I ate three of the best meals of my life during a stopover in Bangkok last fall – the first of them a fiery street stall lunch of fried pork on rice with green papaya salad, the second an egg and seafood epiphany prepared with little more than a wok and a bucket of blazing charcoal, and the third a ridiculously exquisite procession of little dishes at a fancy hotel restaurant called Nahm, which is in some quarters considered the finest Thai kitchen on earth.
When time's compressed you find the stomach space: over four days I tried a good 60 or 70 different foods and dishes. But I never did find a bowl of tom yum soup quite as good as the one I had right here in Toronto the other week at Nana, a new and, by city standards, radically transgressive little restaurant on Queen Street West.
Nana is the work of Monte Wan, an IT pro and "passionate cook" who also owns Khao San Road on Adelaide Street West. Its legions of fans notwithstanding, Khao San Road is to my mind a typical Toronto Thai joint, its menu safe and predictable, its flavours diluted to Canadian tastes. With Nana, Mr. Wan, who also acts as the restaurant's executive chef, has pledged to serve the sort of food that Thais might eat.
"I want to try and challenge Toronto," he told Post City Magazines when the place opened a few months ago. So sure, you can get pad Thai and spring rolls on the restaurant's short, street food-oriented menu (they're good, but nothing special; that's the nature of pad Thai and spring rolls), but there's also excellent boat noodle soup that's rich with star anise and cinnamon, tender braised beef shank and the unmistakable taste that only comes from adding a ladleful of beef blood.
That tom yum soup returns to its roots here, quite literally, with knuckle-sized hunks of ginger-like galangal in the broth, as well as mortar and pestle-pounded lemongrass stalks and an armada of lime leaves – all of that and a slick of evaporated milk that's supercharged with bird's eye chilies. That soup smells and tastes like a greenhouse in the tropics. And the balance is stunning: it's lush and seductive, but tuned with sweet-acid tension from lime and tomatoes, dark, savoury depth from shrimp paste and incendiary chili lift.
The spicing at Nana is nonnegotiable. (Though you can always add more; Mr. Wan sets out plastic condiment caddies filled with varied chili preparations. I'd love to see him add fish sauce and sugar to those caddies as well.) Nana's cooking comes Thai spicy, which is to say that many of the dishes aren't all that hot, and a few of them will flush your tablemates' faces from mid-winter pasty to bird's eye chili red, all in the time it takes to chew and swallow a forkful of food.
The kitchen's central Thailand-style green papaya salad is every bit as good as that tom yum, and roughly five times hotter. Green papaya salad fails or succeeds on just three criteria: shopping, judgment and courage. The shopping delivers not merely the green papaya but also dried shrimp, roasted peanuts, cherry tomatoes, tamarind, lime, garlic, fish sauce, palm sugar, long beans and chilies – all of them easily found around the city. The judgment pulls those flavours and textures – none of them meek, exactly – into ideal balance.
The last bit, the courage to use at least a baseline minimum of fish sauce and chilies and to go light on the palm sugar, usually disappears outside Thailand. Not at Nana. Here, the green papaya salad delivers a capsaicin-derived endorphine high along with its spectacular balance and flavour. "They don't mess around," a friend of mine said, smiling casually through stinging lips.
There is plenty to appeal to less daring palates: sticky-sweet grilled pork skewers; a wondrously fragrant fried rice dish that's stained deep yellow from turmeric and topped with toasted coconut; a good pork and vegetable stir-fry called mi ga ti; crackly-crusted dessert roti that come stuffed with bananas or Ovaltine and drizzled with sweetened condensed milk. As much as Mr. Wan pledged to challenge Torontonians with his new restaurant's cooking, he's also got a room to fill.
Somewhere between the searing hot and the numbly comforting, there are delicious oddities, and these are also worth your time. I liked what the menu calls the "king oyster mushroom laab," a salad of chopped, grilled, meaty-tasting mushrooms tossed with toasted rice, shallots, lime, mint and coriander.
The spareribs one night recently, braised in coconut milk and sharpened with tamarind and lime leaf, were terrific. The kitchen's even made room for the sort of junk food culture that North Americans might not immediately expect of Thailand, with Nana's pad mama, a wok-fried riff on the instant, Mama-brand noodles that are ubiquitous in the country's convenience stores. They aren't bad, to be honest, especially goosed as they are here with tufts of Chinese broccoli, smoky onion and bits of grilled, garden-variety hot dog, which are carefully sliced at their ends so they open up like banana blossoms.
It's easy to freight a promising new city Thai spot with outsized expectations, as if a single place can meet years of pent-up demand for uncompromising Thai food – and represent all of Thailand's regions and culinary traditions too.
Nana's menu is short and limited, its approach and atmosphere are distinctly casual – for seating, Mr. Wan has outfitted the space with the cheap plastic stools that you see around street food stalls in Thailand – and its elbows-out flavours can't possibly appeal to everyone.
But Nana is a start: a delicious and at times exhilarating start with some genuinely killer dishes. I'll accept that, and happily, for now.
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.