Soos, a new mom-and-pop Malaysian spot on Ossington Avenue, is a mom-and-pop for 2014 – a mom-and-pop and daughter and son. The son spent a year at George Brown College’s chef school, and the daughter was a server at the Spoke Club.
The place is modern and pretty, with chandeliers that float like luminescent, man-eating urchins, and cheery blue Malacca-Portuguese tiles around a gorgeous semi-private dining room at the back, and bare-wood louvred doors through which you can almost feel a humid breeze. It’s a long, tall and narrow slice of Malaysia, made up as if for Elle Décor.
The daughter, Lauren Soo, who is 25, serves peach and Wild Turkey cocktails from cast-iron teapots. Her taste in music is fun and poppy; one night there, I found myself singing along to Lily Allen’s Smile. Brother Zack, 23, who cooks alongside his mother, Tricia, makes braised lamb poutine with coconut gravy, as well as a pretty good nasi goring, and fried bananas with pineapple and sweet cream ice cream.
Malaysian cooking is a crossroads cuisine, built on Chinese, Indian, Portuguese, Dutch, Thai, Arab and Malay influences. It’s rice-based (the grains are often steamed in coconut milk), and also noodle-based, and thanks to the Indian influence, roti are also a staple food. At its best, it’s got punch from curry leaves and spice, funk from fish sauce and the shrimp paste called belacan, brightness and sourness from mango, pineapple, tamarind and a couple hundred other fruits, and brown-sweet balance from palm sugar. It’s exhilarating stuff. (What Malaysian food is not: what they serve at Hawker Bar, just up Ossington from Soos. Hawker Bar is to Malaysian food what Kraft Dinner is to Italian.)
Soos does Malaysian through a downtown west-side filter, for downtown west-siders: not too spicy, with a light hand on the belacan. But it’s still the real deal. If you haven’t had Malaysian in Scarborough or Mississauga – if you haven’t had Malaysian made for Malaysians – Soos is brilliant. This is not meant to sound at all like faint praise.
Adventuresome diners often see non-western restaurants through a zero-sum lens: if the best laksa is at One2 Snacks in Scarborough (and it is, by a long-shot), then no other laksa is worth eating. We don’t generally say that about steak frites, or pasta. So this is me catching myself. If I’m dead-honest, I have to admit it: I liked the place, a lot.
Soos’ keropok, from the appetizers page, work well as a point of entry. They’re light pink chips made from prawns and tapioca starch, Ruffles of the deep with chili-peanut sauce for dipping. The pulled kapitan “tacos” are thick, coconut-milk pancakes piled with a subdued take on the typically fiery Chinese-Malaysian curry called chicken kapitan. There are kaffir lime leaves in the yogurt sauce. It’s tzaziki, sort of, and oddly terrific.
The poutine? You really don’t need to go there. The pork belly pancakes, though – these are special. The pancakes are made from grated taro root, a bit like Jewish latkes (or, to be more regionally appropriate, like Thailand’s kanom rang nok). They’re crisp, golden, sweet and starchy, set under five-spiced pork belly slices that have been raised to a high gloss with reduced stock and soy.
The menu’s like that: hit, miss, miss, hit. Miss the satays (bland, beige), hit the chili chicken wings (sweet, sticky, glorious). Miss the “chips and dip” (grey-brown eggplant dip, like hummus without the flavour), but definitely hit the “reconstructed nasi lemak” (a moist coconut rice cake, spread with tamarind sauce and dark, mild, fried anchovies, a cucumber round and a whole fried quail’s egg).
Zenn Soo came to Canada from Malaysia in the late 1970s, a teenager in pursuit of an engineering degree, which he earned at the University of Alberta. Tricia Soo, his wife, came over a few years later. Before Lauren and Zack were born, the couple opened K-L Malaysia downtown on Adelaide Street. They didn’t know what they were doing, Lauren said; the restaurant quickly failed. (Before long, the space became Avalon, Chris McDonald’s lamented power spot.)
They then opened Matahari Grill, on Baldwin Street, in 1995. It went very well. They sold it to their staff a few years later and left the restaurant business.
Soos was Lauren’s idea, she said. While her mom and brother run the kitchen, Lauren and her dad manage the front of house.
The main dishes are far more typically Malaysian than the appetizers. The rendang beef is perhaps the best of them, the beef melting soft with warm spice and coconut milk, the roti crisped on the griddle to soft blisters – comforting eating on a cold night. The laksa is a bowl of coconut milk stained ochre with yellow curry, with noodles (fat soft ones, thin, glassy ones) and tiger prawns and a few hunks of chicken. It is good laksa.
For dessert, there’s that sweet cream ice cream with fried pineapple and bananas. It’s from Greg’s Ice Cream, crazy delicious. Those teapot cocktails are good. The service is nice. That back room with the tiles is an exquisite space for an evening with friends.
Let the place serve as an introduction to Malaysian, in case you need one. You’ll be very happy that you met.
- No stars: Not recommended.
- * Good, but won’t blow a lot of people’s minds.
- ** Very good, with some standout qualities.
- *** Excellent, well above average with few caveats, if any.
- **** Extraordinary, memorable, original with near-perfect execution.