The address 326 Adelaide Street West has never really been a lucky location for anything. Waterfall Martini Lounge, anyone? Think about it: opening a restaurant in the Entertainment District has only ever lured tourists and 905ers who think Milestone's is "fine dining" and Alice Fazooli's is "real Italian."
Recent openings in the area of Oliver & Bonicini's Luma and Paese's Tony Loschiavo and exec chef Chris Palik aside, Sukhothai in Regent Park had foodies lining up in 2008 and the critics wav
ing their white napkins in cheerful, satiated surrender. Clearly Jeffrey Regular and wife chef Nuit were doing something right. So taking a chance and opening a restaurant next to a nightclub and down the block from a Pita Pit and a Hooters must have felt just right.
Their first success blossomed amidst the concrete before. But could they do it again? From 6 pm sharp a steady push of people line up waiting for a table at Khao San Road. But the buzz started well before the doors opened. That's the thing about Toronto foodies. Once word is out about something supposedly hot, they cling to it like OJ to his alibi, and it's hard to dissuade them otherwise.
Nowhere on the menu, the website or in the restaurant does the word "canteen" appear. It does, however, appear on the business card, and it is perhaps the most apt description: amid grey minimalist industrial with reclaimed school chairs and simple wooden tables, food here is meant to be gobbled up and devoured rather than savoured and lingered over. A kind of homage to Salad King that owners Ernest Liu and Linda Fung created years ago, only with more of a downtown attitude.
The menu is small (read: focused) with few mains, no salads and one dessert. Starters hold promise with Thai ingredients that include kaffir lime leaf and Thai coriander. But a forensics team wouldn't be able to uncover a trace of the two. Even a fried garlic tofu ($8) that brilliantly turns into the consistency of a moist chicken nugget, is lacking any of its supposed garlic and kaffir lime coating.
Given the option of either shrimp chips or squash chips ($5), the more exotic latter choice wins out. Light airy puffs of varying sizes float like cumulus clouds in a woven basket and make for a nice pre-meal nosh. But deep-fried squash fritters ($9) have to be dissected to discern if there is even a hint of red curry and shrimp paste. Lemongrass occasionally peeks through, but these greasy mounds have about as much culinary excitement as Cheesies.
Chicken sausage is a refreshing alternative to the typical stuffing of fresh spring rolls ($6), but all appetizers are accompanied by the same sauces. And this is a Thai hotspot?
Green curry beef ($12) is nicely constructed with a Thai basil and green chilli infusion that properly penetrates the abundant but very thin squares of meat. But the finish is so cloyingly sweet it could be used as a sundae topping. Even a pad thai ($16) has a hard go of it, its limp noodles thickly coated with what the menu describes as "three flavours style." Three types of sugar, maybe. At least the five shrimp are textbook perfect buoyant but not stringy.
One recommendation was the Pad Gra Prao ($13) or stir-fried chicken or beef with holy basil, topped with a fried egg. Sounds good on paper. Tastes not good in real world. What we get is a deconstructed taco plate with an overcooked egg and a pool of grease.
At Khao San Road, spice level for the mains is left up to you, from timid all the way to "Thai Spicy." And though we requested all ours to be the hottest, the heat level was as uneven throughout. Only the pad thai was truly fiery. How disappointing.
The one dessert, a teensy cup of tapioca pearls in coconut milk ($3) reveals strips of tender young coconut. The perfect antidote to a mouth on fire. But even this cute delicate composition can barely make up for many of the culinary missteps. Neither can a non-alcoholic Thai iced tea ($4.5), a beautiful infusion of Thai spices, black tea and condensed milk over ice. In spite of its sweet creaminess, the black tea breaks through. Quite impressive.
The one word that has been lauded the most about this place has been "authentic." A more apt one would be overrated.