IVORY THAILAND (81 Church, at Adelaide, 416-363-0081) Complete buffet lunches for $20 per person (dinners $35 at dinner), including all taxes, tip and a glass of guava juice. Average main $14. Open Sunday to Thursday 11 am to 10 pm, Friday and Saturday 11 am to 11 pm. Weekday lunch buffet 11 am to 3 pm. Licensed. Rating: NNN
Ever since Wandee Young's beloved Young Thailand shut its flagship restaurant on lower Church last year to regroup in the Junction, the downtown core lunch crowd has been starving for a decent all-you-can-eat Thai buffet.
Those hunger pains should subside once they learn that Ivory Thailand has just launched in the exact same space that was home to Ms. Young's pad thai parlour for 16 years, and to Abundance for 12 before that. Open less than three weeks, the sprawling space has already won a considerable following among local Thai food aficionados.
Let's face it, the old room needed a lot of work. Though the food dished up at Young Thailand in its prime displayed a subtle complexity occasionally interrupted by a flash of heat, the resto itself was a dated jungle of tropical plants and Bangkok kitsch. But then, who ever went to YT for the decor, especially when main courses rarely broke double digits?
YT regulars are sure to be surprised once they clap eyes on Ivory Thailand's elegant new digs. Once electric-purple walls are now chic celadon, and fugly white tables and matching chairs have been replaced by cherry-wood tables and deeply padded chaises upholstered in satin brocade. Cheap student Thai this ain't. And, yes, Ivory Thailand can be significantly more expensive than Flip, Toss and Thai or Vicky and Sue's. But the difference in cost is negligible when you consider the quality of the ingredients.
Big eaters know there's an art to working a buffet, even more so if it's all-you-can-eat. Restaurants would go broke if they offered all the foie gras you can stuff in your face for a set fee. That's why the grub laid out at most feeding-frenzy free-for-alls consists mainly of carbs. Not only are spuds, pasta and rice cheaper than protein, but they're also far more filling.
Yet other than plain jasmine rice and turmeric-tinted fried rice unnecessarily strewn with frozen supermarket peas 'n' carrots, Ivory Thailand's noontime $12.95 spread is premium meat, seafood and veg. We pile our plates with shredded chicken breast paired with unusually al dente green beans and bell pepper in a mellow chili-spiked sauce garnished with a spray of 30 or so green peppercorns we later learn are strictly for decoration.
Sizable shrimp luxuriate in a smooth coconut cream tossed with seedless red grapes, while perfectly flaky fillets of steamed whitefish come draped with asparagus spears, fronds of fresh dill and slivered Spanish onion. Lean slices of Panang-style pork swim in a red curry thick with crushed peanuts and tamarind.
But what's most remarkable about Ivory Thailand's lineup is what's not there. Cheap cuts of meat don't come pounded, then coated in flour to make them appear larger, and everything in the house is free of MSG.
Only the overall spicing - the heady Thai cocktail of salty, spicy, sweet and sour - seems a bit lacking, perhaps underplayed for Western tastes. But there are bowls of nam pla fish sauce thick with chopped bird chilies as well as others of chili paste and peanut sauce for those who want to ramp up the firepower.
Vegetarian dishes include the inevitable pad thai, here an impressive ketchup-free tangle of rice stick, scrambled egg and scallions sweetened with pineapple juice, and deep-fried tofu in garlicky black pepper.
A tasty daikon and carrot slaw gets doused in a tart citrus vinaigrette, and smallish deep-fried spring rolls stuffed with strips of tofu, cloud ear mushroom, carrot and cabbage pack an appreciable punch.
To finish, we find room for scoops of buttery mango ice cream sided with strawberries, melon and mango in syrup.
An early weeknight á la carte dinner begins with several 2-ounce martinis ($5 Monday to Friday from 4 to 7 pm) before moving on to Ivory Thailand's assorted appetizer platter ($11.95). Golden Pouches turn out to be deep-fried dumpling-like wontons stuffed with minced shrimp, while Ivory Baskets appear to be tiny pastry shells brimming with diced chicken and coriander.
This tapas-style starter also includes skewers of cumin-kissed chicken satay and a pair of cold veggie summer rolls bursting with Thai basil, lettuce and rice vermicelli. Crispy Squid Salad ($10.95) sounds like another winner but proves somewhat disappointing when the rubber bands of cephalopod in question arrive so intentionally crunchy, they disintegrate on contact. Now, that's crispy!
Mains like Drunken Shrimp - a half-dozen or so tail-on shrimp marinated in white wine, plated over cellophane noodles - and overly sauced Masaman Beef Stew in Indo spices (both $12.95) are pleasant enough but pale next to a stir-fry of ridiculously rich roasted duck breast over sweet red pepper, scallions and chunked pineapple ($16.95).
Yes, Ivory Thailand is pricier than its predecessor. But first-time restaurateurs Ha and Craig Voisin - along with partner and long-time Young Thailand chef Yupin Chatradit - have turned all-you-can-eat into a culinary art.