it, Mr. Raymond brings her plum sauce that doesn't go with Dim Sum...but does it really matter?

When I invited her to join me for a Saturday night out on the town I was expecting to go to Paradise but was pleasantly surprised when she suggested an Italian place on Avenue Road. Where in the world did she come up with this place? Well you see, it was recommended by her hairdresser who went there for a family communion the week before. So my mom stated “If Pina says it's good it must be good”. To which I replied skeptically “what did she suggest you order”?

“Salmon”, my mother answered.

Hmm? In my opinion, ordering Salmon in an Italian eatery is like ordering a burger in a seafood joint. That's not to say you can't have great fish in any restaurant but why order something fishy when you can have pizza, pasta or cacciatore?

I know that my mom likes to have her last meal of the day early (somewhere between 2 p.m. & 2:05 p.m.). I knew that the restaurant opened at 5 p.m. which was the closest we could get to 2:00 p.m.

Strangely enough my mother opted for a 6 p.m. reservation. She emailed me the restaurant information~ yes email is the way she corresponds with me these days. Her instructions were to call her when I leave my house and I am on my way. Perfect...

I picked her up at 5 p.m. and when I arrived she was standing in her kitchen hallway ready to go. Keep in mind that the restaurant is only 10 minutes from her house. We decided that since the reservation was at 6 p.m. we could drive slowly, park slowly, walk slowly and get to the restaurant about 15 minutes early for our Rez.

After a brief photo shoot on my mother's veranda, we were seated in the restaurant at 5:20 p.m. (So much for the slowly part). Before we ordered, my mother quickly looked through the menu. Salmon was still taking first choice even though I tried to convince her to try one of the restaurant specialties. I decided the only way she may budge was to suggest "sharing". I will order the stuffed cannelloni in a mushroom sauce and my mother would order the salmon and grilled veggies. She agreed and we placed our drink and food order anxiously awaiting the arrival of the meal. The waiter brought the two dishes and placed them in front of us. I carefully divided the food and we dove in. Mine was a delight of cream, butter and cheese and my mother's piece of fish on a plate with a side of undercooked vegetables that my she would not attempt to eat. Once she tasted MY dish she was in heaven. So what about "Pina the Hairdresser's Salmon"? Let's put it this mother wasn't willing to swim upstream again for the "catch of the day".

After a lovely dessert of cheesecake and a really unique way of serving tea my mother seemed very happy with Pina's choice of restaurant. We paid our bill and made our way back to the car which was parked across the street in front of the famous Lobster Trap restaurant. My parents used to go there years ago. As my mother stood for a moment to reminisce about the good old days of lobster tails and lobster bisque she pointed out that she would never go back to Pina's restaurant again. How did I know that? Simple. She never asked for the waiter's name.


  1. Hello, I enjoyed your post. Can I please ask where did you get that fantastic photograph of the old Lichee Garden on Elizabeth Street? I used to go there when I was a kid and would love a copy of that photograph in higher resolution. Thanks so much!

    1. Hi there ! I was at Lichee Gardens every Sunday with my family from age 2 ! I wish I could remember where I found this pic but I believe it was on GOOGLE images. Do you mind me asking how you found my blog ? I hope you enjoyed reading my other posts as well!!

  2. Thanks - I will try to find the photo on Google maps. Funny thing a friend emailed me the link to your blog because he also loved Lichee Garden as a kid.