Like child actors and fresh, never-frozen mackerel, restaurants do not generally age well. They start awkward, as a rule, and often peak at six months. By a couple of years in, the staff have turned over a few times, the best of them departed for newer, greener pastures. Kitchens lose drive, their greatest ideas already committed. And even when this is not the case, customers are fickle. Your rustic Italian comfort food concept was nice for 2010 and all, but farmhouse Spanish ramen tacos are the new new thing.
Foxley, a South-Asian inspired bistro that opened six years ago on the then-desolate Ossington Avenue strip, is a rare exception to that reality, somehow even fresher and more thrilling today than when it first opened. In just six years, Foxley has become one of the quintessential Toronto restaurants, a must-try for anyone who hopes to understand the city through its food.
More surprising, perhaps, is that it has accomplished this in spite of some very long odds.
Foxley’s beer selection is short and uninspiring and always has been. The food menu is by any definition bloated: in six years it has slowly crept upward from 12 selections to nearly 40. Menus this large stretch small kitchens thin. They rarely lead to good things.
As for the desserts, I really wouldn’t bother. Desserts have never been Foxley chef Tom Thai’s thing.
The décor, with its cheap-looking pendant lamps and flimsy patio furniture out back, is the same as it always was: functional but unimaginative, designed as if by a well-meaning associate at the service counter of a Home Depot in Regina.
The service has always been adequate in my experience: generally friendly, generally competent. But you would never say that it shines.
And unlike in its early days, when Foxley was one of just two sit-down restaurants of any note on Ossington (the other being Golden Turtle), now it finds itself on the city’s most competitive restaurant strip. Its immediate neighbours, all of them launched since Foxley’s opening, include Pizzeria Libretto, The Saint Tavern, Oddseoul, Hawker Bar, Fishbar, Salt Wine Bar, Bellwoods Brewery, Rock Lobster, Boehmer, Delux, Amaya Express, Ardor Bistro, Bazara Asian Cuisine, Union and Yours Truly.
Yet Foxley today is as busy and beloved as ever, jammed most nights with a mix of proudly proprietary locals (overheard the other week: “I’ve been coming here since even before Steven Davey reviewed it”) and admiring pilgrims from the Beaches and Forest Hill. (You will know them by the pressed trousers and tucked-in polos.)
The place is a favourite with top chefs and restaurateurs, also; the Oliver & Bonacini company’s Anthony Walsh, who hired Mr. Thai to run the sushi bar at Canoe in the 1990s, is a fan and frequent customer. The Black Hoof’s Jen Agg is a fixture in the restaurant on Tuesday nights.
Once the thrill of novelty wears off at Foxley, something even better awaits – the thrill of original, consistently executed, masterfully balanced and hugely flavourful cooking, sold for surprisingly cheap.
For his Arctic char ceviche, a Foxley signature, Mr. Thai slices a hunk of firm, wondrously silky char fillet into fat slabs, and dresses them with sesame seeds, scallions, fiery bird’s eye chile slices and translucent pink sheets of pickled ginger. He layers a precarious stack of sourish green apple batons over top of that, and olive oil, lime, coriander and lemon juice. It is rich and refreshingly sour and spicy. It is salty and sweet. It’s earthy from those sesame seeds. It pushes nearly as far as you can push a palate toward ecstasy without inducing overload. The dish is larger now, too, than in the early days, the fish portion far more substantial, the flavours sharper. The price has climbed just $1, to $16, since 2007.
The sea bream ceviche, meantime, is darker tasting, tossed with savoury, salty, crispy shallots – if you can imagine the flavour of a deep-fried onion blossom, you’re part way there. Sea bream tastes extraordinarily good alongside deep-fried onion blossoms, as it happens. Mr. Thai layers all that with knife-edge of floral acidity from yuzu, the fragrant Japanese citrus.
(Juice from the fruits, which often retail for $10 a piece, is a go-to ingredient here, along with Japanese shichimi togarashi powder, scallions, and softly funky fish sauce that he blends with olive oil to round its flavour out.)
The oyster hand-rolls, too, belong on any list of the great Toronto dishes – the breaded, fried-to-dark-golden Pacific coast oysters come preposterously plump and dripping with molten oyster liquor that soaks into the roll’s white rice and kewpie mayo. Long, thin mango matchsticks, not quite green, not quite ripe, balance all that unctuousness with South Asian sour-sweet fragrance and crunch. I can think of several capital-S Serious Japanese sushi chefs who would not be at all amused.
Mr. Thai, who emigrated from Vietnam in 1978, draws his influences from all around the city, from a dozen-odd Asian traditions, as well as from Jewish grandma cooking (his steamed bun with Jewish-spiced brisket is sadly on hiatus at present), South American spicing and the proto-Canadian larder. His is a melting pot cuisine, rather than an attempt to stay true to some far-away original.
His fried lamb and duck prosciutto dumplings, for instance, are unlike any dumplings I’ve eaten anywhere. The filling, a blend of grassy, softly gamey lamb, in-your-face Chinese duck sausage and house-cured duck breast, blends into a strangely exquisite supermeat – at once tender, softly iodine flavoured, salty, juicy, and gamey, with the unmistakable deep-savoury bass note of air-dried meat.
His grilled side ribs, glazed with a caramelized shallot sauce and spritzed with lime, are a rare stumble here. They’re drier than they ought to be, fine but far from delicious.
You are much better off orderingthe fried chicken, a recent addition to Foxley’s menu (and a rare attempt on Mr. Thai’s part to jump on a trend instead of kickstart one). Foxley’s chicken is deboned and cut into nuggets before being fried to flaky crisp. It’s served with sweet Thai chili sauce, a concoction that’s loosely reminiscent of Wing’s plum sauce crossed with Sriracha. The chicken is dirty and juicy and brilliant. That sauce, if we’re honest, is a little dirty also. You may catch yourself moaning as you eat them. You will by no means be the first.
Have the taro fries with chopped dill alongside that fried chicken if you have to. The dill is an interesting touch, a glimmer of Bubbe cooking where you absolutely don’t expect it. This is to say that it’s really weird.
There is plenty more to try here: the massaman curry with its synapse-coddling coconut and galangal backbone; the dense, meaty grilled beef heart with tamarind; the crispy shrimp and mango salad, which is exceptionally good, but would be much better if made with white Gulf shrimp instead of tiger prawns.
If you’re like me, you’ll settle fairly quickly on your favourites, though. And each time you have them, you will notice new layers of texture and interest and flavour.
Have the recipes changed? It’s hard to say.
But either way, that’s what happens with truly great and complex cooking–and also with truly great restaurants.
They never get old.
No stars: Not recommended
*Good, but won’t blow a lot of minds
**Very good, with some standout qualities
***Excellent, well above average with few caveats, if any
****Extraordinary, memorable, original, with near-perfect execution