Unique Taste (414 Dundas West, at Beverley, 416-596-0081) Complete meals for $20 per person, including all taxes, tip and a green tea. Average main $12. Open daily 11:30 am to 10 pm. Unlicensed. Access: nine steps at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NN Rating: NN
Multiculti Toronto is home to many hybrid cuisines. Think of the terrific Italian-Jamaican pizza at Ghali Kitchen or the one-of-a-kind Southeast Asian noodles twisted through Mitteleuropa at Hungary Thai. These two culinary collisions could only occur in a city as culturally diverse as our own.
But what were the owners of Unique Taste smoking when they came up with the mongrel mix of a Brazilian-style barbecue joint crossed with a northern Chinese noodle house?
I almost execute a spit-take when I first spot the large sign out front of this most uncommon Chinatown churrasqueira where a leering gentleman who bears an uncanny likeness to Borat from Da Ali G Show gives a thumbs-up while brandishing a sword skewered with a whole lot of meat.
In both Mandarin and English, it promises "top-delicious pork," "turkey wrapped with smoked bacon" and "picana," spicy South American-style steak, 20 items in all including grilled banana and a slew of Chinese sides for only $11.99.
What's more, according to its business card, the spot that's also known as Qunyinglou Dumpling Garden named for a seafood restaurant in Dalian, a northeastern Chinese port a hop-skip-and-a-jump across from North Korea specializes in "Chinese Hamburg" and "Chinese Spring Pizza." It also states, "We possess legitimate taste that shows Chinese diet culture feature and exquisite shape made by hand entirely. It's praised as "number one in the world. '"
Down a short staircase, the renovated room is certainly one of the most stylish in the nabe. A row of glass-topped tables dressed with damask tablecloths faces a hard banquette that runs down one length of the subterranean space. Mod ceiling fixtures bounce light off walls tastefully covered in frosted glass panels. Kenny G serenades you with the musical stylings of his soprano saxophone.
Servers are friendly, but unless you insist otherwise, they automatically hand you the list of nothing-special $5 lunch specials. Don't ask, as almost every other person does who walks into the place during my visits, "Where's the buffet?" because there isn't one. What you want is the all-you-can-eat menu.
One day, we explain that we only want meat, and that's exactly what we get. A non-stop parade of grilled flesh follows, some undercooked and gristly, others smoky with charcoal and unexpectedly tasty. Unlike an authentic churrasqueira where waiters dressed like gauchos carve great slabs of barbecue as they roam the room, Unique sends its skewered 'cue out one at a time and whether you asked for it or not.
Brazilian sausages are closer to knockwurst than chorizo, while carrot sticks wrapped with Chinese bacon wouldn't be out of place on a toothpick at some 60s suburban cocktail party. Both chicken wings and legs arrive bloody one time but perfectly charred another. Shrimp turn up complete with feelers, eyeballs and legs. Those who find offal awful best avoid the tongue, even if it has been braised in beer, though cubes of lamb come correctly spiced with salt and red chili.
Pork ribs have been chopped Chinese-style and wouldn't be amiss swimming in honey-garlic sauce, but no amount of window-dressing can save the beef versions that are cooked to death and 90 per cent bone. The picana's worth the wait, though: thinly sliced, nicely spiced and, as if by fluke, medium-rare. All are served with four side sauces crushed Thai peanut, salty Chinese red chili paste, steakhouse black peppercorn and an innocuous tomato-onion relish.
Now that we know the drill, a gang of us show up for a second attempt, telling our now-familiar server that we'd like to try the lamb and steak again as well as some of the Chinese sides. Sauteed Savoy cabbage ($7.50 á la carte) turns out to be the regular ol' slaw stir-fried northern-style in sesame oil and studded with a whack of dried hot peppers.
Aromatic Crispy Chicken ($8.95) might as well be deep-fried nuggets of General Tso, while cubes of bean curd braised in cornstarch gravy show up studded with frozen shrimp 'n' supermarket peas ($8.50). Debbie Travis could use the Taste's seaweed soup ($3.99) to help wallpaper a makeover kitchen. But Shanghai noodles ($7.50), though nothing fancy, hit the spot in a proletariat way.
Don't bother with dim sum. Skinny spring rolls ($1.88 for four), the only vegetarian component of the spread other than the cabbage, get under-stuffed with mushy veg. Modestly described on the menu as the "#1 dumplings in the world!", these doughy steamed balls full of minced pork and greens are okay and could use a splash of dark Chinese vinegar ($5.95 for 15). And two would be plenty.
We thought we'd made it clear at the start that we only wanted to try the picana and the lamb, but soon we're swamped with more sausage, bacon-wrapped carrots and chicken parts. Although we tell our server several times that enough is enough already, he keeps coming back with more. Remembering those proverbial starving children in the Third World, we reluctantly soldier on. Beyond stuffed, we've paid the tab and are putting on our coats when he's back again with more meat.
The concept's so weird it could work. But Unique Taste needs to stick to what it does best the grilled lamb and picana, the crispy Chinese chicken, Shanghai noodles and spicy cabbage, an incredible deal for 12 bucks.
As it is, it's merely hit and miss. What's missing most is a stop sign.