ASIA REPUBLIK (372 Bloor West, at Major, 416-921-6787) Complete dinners for $25 per person (lunches $18), including all taxes, tip and a domestic beer. Average main $10/$8. Open Monday to Thursday 11:30 am to 11 pm, Friday 11:30 am to midnight, Saturday 1 pm to midnight, Sunday 1 to 11 pm. Closed Christmas. Licensed. Delivery. Access: barrier-free, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
When temperatures plunge to sub-Arctic levels, most folks have second thoughts about going out of doors, let alone out for dinner. While even the swankiest botes in town will do takeout, few deliver to those who want to dine in. And those that do offer little more than soggy pizza or cardboard Chinese.
Open since October in the Bloor West storefront that housed belly-up Goldfish, this still minimally appointed space white banquette, white moulded plastic chairs, bare white tables topped with white china, walls painted gunmetal grey as opposed to their former oceanic blue advertises itself with a banner draped across the front window proclaiming "Best cheap eats with class." Even better, Asia Republik delivers.
Printed in various designer shades, the pan-Asian menu's mix of Thai, Vietnamese and southern Chinese stalwarts will look familiar to anyone who's ever frequented one of the myriad Spring Rolls or its imitators. Makes sense, since co-owners Tommy Ham and John Tan are responsible for Spring Rolls clones Lime and 7 East respectively.
So what better way to begin than with Asia Republik's self-described "fresh spring rolls with a twist!" Loosely wrapped in rice paper, these cylindrical starters come generously stuffed with leaf lettuce, thick rice vermicelli, coriander and a slender julienne of red bell pepper and cuke. Variations add chunky ripe mango ($4.95), buttery sushi-style grilled eel and nicoise-inspired tuna and capers ($5.50). Dunk them alternately in sweet nuac cham or thin hoisin.
As someone who's eaten more than his share of takeout over the years, I know that just about anything that's been deep-fried will be a sodden mess by the time it gets home. Thankfully, the Republik knows to punch holes in its styrofoam containers to render a pair of very plump Vietnamese veggie spring rolls ($4.50) brimming with alarmingly meaty minced bean sprouts, ear fungus and cellophane noodles as crisp as they were when they left the kitchen.
Expecting the worst, I'm pleasantly surprised to find the elements that make up soft shell crab curry ($12.95) a whole crustacean lightly crusted in tempura batter, not-very-spicy-at-all yellow curry sauce and sticky jasmine rice swaddled in a banana leaf packaged separately so that, when combined, this delish dish tastes virtually the same as it would in situ.
That's not the case with Avocado Beef In Phoenix's Nest ($9.95), one of several "chef's exclusive entrees." Though its texturized steak arrives remarkably tender and its garden pea pods crisp, the deep-fried nest of now limp chow mein doesn't withstand the trek.
We're not fans of the Republik's "traditional" pad thai ($7.95 with chicken or beef), as it seems to include ketchup. But we're glad to see that its "classic" pineapple pad thai ($7.50 vegetarian) wide rice stick thick with scrambled egg, sweet red pepper, broccoli, tofu and great whacks of napa cabbage ditches the Heinz for a sweet coconut gravy amplified by likely canned fruit.
Here's another takeout tip I've learned: always order dressing on the side. Otherwise, dishes like beef tartar salad ($8.50) shaved almost-raw tenderloin over supermarket mesclun in a lime vinaigrette will be mush by the time they reach your door.
And vegetarians might want to read the menu's fine print if they're thinking of ordering the house's veggie pho ($5.50). It quite clearly spells out that it's made with "fragrant chicken broth."
Chicken's a vegetable, right?
A little over a week to new year's. Time to review. It was exactly one year ago that I tried to move to Buenos Aires.
Two days before the flight, my ankle twisted, bones rebroke in my foot and the entire thing swelled to a painful softball. It happened while I was going along, sober, in flat shoes.
Toronto was trying to thwart my escape. I couldn't walk, let alone haul suitcases full of costumes. But I pulled out the carved and painted Mexican cane I keep for my tricky ankles and set my mind on endurance.
There were extra seats on the plane, but the two men who got to the row first claimed them, the California-based Argentine professor making it clear that an undesirable spinster such as myself was lucky not to get stowed with the other bags.
My unraised foot continued to expand. The two men spent the night bonding, the Argentine only addressing me to accuse me of attempting to steal his pillow.
I had the name of a hotel from a guidebook I'd found at the library that was only 14 years out of date. In a new book, a cheap hotel is $100. I was budgeting for $10.
I hadn't had a chance to repack after the accident, and maybe I still believed I could wear all the shoes that went with the getups I'd created to assure my quick ascent to stardom in my new home. I certainly felt the weight of my crazy scheme as I hobbled, hauling cases, cane and guitar down a pedestrian street, through a narrow door and up a flight of steps to a room where we all fell in an exhausted heap.
My little significant other, Reina Luminosa the doll, and I settled into a cell whose walls were painted with three bands of colour. It was like being in a slice of Neapolitan ice cream, only hot. But we were happy. We'd made it.
It was after dark when I ventured limping into unknown streets in a South American city of 13 million, looking for New Year's Eve. I made it to the main square, Plaza de Mayo. Nothing but pigeons and police. I asked one of the latter what happens on New Year's Eve. He had no idea, and asked why I'd come there.
I recall that feeling of complete desolation with which I am overly familiar. But doggedly I carried on. I found a cab and quizzed the driver, who, discouragingly, knew nothing of New Year's Eve fiestas either. I remembered the name of a plaza I'd seen in a book, got an estimate of the fare and asked him to take me there. We chatted through the empty streets and came upon the square in a low-key groovyish area. There were chairs out, and people, so Reina and I left the cab.
Waiters hurried among tables of tourists and locals. Germans were throwing the ice from their sangr'a on the cobblestones. I grabbed it to melt on my inflamed hyperankle.
Eventually, I conducted my first test for the snootiness for which the Parisians of the South are notorious.
"Joven," I addressed the waiter. "La vieja tiene sed!" Young man, the old lady's thirsty. He failed. He laughed. He wasn't snobby at all.
At midnight, bombs, flares and homemade flame-powered balloons went up. I hugged Reina Luminosa, who is understandably jaded when it comes to my schemes for us to thrive somewhere, and soon.
Reina and I did become famous on our street, a cross between the Yonge Street mall and the midway at the Ex. The completely tattooed handbiller greeted us every day, the shoeshine man asked if I was a "white Indian," and the old gents in the menswear shop said they'd been admiring my hat.
I practically cried when the lad I became friends with in the lunch place gave me a sandwich on the house. "Where I come from this does not happen," I told him.
I travelled on cane-assisted foot and mystery buses with polite drivers and courteous passengers. Thirteen million people, and none of them seemed to be in a bad mood.
The only sour types I encountered in the whole huge city ran a grocery store named, and I'm not making this up, "Toronto"!
But it soon became apparent that my plan was hatched of desperation and I'd have to return to the north when the money I'd blackmailed was gone. I cried all the way back to Canada, where the customs official refused to even return a hello. Wouldn't want to give a false impression of the place.
I have a lingering souvenir of that time. The ankle still needs a bandage. Somehow, Reina and I will push the boat out again. For New Year's Day 2007 I'll bide my time with a trip to Grossman's to see Laura Hubert. Every Monday night "until further notice."