- Rickshaw Bar
- 685 Queen St. W., Toronto, Ontario
- Wine and drinks: Short, inexpensive wine and beer list and decent cocktails.
- Atmosphere: A friendly downtown small-plates spot with kind but not altogether polished service and a bustling open kitchen.
- Best bets: Chicken mango salad, pakoras, scallop ceviche, beef curry, khao shay, makai curry, crispy milk pastry.
Rickshaw Bar opened at the end of August with none of the fanfare that customarily greets new restaurant openings. Its chef, Noureen Feerasta, avoided pre-opening press and insisted through the first month of business that the South and Southeast Asian-inspired spot wasn't, in fact, in business officially. When I stopped in for the first time at the end of October, two months after Rickshaw Bar opened, Ms. Feerasta said, "We've only been open for four weeks." Three weeks later, she said they had now been open for just barely six.
That little Queen Street kitchen sells deliciously punchy mango chicken salad and East African cob corn curry, and a killer khao shay with crunchy house-made paratha strips. But Ms. Feerasta, who is 28 and grew up in Lahore, Pakistan, became a chef against her family's wishes. Maybe this is why she can seem short on confidence. "Come in and give us your feedback!" a sign outside the restaurant pleaded during Rickshaw Bar's long soft opening. "As long as we get 10 votes, we'll put it on the menu," she said last month as we tried one of Rickshaw Bar's newest specials. (It was seared fish with lemon grass and chilies, sublimely tasty.) You get the sense that the stakes for Ms. Feerasta are higher than for most.
The room is long and thin, like so many spots on Queen Street. She kept the decor largely as she found it: barn boards, brick walls, Rube Goldberg copper chandeliers, with just a single notable touch, a glittering, hand-beaded and embroidered dress from a momentous part of her life in Pakistan, to make the place her own. The concept – the snack bar, that most overplayed of restaurant genres – is seemingly designed with just one goal: to convey safety and approachability. Snack bars are the Tinder dates of the restaurant world, all commitment-free conviviality. You can get the entire menu here, enough for four hungry people, for around $130.
It works just fine, but I can't help thinking that Ms. Feerasta, who came up through Origin, on King Street, and Momofuku Noodle Bar, is selling her cooking short. While she demands little of her customers, her end is all commitment – for instance, Rickshaw Bar's "Ismaili beef curry," which is built from an entire day's labour. It's made from cashews, dehydrated chickpeas, toasted coriander seeds, tamarind and two dozen other ingredients, it's silky-rich and exquisitely engrossing, and it sells for a laughable $14 a bowl. "It's been in my family for four generations so I hope you enjoy it as much as I do," the chef said as she brought it to the table one night.
It's food for kings, sold on the cheap to slouching Queen West Yelpers. But it's a start too, an excellent one, and that's what Ms. Feerasta has craved for most of her life.
As a girl in Lahore, she used to beg her parents to let her help in the kitchen. Studies come first, they always insisted, and so she learned to race through her school work. At the age of 9, she decided that she wanted to be a professional chef. "But having brown parents, obviously that is not an acceptable career choice," she said.
When her parents split up, she moved with her mother and sister to Florida. At one point, her parents worried that she was becoming too American, and so they took her back to Pakistan. That's where that dress on the wall is from. It was intended for her wedding. She was 17 and thought she was in love. "I would never have become a chef if I went through with it," she told me. She called it off three days before the big event.
Ms. Feerasta went to Concordia University to study marketing, and took a job as a cook at a Montreal pizza shop. She hated her studies but loved the job. "Once I failed all my exams in third year, my parents kind of disowned me," she said. She has been saving up for the past 12 years to open her own place.
Rickshaw Bar's menu mines Indian and Pakistani staple foods, as well as a few dishes from Burma (her paternal grandfather's family lived there) and the East African Ismaili Muslim diaspora (her family is Ismaili). It's got the modern verve and lightness to bring it into right now.
Her scallop ceviche plays the ubiquitous dish like a Mumbai-style street snack, combining scallops and lime, chilies and radishes, coconut milk, puffed rice and the fruity, gently pongy taste of chaat masala spice mix. It's a taste of the melting pot, a bhelpuri walla just back from the Peruvian seashore, set up on Queen Street West.
Ms. Feerasta's chicken and mango salad includes the expected red cabbage, citrus, lime leaves and pickled cucumbers in addition to the juicy mango chunks, but there's also toasty, sweetly starchy crunch from deep-fried chickpeas: delicious.
Her pakoras are lighter than the usual – they're dredged in a dry coating instead of battered – and include green apple matchsticks in addition to potato and zucchini. She serves them with a fresh green chutney. It's all seasoned aggressively, to encourage loose talk and drinking. Those pakoras go down exceedingly well.
Other South Asian dishes are tasty enough if you don't think too much about their inspiration. Rickshaw Bar's naan kabab is a decent, oven-baked flatbread topped with rich, gingery spiced beef and the Persian-style raita called mast-o-khiar. At face value, it's great; just don't try comparing them to proper stuffed naans that are made in tandoor ovens.
The chef also makes the layered Indian flatbreads called parathas, and these are good, but then she puts them to use as the wrappers for paratha tacos. Tacos sell, and Rickshaw Bar is a business, but those paratha tacos are the least memorable dishes she makes.
Her cooking from Southeast Asia and Africa is the standout. It tastes like confidence, like the work of a chef who knows she's got something great. Ms. Feerasta's Tanzanian-style makai curry is made from corn stock and cashew nuts, the broth light and gently sweet with a skim of red chili spice for fiery interest. She adds grilled eggplant and zucchini for vegetal depth and smokiness, and thin rounds of cob corn that you're meant to spear and eat with wooden skewers. These are brilliant flavours; that stew even happens to be vegan.
Her Burmese-style khao shay combines soft braised beef and a zippy coconut and lime broth, with coriander stems, chili oil and strips of Ms. Feerasta's parathas, which she deep-fries into starchy, beautifully savoury noodles. And that all-day Ismaili beef curry is a work of art, with spices and influences from around the planet. "When you taste it, you can't necessarily pinpoint an origin," she said on the phone this week. "That's pretty much the same with Ismailis – we're from all over."
Her parents came around, eventually – her mother first, and then her father, who was always a globetrotting foodie. He realized that chef might be an acceptable career choice for his daughter when his daughter landed a 2-1/2-month stage at the three-Michelin-starred Alinea in Chicago a few years back. "They're okay with me now," Ms. Feerasta said.
And in any case, her upbringing runs through almost everything at Rickshaw Bar. One of the chef's fondest food memories is of some sweets her dad brought back from a business trip one year. She remembers that they were crispy and sweet and tasted of cardamom. She remembers that they came covered with rose petals and blew her little mind.
And so she reduces milk for hours on low heat until it's thick and sweet but hasn't started to brown from caramelizing. She flavours it with cardamom and slips it into phyllo pockets, which she deep-fries to crisp and scatters with almond shavings. That "crispy milk pastry," as she calls it, comes topped with dehydrated rose petals. It's a stunner of a finish. And, at $5 a serving, she's practically giving that dessert away.
A Cheap Eats pick, where you can dine well for under $30, before alcohol, tax and tip.