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STAY CAFETERIA (388 Spadina, at Baldwin, 416-901-1510) Complete meals for $20 per person, including tax, tip and an iced tea. Average main $9. Open Wednesday to Monday noon to 11 pm. Closed Tuesday. Reservations accepted. Unlicensed. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NNN
Toronto has long had a fascination with fusion cuisine. Look no further than Susur Lee, who virtually invented the collision of French technique with Asian ingredients at Lotus et al.
Fast forward three decades to the perpetual chaos of Chinatown and Tao Zhang and Jianing Hu's two-month-old Stay Cafeteria. Former George Brown architecture student Zhang is responsible for the stylishly anonymous room's exposed brick and bare light bulbs, while self-taught chef Hu takes credit for the idiosyncratic East-meets-West carte.
Braised beef brisket brings a large bowl of deeply flavoured bone broth brimming with al dente ramen-style wheat noodles, baby bok choy and chopped Italian tomatoes, an inadvertent homage to the Spadina of Switzer's and Swatow. Teriyaki eel baked with mozzarella cheese on rice (both $10) sounds like a home-ec experiment gone wrong, but the eel's aggressively oily sweetness balanced with the famously mild cheese make a surprisingly tasty combo.
Hu's steamed pork, chive and watercress dumplings ($7/dozen) are almost a meal in themselves, the minced pig as juicy as someone's nonna's meatballs, their wrappers like wontons by way of lasagna. But cold Korean-style noodles dressed with shredded chicken thigh, carrot and a pickled egg ($8) just seems silly in the dead of winter, especially when served with an ice-cold mug of oolong tea mixed with fresh watermelon juice ($5). Tropical heat wave, no problem.
Sadly, chef wouldn't tell us what's in the super-crispy batter that coats her incomparable popcorn chicken ($7), but we're guessing graham crackers. Either that or ginger snaps. And a baseball-sized croquette of deep-fried sweet potato stuffed with a hard-boiled egg and slathered in half a bottle of Thousand Island dressing ($6) is like something the guys at Guu would do.
Desserts are just as meta. A ramekin of what the menu euphemistically calls "cheese pudding" turns out to be cheesecake filling, while "baked marshmallow toast" (both $5) borders on s'mores. Hu pulls out all the stops with her cerebral "egg pudding in an egg shell" ($8), a half-dozen egg shells full of eggy vanilla custard served in a ceramic white dish shaped like an egg carton.
Like the bossa nova cover version of John Denver's Take Me Home, Country Roads by Japanese-Brazilian guitarist Lisa Ono currently wafting over the cafeteria's sound system, it's a finish that's both off the wall and oddly comforting.