CAFE 668 (885 Dundas West, at Claremont, 416-703-0668) Complete dinners for $30 (lunches $20) per person, including all taxes, tip and a glass of organic wine. Average main $12. Open Tuesday to Sunday noon to 10 pm. Closed Monday, though open some holiday Mondays. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNNNN
Café 668's Hon Quach and Ngoc Lam make opening a successful resto look easy.
Five years after launching their low-key vegan eatery on a decidedly dreary strip of Dundas just east of Bathurst, these first-time restaurateurs have picked up stakes and moved what's considered to be one of the best herbivore haunts in town into far fancier digs a few blocks west. And while the name and innovative card that brought the couple fame is the same, the new room signals that Quach and Lam have stepped up their game.
Anyone familiar with the old joint is in for a surprise. Now in trendy Trinity Bellwoods, the new 668 is one of the most stylish spots on the west side. Walls of floor-to-ceiling glass face the street and draw customers into a bright, airy space with chocolate ceramic flooring and comfy off-white banquettes. Pinspots throw dramatic light on walls clad with crushed crystal wallpaper and flagstone. Mod acrylic chandeliers add further elegance. Up a few stairs, an intimate lounge makes the perfect perch to rubberneck visiting A-list celebs like Mike Myers below.
Yes, prices have increased somewhat. But when the setting's this gorgeous, the welcome this genuine and the food so often delish, what's another buck or two? Besides being three times the size of the old place, the new 668 sports a first-time patio and a liquor licence, so regulars can now dine al fresco over plates of Veggie Duck ($13.99) and glasses of Malivoire's locally grown organic plonk (2005 Ladybug Rosé $8/$38 bottle).
Café 668 may have gone unmistakably upmarket, but the people behind it are as down-to-earth as ever. Quach and his daughters work the front of house unobsequiously with great charm, and wife Lam has her sister helping out in the kitchen.
Café 668's eponymous salad continues to be the way to start. A jubilant julienne of English cucumber, carrot and celery, it comes dressed with shreds of deep-fried tofu, coriander leaf, crushed peanuts and toasted cashews in a sweet Sriracha-triggered vinaigrette.
But what the menu calls water chestnut salad (both $8.99) turns out to be uniform matchsticks of crunchy apple-like jicama mixed with green mango, sweet red bell pepper, slivered red onion, shredded coconut, gingery candied almonds and mint in a fish-sauce-free take on nuoc mam.
Find that same sauce as a dip for the house's Summer Rolls ($4.50 for two), a superlative pair of raw rice paper wraps stuffed with cellophane noodles, tofu, carrot threads, Thai basil and wilted napa cabbage. Another exceptional entree, crispy fried tofu ($5.50) sees blocks of deep-fried tofu sided with a licorice-like basil-laced soy.
Like its terrific first courses, 668's mains are meant to be shared. Large steaming bowls of hot 'n' sour vermicelli soup ($8.50) brim with a clear, sweet tomato broth thick with large chunks of freshly stewed tomato, crisp celery stalk, crumbly bean curd sheet, chunked pineapple and fresh mint. Pineapple shows up again in Hawaiian fried rice ($9.50), a retro stir-fry loaded with broccoli, tomato, garden peas and faux barbecued pork.
Usually ineptly prepared and so prevalent on local menus that it might as well be an indigenous dish, pad thai deserves its bad rap. Purists may pooh-pooh, but 668's idiosyncratic rice-stick translation comes ketchup-free, tamarind-tart, loaded with carrots, peanuts and cabbage and tossed with sprouts, 'shrooms and sesame seeds ($9.99). But even I balk at paying 10 bucks for a plateful of steamed baby bok choy when it's selling for 49 cents a pound on Spadina.
Vegetarians are a notoriously parsimonious bunch. Though the socks 'n' Birkenstocks set likely won't approve, those less hardcore will appreciate Café 668's unique mix of high style and health-conscious grub.
Now, what's so hard to swallow about that?