HANOI 3 SEASONS (588 Gerrard East, at Broadview, 416-463-9940) Complete meals for $15 per person, including all taxes, tip and a domestic beer. Open Tuesday to Saturday 11 am to 9 pm, Sunday 11 am to 3 pm. Closed Monday. Licensed. Access: two steps at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Hai Luke should know better.
You'd think that a successful financial adviser would be aware that 95 per cent of all restaurants fail within their first year and are considered an investment for suckers or the very foolish. But one day a year or so ago while having lunch at his favourite east-side dive - Pho Thang Famous Vietnamese House of Noodles, to be precise - Luke learns the joint's for sale and buys it on the spot.
It doesn't help that he hasn't a clue about the food service industry, let alone how to cook. Soon, he's ditched his lucrative money-management career, enlisted a sister-in-law as well as his octogenarian parents to help out and launched Hanoi 3 Seasons, Toronto's only North Vietnamese eatery.
North Vietnamese, what's the eff-ing diff'?, you might reasonably ask. What pass for Saigon-style Vietnamese restos round these parts usually offer a crowd-pleasing North Americanized combo of Viet, Thai and Cantonese favourites. Any number of Spring Rolls clones, anyone?
Notice the difference right away when first entering 3 Seasons' rather anonymous storefront. Instead of blinding white surfaces lit by fluorescent tubes draped with plastic foliage, the low-rent boîte borders on fashionable. Hung with needlepoint landscapes, walls have been painted a chic dark olive that actually complements the room's previously fugly plywood accents. And isn't that Norah Jones on the CD player?
The North Vietnamese variations begin with a fabulous starter known simply as Hen ($5), a literally explosive dish - I have the radioactive evidence in the NOW Test Kitchen microwave oven to prove it - of minced baby clams, chopped raw green chilies and wilted strips of cabbage and onion. Sided with black sesame seed rice crackers that act as scoops, this fiery stir-fry builds to a slow burn while referencing the pan-Asian mix of seemingly disparate cuisines of Malaysia and Sri Lanka.
Before opening 3 Seasons last spring, Luke travelled to his homeland, where he convinced several name restaurateurs to show him the secrets of their kitchens. Taste one in Bun Bo Hue ($6), the famous pho of central Vietnam. Pronounced "fuh" as in "fuh- cough," this complex, meal-in-one beef soup has an often contrary spicing - like much of the short lineup - that is hard to pin down.
At first sip, you taste soapy coriander followed by fragrant notes of lemongrass. Next, coconut appears on the spice palate underscored by roasted chilies, before a final rush of fresh mint, sour tamarind and the slightest suggestion of dill, the last a colonial French twist.
Fresh snippets of dill also appear in Do Bien Sao Rau Cai ($6.50), a savoury seafood 'n' skinny rice vermicelli stir-fry topped with a terrific trio of steamed green-shelled New Zealand mussels, a pair of grilled tail-on shrimp and shards of faux pink crab. Like most of the ample meat and veg mains, the dish gets its unique spicing from turmeric, black pepper, garlic, liberal chunks of ginger, lemongrass stalk, coriander leaf, Thai basil and minty rau ram, plus Indonesdian shrimp paste rather than southern nam pla fish sauce. Crisp, knife-cut shards of iceberg lettuce and crushed peanuts, too.
Turmeric really comes into play with curried chicken satay (Ca-ri Ga Sate, $6.50), slim slices of grilled chicken kicked with coconut, raw scallions and crunchy mung bean sprouts. Only Pho Xao Voi Rau Xanh - wide fried rice noodles tossed with a perfunctory tangle of baby bok choy ($5), and one of the only strictly vegetarian items on the card - disappoints, its spicing almost non-existent in contrast to the pyrotechnics that precede. Back on track, we finish with deliciously creamy durian milk shakes and iced Vietnamese-style coffee, Café Sua Da (both $3).
Hanoi 3 Seasons is not for culinary conservatives. And if you're in a rush, be warned, service is leisurely at best - she's someone's great-grandmother, for Buddha's sake! First-time chef Luke has created a restaurant unlike any in town, and against all industry odds, it's a success. Are there days when he regrets the decision to leave his cushy banking job for the chaos of the kitchen?
"My ex-boss calls all the time asking me to come back to work," laughs Luke. "But I'll never go back. Now I have my heart in what I do."