Just like in any family, there is a time for each child to leave the nest and make their mark in the world. Over the years, the Salad King restaurant at 335 Yonge Street has grown into a thriving downtown institution, crammed each night with hungry university students, tourists and shoppers. The restaurant's sleek and minimalist interior paired with a fast and consistent kitchen has produced a well-earned success for owners Linda and Ernest Liu. However, right above the busy hum of chatting cust
omers was Salad King's oft-missed sibling restaurant, Linda.
Plagued with difficulties, Linda suffered under the success of its downstairs brother. Salad King's massive lineups would often block the entrance to Linda and there wasn't enough signage to lure customers' attention from the bright lights of Salad King. Recognizing Linda's potential, the Lius decided to give it a chance to step out from under Salad King's shadow and into the spotlight by moving uptown to the Shops at Don Mills.
The new, stand-alone, Linda is dramatic and striking. The Munge Leung designed space uses a dark palate of burnished orange-reds, blacks and golds in architectural accents around the restaurant. Oversized partitions, situated between tables, divide the main dining room, which are initially hidden behind a jet-black wall. These partitions' charming cutouts and inserts make the room appear like a ornate wooden puzzle box. Despite the dark colours, the restaurant feels airy, partly due to the soaring height of the ceilings, and the wraparound patio in the front. Though the restaurant has only had a soft opening, it is already busy on the weekends, and on a rainy Thursday morning, a steady stream of customers peek inside to see if they can get a table for lunch.
With an understanding of Malay and Thai food stemming from her eight years of culinary training in Penang, Malaysia - Linda Liu really began cooking for the fun of it. In addition, she followed a Thai chef for 4 years-while the pursuit may sound suspicious, this chef had been the master chef for a Thai king. As a result, it comes as no surprise that Liu grinds all her own curries and chili pastes for Linda. She asserts that for authenticity, each restaurant should have their own recipes for curries and chili pastes-"mother's recipes"-a responsibility that she takes seriously.
For inspiration, Liu travels often to Thailand to pick up more ideas for authentic dishes that she can bring back to Linda. She also complements her worldly palate by traveling around the globe, dining at enviable destinations like El Bulli, and chatting up Gordon Ramsay on a recent visit to one of his restaurants in London, UK. This global sensibility paired with traditional Thai cuisine makes for an interesting balance. Much of Thailand's cuisine rooted in home cooking and the ubiquitous street vendor stands, Liu wants to stay true to Thai tradition yet introduce a more refined experience for her diners.
Liu's philosophy is as it has always been: to give her customers food that they will fall in love with. If they don't love it, it won't last on the menu. For the most part, Liu's offerings are dishes familiar to the layperson, but evolution is an integral part of her process. Liu and executive chef Wing Lee, take classic Thai dishes and reinterprets them. Soon, Linda will be offering set dinners with dishes not found on the Ã la carte menu, like lobster soup, oxtail soup, duck confit, Cornish hen and tomato salad. Though not native to Thailand's culinary canon, they will most assuredly be done with a Thai twist, expanding the definition of what Thai food can be to Toronto diners.
For example, I try a seafood soup, which, from the dishware to the dollop of cream pulled to form a spoke-shaped pattern, looks like it could find a home in any Western fine-dining establishment. The soup is a smooth blend that uses classic Thai flavours like lemongrass and coconut, and is studded with shrimp, mussels and scallops. The spice is not visually apparent, but with each swallow, a lingering heat eminates. Another dish of butterflied shrimp and roasted red peppers is also a visual surprise, but the flavours are immediately identifiable as Thai. The 2 large Vietnamese shrimp are perched atop a stroke of basil sauce, which includes basil, parsley and cilantro. It's a fresh and aromatic complement to the grilled seafood, while the sweetness of the red peppers rounds out the taste. Debuting soon is the white chicken/seafood soup, which Liu says will feature a typical clear Thai broth - I am looking forward to returning and trying it.
Liu wants to continue to train and groom the younger generation to follow in her stead; her current staff roster includes recent graduates from George Brown College's culinary programme. In terms of possibly expanding the Salad King/Linda family, if she did meet the right hardworking person, they could very well take over the helm from the Lius.
Sensing that our time is up, Liu shoots me a quick smile, tells me to make sure I finish eating all of my food. In one fluid motion, she gets up from the table and is immediately fussing over a party of 3 women, helping them get settled at their table, just like a mother hen watching over her brood.