JEAN'S VEGETARIAN KITCHEN (1262 Danforth, at Greenwood, 416-778-1388 ) Complete dinners for $22 per person, including all taxes, tip and a pot of jasmine green tea. Average main $8. Open Tuesday to Sunday 5 to 10 pm. Closed Monday, holidays. Unlicensed. Cash only. Access: barrier-free, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
They're back! Jean and Harry Seow must surely be the William Shatners of Toronto's dining scene. Just when you think they're gone for good, they pop up again in an even more delicious context.
The pioneering husband-and-wife culinary tag team have quite the resto history, having launched one of the city's first Thai-Malaysian eateries, Rasa Sayang in the Market, back in 82. As Thai fever swept Toronto in that decade of conspicuous consumption, the couple relocated to classy digs on Eglinton West as Sawasdee in 87, to eventually sell up and retire in 94.
Bored, the Seows resurfaced on the Danforth at the turn of the millennium with modest Jean's Fine Foods. Health issues caused the genial Seows to take a sabbatical in 02, but they rebounded briefly in 04, only to retire again the following year. Now guess who's opened the only Thai-Malay vegetarian joint in town?
"It wasn't my idea!" laughs the septuagenarian Harry, pointing to the younger Jean.
Anyone who remembers the old place - literally located in the Seow's cluttered living room - is in for a shock. Besides the new handle and health-conscious card, the minimal 30-seat room borders on chic, all caramel-coloured walls, sleek banquettes and beaming Buddha on the bar.
Servers are convivial but still learning the ropes. When asked if the menu's vegan, one says she doesn't know what that means. Given that Jean's has been open for all of two days when we visit, it's understandable. We're sure she'll have figured out by the end of the week that most of the noodle dishes contain egg unless you specify otherwise.
Dinner begins with complimentary spring rolls ($2.50 à la carte), a pair of two tightly wrapped rice paper rolls deep-fried in canola oil, packed with cellophane noodles, raw carrot threads and crunchy ribbons of cloud ear. Both it and Thai-style cold rolls ($3), overstuffed with leaf lettuce, cucumber, sweet red pepper, coriander leaf and scrambled egg, can be dunked into a syrupy sweet honey dip instead of the refined-white-sugar-and-vinegar concoctions you find at similar diners.
Unless your group is a multiple of five, it's impossible to evenly split a starter of Golden Baskets ($6), a tiny quintet of brittle pastry shells swamped with garden-fresh peas, corn, carrot and diced organic tofu plated on a retro bed of deep-fried rice vermicelli.
Nothing to get Peter's Chung King's knickers in a knot, Jean's straightforward take on Szechuan hot and sour soup ($4) balances disparate textures - virtuous veggie broth, crunchy Chinese 'shrooms, silky tofu - before building to a warming glow.
Those with nut allergies should be aware that Jean's tart papaya salad in pineapple vinaigrette ($7), like many of her dishes, comes lavishly garnished with whole cashews and crushed peanuts, although the kitchen will gladly leave them out if requested.
Call gado gado ($7) the Kraft Dinner of Indonesia, bland-on-bland cold udon-thick rice noodles topped with al dente green beans, cabbage and plain sliced potatoes.
A meek though tasty peanut dressing offers little comfort.
Jean's back on track with pad thai ($8), a sterling ketchup-free rendition that relies on roasted crushed chilies for punch. Better still, Pad Kee Mau ($8.50) ups the ante with the addition of crisp cauliflower and broccoli flowerets, Thai-basil-scented sesame oil and surprisingly convincing faux shrimp. The best Thai noodles in town?
Mock meat reappears in the house green curry with "duck" ($9.50), a dizzying mix of ersatz bird, baby bok choy and cubed bell pepper in light coconut broth. Intrigued, we opt for "meatballs" when ordering the more aggressive red curry ($8.50) and find, though they look like eyeballs, that they taste remarkably like veggie ravioli.
Sides are just as inventive. Spicy eggplant ($8) sees firm sections of purple Japanese 'plant contrast with red onion and green pepper, while quickly stir-fried bitter mustard greens ($7.50) come showered in crushed garlic. To counter the heat, finish with slices of honey-battered banana ($3.50).
A few days after my second visit, I ask the Seows - who've had more comebacks than Robert Downey Jr. - the secret of their success.
"Just be nice to people," Harry smiles beatifically. "Give them good food and they'll come back again and again."