BLUE BAY CAFE (2243 Dundas West, at Roncesvalles, 416-533-8838) A comfy neighbourhood spot, this Mauritian restaurant serves spice-powered dishes that combine elements of Indian, Thai, French, Cajun and African cooking. Call it crossroads cuisine. Figure in a low-fat, low-carb lineup and extremely reasonable prices, and it's easy to understand Blue Bay's long-running success. Complete meals for $25 per person, including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine or an imported beer. Open Tuesday to Sunday 5 to 10 pm. Fully licensed. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NNN
over the years, many writers have worked NOW's food beat, among them Lorraine Segato, Buffy Caruthers and former goth Russell Smith. But the most notorious of all was a grumpy Greek whose name few could pronounce correctly: Byron Ayanoglu.From the mid-80s to the early 90s, Ayanoglu terrorized Toronto's dining scene with his irreverent reviews that detailed the odder twists of his sex life, his peripatetic world travels and the confessions of his celebrity friends. He sometimes mentioned the food.
Recently, while searching through the NOW archives for a restaurant to write up and re-evaluate from the past, I came across a long list of long-gone eateries that are no longer in existence, let alone remembered by anyone. Quatrocatorce? Piraeus My Love? Aristedes?
But flipping back to Ayanoglu's very first NOW column in 1986, I found his critique of a local spot that not only still stands but continues to be as popular as ever -- Blue Bay Cafe.
And I'm ashamed to admit that I'd never been there before. Incredulous friends were always mystified by my oversight. They told me of the Mauritian eatery's remarkable menu, a cross-cultural mix of Thai, Indian, French, African and Cajun cuisines that reflects its homeland's post-colonial location in the Indian Ocean.
Supposedly, I'd love it. But I've been busy up till now, really I have. My Insignificant Other has an ingrown toe-nail, I've just taken the hovercraft back from Guelph and Jaymz Bee's invited me to some party.
Enough excuses! On this drizzly autumn night, the posse -- the Literary Device, club kid Jennifer Convertible and moi -- arrive for an early dinner. The place is deserted but inviting, a cozy neighbourhood bistro illuminated by twinkly white lights. Sade croons on the boom box. Our order's quickly taken, and the parade of aps and mains starts soon after.
First, we share a trio of tasty triangular samosa packets (90 cents each), that are grease-free and stuffed with cubed potato and garden peas. They're served with an almost Korean array of condiments -- clear garlic sauce that looks like water but packs the punch of 100-proof vodka, as well as puréed chili-spiked, coriander-scented tomato chutney, a pickled kimchee-like coleslaw called "Achard" and fire salsa (that's all you need to know about that last one).
These same incendiary dips detonate Côtelette Volaille ($2.50), a time-consumingly deboned and breaded chicken leg cutlet.
Firm, crisp okra shows up in several dishes, combined with meaty sirloin strips ($8.95) or in a salad with hearts of palm ($5.25). But our favourite is Fricassé Okra, a simple but delicious dish of blanched veggies -- okra, tomato and onion -- sautéed in white wine.
On Ayanoglu's 15-year-old recommendation, we follow with daube of chicken ($8.85), a riotous stew of flavourful dark meat and potato set in a marinated tomato sauce heavy with onion, garlic, ginger, thyme, coriander, curry leaves and more wine. Order it -- like everything else -- spicy if you dare.
Grilled coconut shrimp ($12) swim in a gingery, lime-infused coconut cream next to thin wedges of zucchiniesque chayote. And though perfectly cooked timbales of short-grain rice accompany most of the entrees, vegetarian Mine Frire ($7) makes a better sidekick. This cool, dressing-free salad contrasts the textures and tastes of raw and cooked Asian greens with the Chinese wheat noodles known as spaghetti and scrambled-egg garnish.
We continue with Shrimp Mascarenas ($10.75) -- another Ayanoglu fave -- that comes in a nippy yet delicate, pulpy sauce that recalls the one that came with the daube. A quick crunch of peas adds a burst of freshness even though they were frozen 15 minutes ago. To finish, we savour scoops of smooth mango and passion fruit sorbet ($3.75) spooned with raspberry jam and lemon balm leaves.
By now, I'm a Blue Bay believer. Not only are these dishes some of the most unusual I've ever sampled, but portions won't bust a gut and their price tags don't seem to have changed much since 1986. Nodding in I-told-you-so smugness, the Device and Convertible sip a serviceable vintage-free Italian red (Farnese $3.50 glass/$9.75 half-litre/$19.50 litre), while I knock back a Corona ($4) served 80s-style with a lime wedged down its neck.
The next week I'm back for more. Fish with ginger sauce ($10.50), a dense hake fillet, bathes in a sauce intensified by ginger, green onion and carrot threads. Tender little tentacles of octopus star in Carri Ourite ($12), a screamingly hot curry with turmeric, cardamom and cumin. Things cool down a bit -- a bit -- with Cajun-inspired Touffe Legume ($7.25), a stir-fry of fresh carrot, zucchini, bok choy, tomato, napa and near-invisible pieces of Thai bird chilies.
For some, Blue Bay Cafe might be as passé as yesterday's newspaper. But for the rest of us, it's a major find -- even if we are 15 years late.