RED TEA BOX (696 Queen West, at Euclid, 416-203-8882) A luxe home-decor boutique selling imported teas and pastries becomes downtown's most elegant spot for superb Japanese-Indian lunches, afternoon tea on the terrace or lounging in the breezy coach house. Warning: with only eight tables for two and no reservations, there's a queue. Complete lunches for $20 per person, including all taxes, tip and tea. Open Monday, Wednesday and Thursday 10 am to 6 pm, Friday and Saturday 10 am to 7 pm, Sunday noon to 5 pm. Closed Tuesday and holidays. Unlicensed. Access: one step at door, small washroom on same floor, four steps to terrace, and another four steps to coach house. Rating: NNNNN
picture a converted coach house complete with French country armoires and Stickley rockers. Over-sized glass vases brim with gladiolas, and low tables covered in raw silk are set for afternoon tea. Funky 50s lamps and framed photos of cats complete the calming effect. French doors swing open onto a walled-in terrace with patio furniture covered in what looks to be hedgehog bristles. No music plays; the only sound's the wind rustling through the leaves of a 30-foot pear tree heavy with fruit.
A summer house in Provence? A villa on Lake Como just down from Donnatella Versace's chateau? Perhaps a secluded Muskoka boathouse on a private lake?
No, we're a few blocks west of Bathurst, in the heart of shabby-chic Queen West, revelling in the sophistication of Red Tea Box.
Squirly's this ain't.
Since the beginning of July, I've noticed passersby peering into the Red Tea Box trying to figure out what's going on. Once a beauty parlour -- and one of the last non-trendified spaces on the strip -- the front room now appears to be an upscale boutique selling imported teas and house-baked pastries. Overstuffed armchairs surround three tables at which one can savour pots of Tieguanyin Competition Monkey Picked ($10) and nibble on sun-dried ginger shortbread ($6 for six) or green-tea ganache ($4.50).
But there's absolutely no clue -- other than a small chalkboard menu -- that Red Tea Box is one of the most exciting foodie finds in a long time.
Dining solo, I select the lunch bento ($12 and only available from 11 am to 2 pm). It starts with oven-warm slices of Fred's whole-wheat bread complemented by an addictively delicious spinach dip laced with cream cheese, dill and fiery wasabi. At first the temperature contrast startles, but it's the first hint that there's great skill and subtlety here. Next up, a salad of baby mesclun topped with a mess of carrot threads gets dressed with tart persimmon vinaigrette.
A lacquered box with five compartments arrives. One contains a pair of cool tiger shrimp wrapped in roasted red-pepper cummerbunds on a bed of mandolin-cut raw celery slivers, all doused with a ponzu-esque dressing. Another holds minty purple shiso leaves drizzled with a sweet 'n' sour vinaigrette supporting al dente green beans and a compote of caramelized red onion tossed with toasted mustard seeds.
A third showcases the main attraction, cubes of lamb (the veggie version substitutes cauliflower) and potato in thick curry gravy, while a fourth sees delicate basmati rice topped by more shiso and baby lotus root. The centre compartment holds vinegary mint chutney. All get washed down with superb Nilgiri iced tea ($4).
I take away a grilled Indo-spiced chicken breast sandwich on raisin sourdough ($7.50) kicked by a remarkable onion marmalade spiced with cumin, turmeric and ginger. Easily the best sandwich I've had in ages.
It doesn't take much coaxing to convince the Literary Device to join me for Red Tea Box's afternoon tea (daily 2 to 5 pm and all day Sunday). I go for Southeast Asian Tea ($22), a bento full of under-powered samosa-like curry puffs stuffed with minced lemon-grass chicken, a trio of savoury choux stuffed with too-bland wasabi-spiked egg salad, slices of vanilla Singaporan lapis cake layered with a chocolate near-mousse and tiny pineapple tarts sided with blueberries and lychees. A pot of Dragon Well ($3.50 cup/$6 pot) adds a finishing touch.
The Device's Darjeeling Tea Feature ($25) finds scooped-out cucumber cups piled with coconutty shredded chicken, a pair of cardamom puri soaked in rosewater syrup and garnished with candied rose buds, wedges of lemon yogurt cakelets and three Sri Lankan lentil patties goosed by tamarind relish.
Frankly, compared to what's gone before -- including a previous lunch of cool sour-cherry borscht ($4.50) and a classic niçoise ($8) with Asian twists -- we're disappointed. But with some fine-tuning, the tea bentos will easily equal the other exquisite fare on offer, so I'm sticking with my five-N rating.
Now, the bad news. Technically, Red Tea Box isn't a restaurant. There are only eight tables for two scattered through the jaw-droppingly gorgeous space. Reservations are not accepted (maybe a wristband policy could be implemented?), but one thing's for sure -- the fabulosi will slug it out to be seen here.
"People tell me the food's good," shrugs an unfazed Mun Wong, who, along with her sister Han, owns this unique spot. "And I'm like, "Whatever.'"
Regardless, Red Tea Box is simply sensational.
Don't tell anybody.