A Cheap Eats pick
The Momofuku empire began with Momofuku Noodle Bar, a cramped, cheap and raucous little ramen shop that opened in 2004 in New York’s East Village neighbourhood. The restaurant’s Americanized takes on Japanese, Korean and Chinese fast food were sweet and sour, cheap, populist, beautifully made and incontrovertibly tasty. Mr. Chang hadn’t opened a second Noodle Bar until now.
The Toronto satellite is fitted out with light-wood communal tables and bench seating in its centre. At the front, the space climbs two storeys, with a catwalk floating overhead, and an enormous painting of Ontario boy Neil Young and his band Crazy Horse playing New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1979.
And though the business began with ramen, the dish isn’t the rarity it was when Mr. Chang first popularized it; there are better renditions elsewhere. It’s all the other stuff on Toronto chef Hans Vogels’s ambitious, fast-expanding menu (it’s grown from 10 items at start-up to two dozen and counting) that blows minds.
The Hong Kong Egg is a can’t-miss: a soft, folded omelette over a bowl of white rice, flavoured with rivers of hoisin and tare, the Japanese condiment, as well as crispy shallots, bird’s-eye chilies and shards of crunchy chicken skin. Same for the seared mackerel dish, one of the nicest simple fish plates in the city. It’s done hot and fast so the skin turns golden-frazzled and crispy, then it’s set on vinegary apple slaw and sauced with wickedly umami Japanese fermented-plum paste. They sell it for $14.
I liked the sujebi, a Korean torn-noodle soup that two of Mr. Vogels’ Korean line cooks put on the menu. I loved the take-no-prisoners Very Spicy Noodles: they’re supercharged with dried shrimp, chilies, turnip and Sichuan pepper. Mr. Vogels puts kasu, a fermented, gently pongy rice by-product from Toronto’s Izumi Sake Brewery, in his excellent rice pudding, a counterpoint to the usual sweet.
If you’ve resisted sweetbreads all your life, live a little, have them here, where they’re mild and creamy, glazed with coriander, coconut, fish sauce and ginger. Or have the Brussels sprouts with kimchi, crunchy pear spears and rice puffs; as with so much else on the menu here, that single, simple bowl captures sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami, the range of human taste sensation, and blasts them straight between your eyes.
- No stars: Not recommended.
- One star: Good, but won't blow a lot of minds.
- Two stars: Very good, with some standout qualities.
- Three stars: Excellent, with few caveats, if any.
- Four stars: Extraordinary, with near-perfect execution.
- A Cheap Eats pick: Where you can dine well for less than $30 before alcohol, tax and tip.