MERLION (434 Dundas West, at Huron, 416-351-0188). Complete meals for $20 per person, including all taxes, tip and a domestic beer. Average main $8. Open Sunday to Wednesday 11 am to 11 pm, Thursday to Saturday 11 am to midnight. Licensed. Access: 10 steps at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NN Rating: NNNNN
Some people like broccoli; others don't.
And that's about it when it comes to matters of taste. So it's difficult to criticize Merlion, the two-month-old Chinatown walk-up that advertises itself incorrectly as the only restaurant in Toronto serving Singapore food. Guess they've never heard of Matahari, around the corner.
Merlion doesn't specialize in the fancy Asian fusion fare found in that city's top hotels, but instead in the down 'n' dirty street food of Singapore's multi-culti food courts.
To guarantee their grub's authenticity, the owners have brought in Lillian Ow, "an experienced chef from Singapore," according to the takeout flyer. The results will likely please nationals, but others may find it all a little fishy.
I like seafood - really I do. I put anchovies on pizza and own a bottle of Vietnamese nam pla fish sauce that I've actually used on occasion. But the quantity of both fermented hay koh prawn sauce and belacan shrimp paste this kitchen puts in virtually everything amounts to overkill.
We begin with popiah ($4.95), a pair of pleasant salad rolls loaded with crunchy marinated daikon, carrot, scrambled egg, wilted coriander and sweet Chinese sausage. A thin, sugary pink dip accompanies them.
The beautifully plated dish shown on Merlion's glossy menu topped with plump tiger shrimp and labelled Laksa Lemak ($7.50) looks nothing like what we're served.
What we get is an odd soupy coconut gravy strewn with rice noodles, five frozen cocktail shrimp, a stick of faux crab, a few slices of bland processed fish cake, half a hard-boiled egg and a handful of chopped chicken and sprouts.
Hainanese Chicken Rice ($7) also looks better on paper. A famous hawker specialty, Merlion's version sees a heap of plain white rice layered with pieces of skin-on, bones-in boiled chicken and sided with separate bowls of weak chicken stock, salty Chinese hot sauce, pulverized ginger in oil, and dark soy.
Though Spicy Grilled Fish ($12) consists of a lovely meaty fillet wrapped in a banana leaf, it appears to have been deep-fried. A heavy helping of shrimp paste renders it fish with fish sauce.
The kitchen sends out a complimentary order of mango salad ($6.50) - at last, something remotely vegetarian! - but even it is laced with pork, shrimp and belacan.
As a fan of Korean pork bone soup, I'm looking forward to Merlion's Singapore take. But Bak Kut The ($8.75) turns out to be a few bony ribs in a clear, medicinal broth and not worth the bother.
One person's Spam....