HUA SANG THAI-VIET CUISINE (45 Baldwin, at Henry, 416-260-1638) Complete dinners for $25 per person (lunches $12), including all taxes, tip and an iced Saigon-style coffee. Average main $10/$6. Open Sunday to Thursday 11 am to 10 pm, Friday and Saturday 11 am to 11 pm. Licensed. Access: seven steps at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNN
The literary device is clearly confused. My gastro gal pal's supposed to be meeting me at Hua Sang - the newly launched Baldwin Village boîte that marks the return of Miss Saigon's Simon Chau to the downtown dining scene - but she can't find the joint.
Well, actually she can. It's just that there are three of them, all right next door to each other.
At number 43 and down a flight of stairs, there's Hua Sang Seafood Restaurant, a retro Cantonese cantina famed for its two-for-one lobsters. Two doors away at number 47, arch-rival Wah Sing Seafood Restaurant has been offering the same meal deal since the early 80s.
The Device eventually twigs that it's the Hua Sang subtitled Thai-Viet Cuisine at number 45 she's looking for and joins me on a high-backed banquette in this oddly anonymous space. As if on cue, the narcoleptic bleat of jazzy shlockmeister Kenny G oozes ever so politely from the sound system. This doesn't look promising.
Chau's previous venture was one of our favourite rooms on Spadina. A brightly painted jungle of tropical plants offset with fish tanks full of giant koi, Miss Saigon somehow struck the perfect balance of atmospheric decor and skilfully executed Vietnamese staples, giving nearby Pho Hung a run for its money in popularity.
But Chau sold the business and the rights to its name - though the new owners quickly changed it to Hello Saigon - a few years ago to go back to Vietnam to work for a five-star hotel. He's since returned, and after a stint in the kitchen went into business with Hua Sang, opening his own offshoot three weeks ago.
While the grub's just as tasty as Miss Saigon's - although the spicing's now as muted as the formerly fluorescent-lit resto's track lighting - the new Hua Sang leaves us puzzled.
Virtually every restaurant on the Baldwin strip offers cheap all-inclusive lunch specials, and the new Hua Sang's no exception. For $5.75, you get beautifully plated combos like grilled five-spice chicken, mellow red curry with tender beef and chunked carrot or thinly sliced lemongrass pork in sweet soy with scallion and red bell pepper.
All come served over steamed rice and sided with Vietnamese-style vegetarian hot 'n' sour soup as well as mesclun and mango salad in sweet nuoc cham vinaigrette.
Although Chau's latest menu digresses into Thai territory - does Toronto really need another pad thai ($9.50), and one that's incorrectly ketchup-pink, under-garnished and overpriced to boot? - most of the card will be familiar to anyone who frequented his old stomping grounds.
Pho fanatics should go for his Miss Saigon slow-steamed chicken noodle soup ($5.75 lunch/$6.95 dinner) in an almost medicinal broth thick with al dente linguine-like rice stick.
But pass on the mango rolls ($4 for two) - all they are is the salad garnish that comes with nearly every dish rolled in rice paper with a little additional rice noodle and lettuce. Far better to opt for a gorgeously broiled oyster on the half-shell ($3) showered in minced parsley and garlic. Or several.
Chau's card also contains a number of chef's specials. It's difficult to tell what Cube Beef on Sweet & Sour Salad ($15.95) has to do with either Thai or Viet cuisine. It tastes like sirloin in an odd mix of soy and balsamic, its supposedly tangy accompaniment mere romaine. But a perfectly grilled split lobster ($20.95) dipped in lemongrass butter soon has us wishing we'd gone the two-for-one route ($29.95).
What the house describes as "vegetarian vegetable fried glass noodles" ($9.50) turns out to be a delicious Café 668esque mess of sesame-smoked mung bean threads interlaced with deep-fried tofu, red onion, purple cabbage and green beans. But we could have done without "vegetables with black mushroom" ($8.95), a basic stir-fry of Asian eggplant, bok choy and broccoli inexplicably sauced Birds-Eye-style in butter.
And where's the hot sauce? A request for same brings a tiny saucer of Sriracha. Why not put a bottle on the table, like every other Saigon soup kitchen in town?
Absent condiments, flimsy dollar-store forks and appalling taste in dinner music are all easy fixes.
Carving out an identity for any new restaurant, especially for one sandwiched between two similarly named businesses, is the hard part.
Come up with a better name (if not Miss Saigon II, then Simon's Chau, perhaps?), ditch the Thai digressions and put some life into this moribund room, and Hua Sang won't have us missing Miss Saigon.