Dining Out: Chinese dessert revelations at Honey Town
710 Somerset St. W., 613-680-8100, honeytown.ca
Open: Sunday to Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Prices: savoury items $4.59 to $7.59, desserts $5.99 to $17.99
Access: stairs to front door
“Embrace a new challenge like your favourite dessert,” reads the motivational saying on the window outside the excellently named new Chinatown eatery Honey Town. But what if that challenge happens to be dessert?
I have in mind durian, the spiny and notoriously stinky Southeast Asian fruit, which fortunately figures in just a few of the at-times bewildering desserts served at Honey Town, which opened in mid-June. I had to steel myself, in the company of a durian buff, to take my first durian challenge — but more on that later.
For now, let’s be clear about the less controversial but still very interesting items on Honey Town’s menu. The small, unlicensed place with a fun, youthful vibe is heavily about dessert, although there are a few savouries, and unless you’re acquainted with Hong Kong and Taiwanese sweets, many desserts and their ingredients will send you to Wikipedia for their back stories after you’ve eaten them.
Why yes, sago, which figures in many a Honey Town item, is “a starch extracted from the spongy centre, or pith, of various tropical palm stems.” Tortoise jelly, a herbal concoction, is not really made from turtle shells, although many years ago, it was. Sea coconut, I have learned since eating some at Honey Town, is an ingredient in well-regarded cough syrups, although I’ve also been told that Honey Town substitutes young coconut for sea coconut.
On principle, I’m glad that Honey Town is here if only because I’ve thought that Ottawa restaurants too often serve very predictable desserts — Crème brûlée ad absurdum.
I’m also happy that Honey Town serves savoury Chinese snacks such as bao buns and soup dumplings, even if they fall short of being the best and most artisanal in town, registering closer to good than great. We’re still at the point where it’s a significant to have these items available, never mind excellently made.
I liked the fillings I’ve had in Honey Town’s handful-sized open-face buns — the archetypal slap of fatty-but-good pork belly, the tender bits of braised beef plus kimchi, the unfortunately dry fried chicken. Too bad the buns, which were most likely made elsewhere and previously frozen were a little mushy.
Soup dumplings of either pork or pork and crab delivered the hoped-for sploosh of broth and some meaty filling. Har gow shrimp dumplings had texture and freshness going for them but needed a bit more seasoning. Won ton soup was minimalist, made of shrimp won tons, so-so noodles, baby bok choy and broth that needed more flavour.
Who knew that kimchi fries was a thing, let alone a good thing? Honey Town’s rendition was no more than fries topped with kimchi, with ketchup on the side, while Google points to more complex recipes with caramelized kimchi. Still, Honey Town surprised with crisp, excellent fries worth a repeat visit, and I’d take these over sludgy poutine any day.
Also from the deep-fryer came Taiwanese popcorn chicken, which we wish had been meatier, although it more than passed the test for crispness and lack of greasiness.
From the menu’s sweet selections, what I’ve tried has spanned the gamut from the very approachable milk custard with honeyed walnuts all the way to something quite daunting and durian-forward.
I’ve sampled what must be Ottawa’s most mango-obsessed dessert — mango cream paste with mango pudding and mango ice cream. Good thing I was in the mood for mango. But seriously, I’d eat it again if myriad other choices didn’t also tempt.
I mean, how can you not order sea coconut and black glutinous rice ball with vanilla ice cream paste? It proved not only interesting but also sweet and refreshing on a sweltering day.
A massive — sufficient for three, really — bowl of chewy taro balls, tapioca pearls, boiled peanuts, red beans and syrup on shaved ice was diverse, less sweet than expected, and exotic. Those squidgy taro balls in particular stood out as a reminder of the textural breadth of the Asian palate, but the dessert became less daunting, and more slurpable, as the ice melted.
Which brings me to trying durian. It turned out that at one lunch-time visit, Honey Town was out of durian thousand layer cake. So at the server’s suggestion, we went for the durian crepes.
The stuffed pancake arrived, green and pungent.
“You know, it constipates you if you eat too much,” said my dining companion, a durian aficionado just the same.
“Now you tell me,” I replied.
“You’d have to eat, like, a whole one,” she said.
“I have three of them sitting in my freezer,” she added.
With the crepe, we found that the whipped cream mellowed out the chunks of durian, which we guessed had once been frozen and were thawed, especially given how labour-intensive it would be to make desserts with fresh durian, which has an intimidating, thorny husk. Without the whipped cream, the durian tasted like a cross between caramelized onion ice cream and rotting caramelized onion ice cream.
A large serving of Hong Kong-style “milk tea” (black tea mixed liberally with condensed milk) washed the durian flavour from my mouth.
But for my dining companion, any reprieve was temporary, as she later messaged me: “Got durian burps and it’s not a good thing.”
Looks like I won’t be going back to Honey Town for the durian cake challenge. But other than that, I’ll happily return.