INDOCHINE (4 Collier, at Yonge, 416-922-5840) One of the first spots to bring pan-Asian eats -- Vietnamese, Thai, Szechwan, Cantonese, and Malaysian -- to town, this intimate café has just had a fashionable facelift. Good news: the reasonably priced grub's as deftly executed as ever. Complete meals for $25 per person ($15 at lunch), including all taxes, tip and a Tsingtao beer. Open for lunch Monday to Saturday noon to 3 pm, for dinner Monday to Thursday 5 to 10 pm, Friday and Saturday 5 to 11 pm. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNN
toronto's love affair with the fiery fare of Southeast Asian keeps getting hotter. How else to explain the phenomenon of pad thai, the incendiary tangle of seafood, chicken and rice noodles that pops up on more local menus than in Bangkok itself?Blame Wandee Young and her culinary counterpart Vanipha Southalack for the glut. Both refugee chefs started the pad fad, Young at the Bamboo and later her several Young Thailand venues, Southalack at the Queen Mother, the Rivoli and the various Vaniphas. Pad thai's now so commonplace, it seems like every restaurant in town (or at least the ones not doing sushi) woks up the stuff. That few of these are their equal isn't Young and Southalack's fault.
Indochine's pad thai ($8.99) is up there with the best. Yes, there's the telltale pink that gives away the secret ingredient -- ketchup -- but it's countered by five plump grilled shrimp that surf the mess of wide rice noodles tail-on. Chicken shreds, scrambled egg clusters and crunchy bean sprouts mix in the tangy result, all garnished with crushed peanuts.
Something else lifts Indochine above the pad thai pack: it spins this ubiquitous dish in several other geographic directions. Vietnamese Glass Noodles ($9.99) does pad but replaces linguine-like rice stick with slippery cellophane noodles and adds salty and slightly sour fermented shrimp paste. Royal Malaysian Noodles ($8.99) takes the stir-fry to Singapore, chucks the ketchup and ups the sugar content.
Despite the two-chili heat designation indicated on Indochine's card, the firepower here's quite tame, but a srirachi-style hot sauce can increase the afterburn. It certainly charges Vietnamese Purple Basil Beef ($9.99), thinly sliced sirloin combined with scallions and green pepper in a peppery sauce strewn with licorice-y basil leaves.
We order Hanoi Chicken Salad ($8.99) but wind up with unadvertised beef pinch-hitting over baby mesclun greens in a sweet citrus vinaigrette. A home run nonetheless. Of the available curries, Yellow Beef Brisket Curry ($9.99) offers sweetness instead of fireworks, its slow-cooked tender strands swimming in silky gravy over mounded rice.
There's more intricately dressed pho elsewhere, but Indochine's Pho Beef ($7.99) holds its own, a meal-in-one noodle soup built with tart tamarind broth with sliced beef floating on top and tossed with raw sprouts and Chinese garlic chives. Where's the lime, the mint, the basil?
Stuffed with a mix of bread crumbs and minced chicken, a half-dozen simply grilled Imperial Prawns ($11.99) -- those oxymoronic jumbo shrimp -- ride a bed of cool spaghetti-esque rice pasta that's been lightly splashed with chili oil. Think of Bangkok Chicken ($8.99) as General Tso goes sweet 'n' sour, a delicious but alarmingly coloured flashback of battered chicken and char-grilled veggies in fluorescent red gloop.
Equally colourful, Shades of Green ($8.99) sees more of these grilled veggies (snow peas, sweet peppers, broccoli) sautéed with baby corn in a dark, slightly smoky sauce. However, Indochine's appetizer platter ($13.99) -- two rubbery minced shrimp deep-fried on sugar cane, so-so rice wrappers stuffed with halved shrimp and lettuce, skimpy chicken satay, a spring roll with a near-sausage filling -- isn't that appetizing.
Indochine fell off the foodie map years ago -- opened 15 years ago as Saigon Star and one of Toronto's first Vietnamese eateries, it morphed into its current pan-Asian incarnation in the early 90s -- but the been-there/ate-that crowd have started flocking to this side street again since its just-completed renovation.
It's not as crowded as nearby Green Mango or Spring Rolls on Yonge yet, but the $7.99 and $8.99 inclusive lunch specials attract the nearly fabulous to a surprisingly elegant space.
Once a modest room, Indochine's now all chic blond wood (vertical slats on the walls, moulded plywood chairs at kraft-paper-over-linen-clad tables, zigzag parquet on the floor), with almost zero decoration other than sprouting bamboo stalks and elongated Noguchi-style paper lanterns.
Friendly servers wear crisp black and white, while low-level Muzak makes entertaining fodder for dinner-lull conversation ("Is this supposed to be a Springsteen song?"). Decked out with a wall-length beige banquette, a second even more serene room can be booked for private parties.
Indochine may not be doing anything new -- c'mon, pad thai?! -- but they do it with more style than most.