PHO PHUONG (1603 Dundas West, at Brock, 416-536-3030) Complete dinners for $22 per person (lunches $16), including all taxes, tip and a domestic lager. Average main $10/$8. Open daily 10 am to 10 pm. Licensed. Delivery. Access: three steps at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
A week doesn't go by in the blog osphere that Susur Lee isn't documented dining in some cheap downtown eatery.
Now that the wondrous advances of technology allow just about anyone to express his or her opinion on just about everything, T.O. bloggers delight in reporting the superstar chef's every move - "I saw Susur in Dominion yesterday!" I imagine that even an acclaimed chef like Lee must get tired of his own cooking now and then, so why can't a guy go out for a bowl of soup after work without it becoming a local culinary cause célèbre?
The gaseous crew at chowhound.com have already clocked Lee at Pho Phuong, an unusually upscale Vietnamese noodle house way out on Dundas West. Of course, it helps that he lives in the neighbourhood; it's not like he was spotted in the buffet lineup at the Old Mill.
The bright, inviting room may have that generic Spring Rolls look - floor-to-ceiling glass facing the street, dark, bare tables in front of the back-lit banquette, a few semi-private booths lit by knockoff Noguchi lamps - but the extensive card of bun and pho is pure Spadina. Service is quick, if a bit curt at first, though the staff warm up eventually.
And what better way to kill the winter chill than with a steaming bowl of aromatic pho? Since there are three of us, we go for the extra-large economy size ($6.50) as opposed to the smaller medium ($5.50) or large ($6), and load it with a kitchen sink's worth of meat 'n' veg options. It's been called Vietnam in a bowl, and it's not hard to see why: gorgeous broth kissed with anise, swimming with rare beef, fatty, gelatinous tendon, chewy tripe and slippery rice noodle, and scented with purple basil and mint.
Dressed with a salad's worth of greens - curly leaf lettuce, raw bean sprouts, English cuke and sweetly pickled daikon 'n' carrot and a hillock of herbs - Phoung's house special hot pot ($25) cooks at your table on a portable gas burner. With it, we get a plate full of skinny vermicelli garnished with crushed peanuts and another of raw beef, scored squid and good-sized shrimp that, our server informs us, we're to dip into the pot of nuoc-cham-style vinegar boiling away on the stove.
We're to assemble a bit of cooked meat or seafood, some veggies and noodles on rice paper, bundle them up, then dunk them into syrupy hoisin or hot sauce.
Problem is, there's a total of six wrappers for the three of us. After quickly running out, and with more than half the fixings remaining, we ask for more rice papers. We get five, for which we're charged an additional two bucks.
Afterwards, one of my guests tells me she'd been for dinner earlier in the week and had added too much hot sauce to her pho. When she asked for more broth to dilute the heat, she was given a cupful and charged another $2 as well.
Happily, most of the remaining menu is more value-minded. The house special vermicelli ($8) comes piled with one of Phuong's delicately deep-fried spring rolls ($3.50 à la carte for two), bulgogi-esque grilled pork, minced shrimp on sugarcane, a slice of Saigon-style mystery ham and a runny sunny-side-up fried egg.
Though there's little here for vegetarians, let alone vegans, as there's nam pla fish sauce in many dishes, omnivores can assemble a substantial meal from the appetizers alone. Just don't call them tapas. Tightly wrapped in fragrant la lot leaves, eight slightly bitter cylinders of densely ground steak come deliciously dusted with crushed peanuts and scallions ($9). The menu claims they're served with "tropical leaves," but they look like lettuce and mint to me.
Another starter - lemon beef ($8.50) - finds shavings of raw beef in an assertive lemongrass vinaigrette mellowed by thin strips of Spanish onion, chopped mint and Thai basil. Marinated in soy, deep-fried quail ($8) arrives chopped up and on the bone, like some KFC take on soft-shell crab.
We'll file Banh Khot - Vietnamese mini-cakes ($7) - under acquired taste, not knowing what to make of these unfamiliar tarts filled with rice custard and topped with a grilled tail-on shrimp. A savoury dessert, perhaps? But we're instant converts to the house's crisp Vietnamese-style fried pancake ($7), a greasy-good coconut-rich omelette folded over more grilled shrimp as well as diced pork and sprouts.
Open since late October, Pho Phuong is still finding its feet. But once it does, this smartly appointed space could become one of the best casual Vietnamese spots around, Susur Lee or no.