Iffy Indonesian

Dishes lack flair and variety at lacklustre Little Sister

LITTLE SISTER INDONESIAN FOOD BAR (2031 Yonge, at Glebe, 416-488-2031, littlesistertoronto.com) Complete meals for two $70, including tax and tip. Average plate $10. Open for dinner Thursday through Saturday, 4 to 11 pm, Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday 4 to 10 pm. Closed Monday. No reservations. Licenced. Access: 12 steps down to the washroom. Rating: NN

Who would want to take the risk of opening an Asian restaurant these days? The competition is crazy. Lately young chefs have been attempting to revolutionize the restaurant scene by offering up miniature banh mis and stuffing fatty pork belly into baos.

All the more reason I was excited to see if Little Sister can raise the bar. The month-old Indonesian spot on the Yonge strip between Davisville and Eglinton has a Southeast Asian-inspired menu, without a noodle bowl or steam bun in sight. Promising, for sure.

This is the third venture for chef and co-owner Michael van den Winkel of Quince Bistro, who grew up in Amsterdam and spent time in the Dutch Navy learning the art of rijsttafel (rice table), a Dutch colonial Indonesian-style feast made up of many small dishes.

The place is great looking, with an eclectic, warm, bright, inviting interior. Share an adorable high top, eat at the bar or sit at the communal table, where you can watch chefs in action through a takeout style window that looks like it was pulled from a Jakarta café.

The cocktail list ($10 to $14), designed by Nishan Nepulangoda (Blowfish) and Robin James Wynne (Fynn’s of Temple Bar), incorporates ingredients like cilantro, ginger and lemongrass. I just wish I could have tasted more of those flavours in our meal.

Indonesian food is as bright and rich as the country’s history, with influences from the Middle East, China, India and Europe. It has hits of fresh herbs, ginger, lemongrass, coconut, peanuts and tons of soul. Almost all of those things are missing here.

Little Sister’s menu is divided into skewers, snacks, traditional dishes and sides. We get the ball rolling with a couple of starters. The Pangsit ($6.25 for six), are Jakarta won tons stuffed with beef and green onions. I’m hoping for something delicate and juicy, filled with moist savory beef that has depth of flavour – but no, these are over-fried, bland and dried-out dumplings, their only saving grace the lime chili sauce, with its perfect combination of heat, sweet and citrus.

Shrimp lettuce wraps ($12.50) arrive topped with fried onions, garlic and cilantro. I love hot sauce and sambal oelek is a particular favourite, but it makes too many appearances. Doused in the stuff, the wraps wind up both spicy and bland, the shrimp lacking any acid or marinade. My poor dinner companion had to stop midway because the whole thing was too damned spicy.

In the traditional dish category, we order the Semur Java ($14.50), Javanese dark spiced braised beef, which is by far the star of the meal. The perfectly tender meat has rich, warming flavours and a sauce with a hint of sweetness, while the crispy shoestring potatoes on top add texture and just the right amount of salt.

Not as successful is the fried cauliflower salad ($7.50). Despite the heap of green onions, crispy garlic and puffed rice, it’s limp and overly sweet, but those toppings have a great crunch, reminiscent of the popping candy I used to devour as a kid.

Atop the grilled mustard greens ($6.50) are those now too familiar toppings, a too-sweet ketjap manis and, you guessed it, sambal oelek. They appear so often that almost everything tastes the same.

Our meal at Little Sister was nowhere near bad, but the place is playing catch-up with its hipper, downtown older brothers.

Maia Filar grew up running around her parents’ restaurant before contributing to such publications as Post City Magazine, the Globe and Mail, the National Post, Swallow Daily, En Route Online and City Bites Magazine.


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