Someday, somewhere in the city, a courageous and freakishly honest new Thai restaurant will come right out and call itself inauthentic. Once that hurdle’s crossed, the naming opportunities are endless, really: Pseudosukhothai … I Can’t Believe It’s Not Buddha! There’s a fortune waiting for the first young foodpreneur to Kickstarter a chain of take-out shops called Khao San Middle Of The Road.
Any of these would be better than the present state of Thai cooking in Toronto, in which timid and middling kitchens mostly send out the same 10 timid and middling dishes – totally authentic, they say, exactly the way you get them in Thailand, except seasoned as if for the tummy troubles ward of a Scots Presbyterian invalids’ home.
The cuisine’s main flavour pillars are hot (blisteringly so in many cases), sour (and in the country’s north particularly, bitter), salty (which encompasses fishy, from dried and fermented seafood) and sweet, all of them typically kept in some sort of balance. You get those flavours at New York’s and Portland’s take-no-prisoners Pok Pok restaurants, at Las Vegas’s famed Lotus of Siam, in a few of the dishes at Maenam in Vancouver, and at the Thai food standard-bearer David Thompson’s extraordinary Nahm, recently relocated from London to Bangkok.
Here in Toronto, we get sweet without exception, and a little bit sour when the kitchen’s feeling gregarious. Nobody seems to have got the message that honest Thai cooking can really sell.
Pai Northern Thai Kitchen is a new 155-seat Theatre District bar and restaurant from Gusto 101’s Janet Zuccarini and Nuit and Jeff Regular. The Regulars – she cooks, he runs the service – are also part-owners at Sukhothai (“The most authentic Thai experience”), consultants to Sabai Sabai (“Authentic and enticing favourites”), and, until recently, show-runners at Khao San Road (“Authentic Thai food with quality ingredients”), from which they abruptly departed late last year.
The authenticity question is always a mug’s game. Everything is authentic to some time, some place, somebody. But since the Regulars and their many fans can’t stop raising it: Give or take the odd standout dish, the couple’s spots before Pai are as authentically Thai as The Golden Griddle is authentically Canadian. Their specialty is the sort of Thai food you find in backpacker hangouts and Bangkok department store food halls, sweet and a little sour but rarely spicy or bitter or notably salty-fishy.
This isn’t to say that any of their previous restaurants are bad. Far from it. It’s just that if you’ve ever been to Pok Pok Ny or Maenam or, God forbid, a restaurant in Thailand that doesn’t exist in a perma-fug of hippie-borne body odour and ganja haze, you can’t help wanting more balance, more heat, more sourness, more depth and clarity to the flavours, a few less familiar dishes. You can’t help wanting more.
Pai claims to specialize in the cuisine of Northern Thailand. The restaurant’s kitchen is the first I’ve encountered here that isn’t afraid of the sometimes challenging tastes and textures or the spice that make great Thai food so exhilarating to eat.
So I say this next bit with equal parts respect and disappointment: Pai serves some of the best Thai cooking in town.
The papaya salad is a standout. It’s a tart and chili-larded toss of shredded unripe papaya and Chinese long beans, lime and tamarind water. A regular order comes with deep-fried pork rinds (great for scooping everything up), shrimp chips and smartly chewy dried shrimp.
Far better, though, to order it with boo kem: salted, fermented black land crabs that are whacked into pieces and tossed onto the pile, shells and all, like crustacean-flavoured Gobstoppers. Without them, the salad is very good (although it would benefit from a few seconds’ acquaintance with a mortar and pestle).
With the crabs, you get depth and crunch, saltiness and fishiness, the unmistakable taste of some place very far away.
I loved the sticky rice, which comes in small bamboo baskets that still smell strongly, gorgeously, of the cooking fires in the villages where they were woven. I loved the tom yum kung mor fai, a sour and savoury shrimp soup that came floating with heat-concentrated tomatoes and long-leaf coriander, all in a (sorry, it’s that word again) totally authentic, Sterno-heated hotpot.
The sliced beef salad was terrific to my taste, the meat grilled medium rare and perfumed with lime juice, mint and lemongrass. Was it “pungently hot, sour and salty,” as David Thompson does it? Not even close to it. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was delicious.
From the lunch menu, there’s a nice Thai omelette, which isn’t an omelette in the French sense of the word, but beaten egg that’s dropped in bubbling oil until it’s crisp and lacy, sown with heat-shrivelled holy basil. It’s a dish so excessively fatty and salty that it should come with a team of paramedics. Do not neglect to order at least one.
And both the Massaman curry and the khao soi here, the latter one of Ms. Regular’s calling cards, are excellent, although the khao soi was screaming for the traditional lime wedges and pickled greens that Thais use to balance its richness and sweetness.
Yet the bulk of what I ate over three visits was nowhere near as well-made or interesting. The flavour and texture of the stir-fried morning glory were nearly indistinguishable from the corn starch-thickened gai lan you might find at a Spadina Avenue egg roll palace; the pad gra prow, a hash of sautéed ground pork (or better still, the off-menu shallow-fried pork belly), was sweet and meaty and nicely savoury from its fried egg topping, but then so too are the banquet burgers at your local nose-to-tail.
Also crazy-sweet but otherwise insipid: the green chicken curry, the moo ping skewered pork; the honeyed-tasting oxtail gaeng hunglay, the humdrum spring rolls and, most egregiously, the “Chef Nuit Pad Thai,” which was sugary enough and one-note enough (and without even a whisper of acidity from lime or tamarind) that it very nearly qualified as dessert.
Which all leads to my other main complaint about Pai Northern Thai Kitchen. Unique among Thailand’s regional cuisines, Northern Thai food isn’t supposed to be sweet. And one of its more predominant flavour characteristics, assertive bitterness from local leaves and herbs, doesn’t appear at the restaurant – not ever, in my experiences.
Studying the menu, it isn’t hard to see why: Of Pai’s 20-plus dishes, just a handful are from Northern Thailand. The bulk of them originate in the country’s (very different) northeast or its culturally dominant central plains.
Ms. Regular said on the phone late this week that she plans to introduce more Northern Thai dishes slowly, as her kitchen staff grow more confident. I look forward to that.
Meantime, by all means, you should eat here. For Toronto, Pai is very, very good. But I dream of a day when a Thai restaurant in the city is worthy of praise without that “for Toronto” bit.
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.