How many layers of culture and interpretation can a cuisine pass through while remaining true to the original? Little Sister is a new Indonesian restaurant set in a stylish room on Yonge Street, just south of Eglinton Avenue. It's run by a Dutch chef who is best known for his Mediterranean-style bistro cooking, whose kitchen crew has almost no experience making Indonesian cuisine.
Yet, against what may seem like long odds, the four-month-old restaurant nails the palm sugar and ketjap manis sweets, the clove, ginger and turmeric depths, and the bright, spice-stoked endorphin highs that make good Indonesian eating – wildly underrepresented around the GTA – such an extraordinary experience. Or here's how a Jakarta-born friend of mine put it last month, midway through a meal of spice-crusted fish, Javanese braised beef, chili and lime-jacked wontons and mustard greens that came soused with the low-smoldering paste called sambal oelek: "I would bring my parents here," he told me, looking surprised even as he said it.
Surprise is a common physiological state around Little Sister. In a city where Southeast Asian restaurant cooking is almost invariably watered down, the kitchen here cooks with love-it-or-leave-it confidence. It's worth noting that the room is packed, too: with Instagram-happy food tourists, certainly, but also with toddler-towing families and middle-aged midtown couples, with young eligibles out for after-work drinks and dinners, with chatty, sixtysomething men who seem overjoyed that, at long last, there's somewhere amazing close to home. What a difference not underestimating your clientele makes.
The restaurant is run by Jennifer Gittins and Michael van den Winkel, a couple who also operate Quince Bistro, just north on Yonge. Mr. van den Winkel's history is a big part of the Little Sister kitchen's fluency with Indonesian flavours: He grew up eating Indonesian twice a month in Amsterdam, he said.
The Netherlands has a 400-year history in the Indonesian archipelago, a colonial possession from the early 1600s through to the Second World War. Over time, the Dutch developed a taste for Indonesian flavours. "Instead of Chinese takeout like in Canada, in Holland people bring home Indonesian food," Mr. van den Winkel said.
As a chef in his country's navy in the 1980s, Mr. van den Winkel was expected to cook a traditional Dutch-Indonesian rijsttafel – a "rice meal" – every Wednesday, a navy tradition.
He settled into bistro cooking when he moved to Canada 19 years ago, albeit with the occasional Indonesian spicing thrown in. Yet, a few nights each year at Quince, he and Ms. Gittins served a rijsttafel. Their customers – homesick Dutch ones and otherwise – started asking for it. Last spring, the chef travelled to Bali to research, and to refresh his palate. While he hoped to do a few Dutch-Indonesian-style dishes, he wanted to cook real-deal Indonesian too.
Little Sister's skewered meats are a good starting point. The satay lilit, Balinese spiced chicken, is marinated, ground and then seasoned with galangal, turmeric and lime leaves – there are more than a dozen ingredients in the spice mix – so that it's floral and refreshing above the meatiness, charred and smoky at the edges. These are not your usual catered cocktail-hour satays.
The pangsit wontons nod to the cross-cultural nature of so much Indonesian cooking. The wrappers are Chinese, paper-thin and bubbled up from deep-frying, but the beef inside (in Indonesia, pangsit are typically filled with shrimp or chicken) is rich and dusky-tasting from cloves, and they come peppered with scallions, sided with a sauce made from red chiles and lime.
From the "snacks" section of Little Sister's menu – it is a collection of the restaurant's less traditional dishes – there are tacos filled with rendang beef. If you're rolling your eyes right now, so did I. Yet, those tacos are all kinds of brilliant. The beef is stewed in coconut milk and a ginger-turmeric-galangal spice paste, and then the chunks are dressed with iceberg lettuce, pickled red onion and thick coconut cream. The flavour builds from the upper and lower registers as you eat them: warm, brooding, beefy depth and dark-soy sweet and saltiness against tart sour cream and the onions' vinegar.
It's only after a minute that you realize there's a good deal of chile in those tacos, also; the mid-range soon fills in with lime leaf and ginger and keeps on expanding until every bit of your sensory system is engaged.
One night, four of us ordered Little Sister's entire menu, and the dishes came in a mad rush until our table was lost under a sea of food. This is by far the best way to do the place. (Better still, do it as a party of six.) The entire menu comes to less than $200.
We ate slabs of ham that had been braised with shrimp paste and tamarind; a slow-building shrimp and coconut curry; finely-flavoured mackerel in a clear, complex broth; sticky-glazed barbecue chicken that could give anything from the U.S. South an insecurity complex. (A rare fault here: the semur Java, a braised beef dish, was dry both times I had it.)
The nasi goreng – the fried rice dish that is one of Indonesia's best-known foods – is seasoned properly with that sweet ketjap manis, tamarind, chile and garlic. It's wokked blister-hot to dark and smoky and the comforting smell of it overtakes everything on arrival. (My Indonesian friend would have liked it better with a fried egg on top, he said.) We had a tiny Mason jar of cucumber spears pickled with turmeric and ground, creamy-textured kamiri nuts that add toasty richness, a way out-of-the-ordinary palate reset with deli-worthy crunch.
All that flavour comes in a room that's built and staffed for bistro tastes. It's friendly and comfortable, done up by the cool-kid downtown design firm Commute Home. There are good, simple beers and an affordable wine list by John Szabo, the consultant and master sommelier. The soundtrack – Miles Davis and Hugh Masekela one night, punctuated with Prince songs – works well somehow with both the food and the neighbourhood.
It's an Indonesian restaurant with a Dutch accent, filtered, just enough, through a distinctly Toronto lens, even if the flavours can allow some customers to forget where they are from time to time.
That night we ordered the entire menu, the floor staff seemed to appreciate our little group's enthusiasm. Another friend of mine, who has spent much of her career living and travelling around Indonesia, got to talking with one of the servers. Indonesia is made up of more than 18,000 islands; my friend wanted to know which one our server's family was from.
"Dari mana?" my friend asked, a little bashfully.
The server started laughing.
"Are you talking to me in Indonesian?" she responded, smiling.
"I'm Filipino," she said.
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.