MENGRAI THAI (82 Ontario, at Richmond, 416-840-2759). Complete meals for $50 per person (lunches $25), including all taxes, tip and a domestic beer. Average main $16/$10. Open for lunch Monday to Friday 11:30 am to 3 pm, for dinner Sunday to Thursday 5:30 to 10 pm, Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 11 pm. Licensed. Access: seven steps at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNN
Toronto has always had a twisted relationship with Thai food. Born out of the Szechuan craze that swept post-Cantonese Hogtown back in the late 70s and early 80s, spicy Thai was the next big foodie frontier.
But somewhere between the Bamboo and Spring Rolls, the Thai around these parts mutated into a weird but popular hybrid of greasy, ketchup-clogged noodle dishes like pad thai and chili-charged Chinese kung pao chicken. Too sweet, too spicy, and cheap.
So when locals are presented with relatively authentic Thai cuisine, they stampede to the nearest Friendly Thai.
What they’ll make of Mengrai Thai, the attractive downtown eatery on Richmond East that launched quietly this past summer, remains to be seen.
But once they get a look, they’re going to fall in love with this gorgeous space. A true warehouse loft à la George or Crush, the former brewery comes complete with exposed brick walls, scuffed wooden flooring and a non-functioning dumb waiter. (Insert punchline here.)
Tables as formally dressed as the all-in-black servers are scattered about the multi-level room, which is decked out with temple tchotchkes, the best being the pillow-piled banquette in an alcove to the rear – though once you’ve sat down, you’ll understand the need for extra cushions.
And as much as I appreciate Janet Jackson (Ms. Jackson when I’m particularly nasty), some more sympathetic dinner music is in order.
We’re off to a less than spectacular start with Mengrai’s shrimp mini-rolls ($5.75 for 10). Breaded and deep-fried, they recall cocktail party canapés, which makes sense once owner Allan Lim tells me that 70 per cent of his business comes from catering to nearby recording studios and casting agents. Like the too-bland taro rolls ($4.75 for six), they get most of their kick from their accompanying sugary pepper dip.
It’s owner/chef Sasi Lim’s Golden Pumpkin Soup ($9) that best shows Mengrai’s potential. A subtly spiced purée dappled with snippets of fresh Thai basil, it’s sided with what the menu calls “crispy morning glory” – deep-fried fritters of flowering water spinach, not the stuff that grows on trellises – in a terrifically light tempura-style batter so good by themselves they deserve to be on the card.
Of the several varieties of inevitable pad thai, the so-called Sasi version will be the most familiar, a tasty tangle of skinny rice-stick and vermicelli strewn with butterflied shrimp, moist chicken breast and scrambled egg, topped with crushed peanuts, roasted chilies and coriander.
What’s billed as Original Pad Thai (both $11) is less sweet and slightly fishy, as it should be.
Thick with fresh pineapple and lychee, Mengrai’s apparently famous #54 Red Curry has as much fruit as chicken ($16.95) and luxuriates in a smooth coconut gravy laced with kaffir lime leaf. The similarly flavoured Panang Curry Chicken ($12, both with plain jasmine rice) ditches the fruit for an extremely al dente mix of bok choy, broccoli, green beans, garden peas and crunchy bamboo shoots soured with mustard oil.
We’ve only ordered five dishes; our server suggests that’s not enough to feed our party of three and up-sells us one of Mengrai’s “signature dishes”: Vegetarian Tibetan Mountain Bai Ling Mushrooms ($15.95). We’d rather he hadn’t. Garnished with crisply deep-fried threads of ginger, these supposedly medicinal ’shrooms (think meaty king mushrooms) come paired with the same al dente veggies we’ve seen in several other specials. Plus, we end up doggy-bagging the leftovers.
As Whitney segues into Britney, we knock back the last of our serviceable Chilean cab (2006 Tarapaca, $6.95 glass/$26.95 bottle) and take our leave. Still, Mengrai has a lot to make us want to return: an unusually beautiful room, attentive service and a kitchen that wants to prove to Toronto that there’s more to Thai than Salad King.