Forget espionage. Matahari, the five-year-old Malaysian bistro in Baldwin Village, has nothing to do with Mata Hari, the double-crossing femme fatale from the first world war. In Malay, mata hari means eyes of the sky (sun).
The two short blocks of Baldwin Street between Beverley and McCaul form a microcosm of Toronto's multi-culti culinary scene. Not only do they house many of the city's favourite eateries, but some of its most gastronomically diverse as well. Old-school Italian trats, Tex-Mex cantinas and Chinese chow mein joints mix it up with Moroccan, Japanese and eclectic contemporary spots -- and all with rockin' patios.
Until a few years ago, the nabe was home to three Malaysian restaurants. Two of them, Ole Malacca and Sri Malaysia, are gone, but Matahari carries on. And despite foodie fortune tellers' forecasts that its fare is the next big thing, this Baldwin vet is the only remaining Malaysian kitchen in town. Maybe that trend has already peaked in Mooseville.
Successful front Still, it's easy to understand the persevering popularity of Matahari. Compared to most of its neighbours, the place is practically swank -- halogen lamps wrapped in metal gauze throw subdued romantic light onto linen-covered tables topped with kraft paper, and tilted mirrors double the effect. On the CD player, Nina Simone and Blossom Dearie softly croon torch songs.
Add the intoxicating mix of pan-Asian cuisine that defines Malaysian cooking -- curries and spices from India, soy and hoisin sauces from China, flame-thrower-strength chilies from Thailand -- and Matahari equals success on all fronts.
Two Tuesdays past, the Literary Device, Jennifer Convertible and I make our first dinnertime visit. Like every other boite on the block, Matahari's mobbed. We squeeze into a corner table and place our order with a server who, though efficient, is clearly run off his feet.
While everything is cooked to order and meant to be eaten communally, the dishes arrive sporadically. First to appear, eggplant Malay ($5.95) sees thin, grilled slices of Asian eggplant moistened with crushed garlic, shallots and belacan (fermented shrimp cake, pronounced blashan). A tasty ap, it's served -- like almost everything here -- on a banana leaf and sided with thin English cuke and orange garnishes.
Despite sounding and looking like something from a 50s chop suey shop, shrimp wonton ($4.95 lunch/$5.50 dinner) are nearly addictive, especially when dipped in a delicious -- if somewhat skimpy -- crushed-peanut dip. The same slammin' dunk comes with beef satay ($7.50/$6.50 dinner starter), four skewers of tender marinated beef dusted with turmeric.
The best of the appetizers, achar-achar ($4.95/$5.95) -- lightly pickled cabbage, green beans, carrot and pineapple -- delivers the heat we've been expecting but until now haven't experienced. To put out the fire, Jennifer tipples a can of Guinness ($5), while the Device and I each swill a lemon-grass-and-vodka Martini ($5.50).
The rest of our spread appears. Marinated in coconut milk and mildly spiced, Rendang beef ($10.95) is considered a Malaysian classic. And though the portion is on the small side, the beef is amazingly tender from slow cooking and coated in a luscious garlic-coconut gravy.
The blackboard special of sea bass ($19.95) -- the Vanilla Ice of fish, and you can quote me -- comes grilled whole and flavoured with tangy kaffir lime leaves and tossed with wimpy tomato quarters. Great sauce, mind.
Crunchy beans Another special, Sambal ($9.95), finds five grilled tail-on shrimp combined with crunchy green beans, canned baby corn and caramelized red onion rings in a thick and savoury shrimp-paste coating.
To finish, we three-way Banana Matahari ($5.95), halved lengths of finger bananas sauteed in rum and Kahlua. Ixnay on the Redi Whip, however.
A few days later, I meet my L.A. agent, Swifty Bazaar, at Matahari. In town for the upcoming film fest, he's weaselled me a development deal with DreamWorks. He tells me they've green-lighted my script Bunchofuckingoofs: The Next Generation, a punk-rock sci-fi musical.
While I digest this, Swifty orders lunch. Matahari spring rolls ($5.50/$5.95), four croquette-sized wrappers stuffed with large chunks of shrimp and jicama julienne, need twice as much of the timid, carrot-based sauce they're served with, which could be twice as hot. Sadly, green mango salad ($4.95/$5.95) is a green salad layered with ripe yellow mango instead of a salad of tart unripe green mango. Makes a big difference.
One of Malaysia's most famous street foods, Char Kway Teow ($8.50/$9.95) finds wide shredded rice noodles joined by more grilled shrimp, mixed with garlic chives, bean sprouts, sweet molasses kicip and sabmal oelek garlic-chili sauce. Excellent. As is Casbah cashew chicken ($8.95/$10.95), a stir-fry of chicken breast, peppers and nuts in tangy tamarind. Contrarily, vegetarian stir-fry ($8.95) -- broccoli, cauliflower, celery, red pepper, mushrooms and baby corn -- is downright dull.
While all my pals -- and Swifty, too -- have enjoyed Matahari, I find it plays a one-note samba: sweet and fruity. Later, relating my conclusions to a regular, I'm told that owner Zenn Soo and his wife, chef Tricia Soo, bland things down because customers customarily ask, "It's not too spicy, is it?"
No, it isn't, love -- but it's better when it is.
(39 Baldwin, 596-2832)
The only Malaysian spot in town, this five-year-old bistro serves first-rate dishes that mix Malay, Thai, Indian and Chinese flavours. But unless you ask otherwise, your meal will be as under-spiced as Geri Halliwell's solo career. Complete dinners for $35 per person ($17 at lunch), including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine or bottle of beer. Open for lunch Tuesday to Friday noon to 2:30 pm, and for dinner Tuesday to Sunday 5 to 10 pm. Closed Monday. Fully licensed. Access: steep ramp at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: The only Malaysian spot in town, this five-year-old bistro serves first-rate dishes that mix Malay, Thai, Indian and Chinese flavours. But unless you ask otherwise, your meal will be as under-spiced as Geri Halliwell's solo career. Complete dinners for $35 per person ($17 at lunch), including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine or bottle of beer. Open for lunch Tuesday to Friday noon to 2:30 pm, and for dinner Tuesday to Sunday 5 to 10 pm. Closed Monday. Fully licensed. Access: steep ramp at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN
Tamarind-tinged Casbah cashew chicken with peppers, onion, nuts and 'shrooms