- Noorden Food Bar
- 2110 Yonge St. (at Manor Road East), Toronto, Ontario
- Small plates, $3 to $18
- Good cocktails, 45 different gins, a smart, affordable wine list and an excellent craft beer selection
- A cool and hospitable modern Dutch snack bar in midtown. Reasonable volumes, friendly (and at times occasionally didactic) service that can get slow at times. The best seats are up front
- Tuna, scotch egg, all the bar snacks (and especially the war fries), seared trout, skirt steak, Cornish hen
While the great global poutine craze has spread in the past few years to as far away as Paris, Shanghai and Melbourne, the Dutch can only have been looking on in bemused fascination. Poutine, delicious as it is, is a dullard among gloop-topped French fries; squeaky cheese and tin-can gravy, for all their charms, are the grunting Nickelback chorus and power chords on the sidewalk outside a Frank Ocean show.
As exhibit A, consider the patatje oorlog at Noorden, a modern Dutch spot that opened this spring on Yonge Street in Midtown. They begin with double-cooked, creamy-centred, crisp-skinned fries, as only the Dutch can make them, and a toss of chopped scallion and pickled bird's eye peppers that crackles with cheek-flushing hots, sharps and sours. There's mayonnaise too, as well as a gravy, if you can call it that, of satay sauce, the velvety, spice-kissed peanut, garlic, sweet soy and lime leaf sauce.
That dish, a play on a Netherlands street-eats staple, is a jolt from eats both near and far: at once creamy and greasy, spicy and profoundly savoury, starchy-crisp and refreshingly sour-sweet. It's the single-greatest gloop-topped fried potato dish I've ever tried. And like much of what they serve here, those patatje oorlog are the sort of dish you won't easily find elsewhere in town.
Noorden is run by Jennifer Gittins and the chef Michael van den Winkel, the couple behind Little Sister, the one-of-a-kind city snack bar a few doors south on Yonge. Where Little Sister specializes in Indonesian small plates with subtle Dutch and North American accents, Noorden's focus is Dutch-style bar and street food. Thanks to Holland's colonialist past, its most popular dishes often bear an Indonesian edge.
The decor, in contrast with Little Sister's cosmopolitan Indonesian street stall vibe, is all cool Holland: Inside the door, there's a painting of a young blond boy in a fisherman's cap and clogs, smoking a stogie, and Amsterdam's XXX symbol (it's taken from the city's coat of arms, and not from the adult entertainment business) glows in neon just outside.
Along with your genever-based cocktails (they serve about 45 types of gin here) and Neubourg Pilsner, you can order Dijon-dipped chicken bitterballen and deep-fried devilled eggs splayed with cured sardines, or enormous, warm-spiced scotch eggs sunk into pools of chili jam.
Noorden's more straight-Dutch dishes of late included an exquisitely simple salad of fresh peas and radishes, cucumber and tiny, Technicolor heirloom carrots seasoned precisely with an herb-tinged vinaigrette, my dream of a green-market lunch in Rotterdam. Those bitterballen are made from whipped ground chicken and béchamel fried into balls and served with sinus-clearing mustard. As baby artichokes came into season this summer, Noorden's kitchen fried them just enough to crisp their exteriors while leaving them juicy and flavourful inside.
And the desserts I've tried had little input from Southeast Asia; there was panna cotta a few weeks ago, made with dark and milk chocolate, as well as oliebollen beignets made with currants, ginger, apples and golden raisins, moistened with speculoos cookie sauce.
Tasty as most of those were, the restaurant's hybrid dishes grabbed me even more firmly: the cubed tuna (but please do not call it poke) marinated with pickled ginger juice and the palm sugar and star-anise-spiced soy sauce called ketjap manis; the spectacularly juicy seared and roasted Cornish hen served with candlenut sauce.
There was a smoky, in-your-face-tasty skirt steak dish with blistered long beans and fried chili relish as a high point. As a relative low, we ate bland octopus and potatoes that tasted more Genovese than either Dutch or Indonesian, but seasoned, meekly, with green harissa sauce.
That octopus was a fine example of Noorden's few shortcomings: It tasted like a hedge, like trend-chasing instead of an otherwise accomplished kitchen's conviction. Toronto does not need another grilled octopus dish and harissa, as delicious as it often is, seems far out of place here. The city probably doesn't need another roasted carrots and yogurt dish, either, and that tuna would have been better, I'd argue, without the tostada it came on. It's tough introducing a little-known cuisine to an often unadventurous dining city. Still, the flavours Noorden's kitchen is capable of shouldn't need pandering to succeed.
The service, meanwhile, ranged from one evening's friendly and efficient, with even the strapping Dutch cooks helping out at tableside, to friendly but understaffed and as slow as refrigerated stroopwafel sauce.
None of this can overwhelm the deliciousness and novelty at Noorden's heart, however – or the thoughtful and affordable wine list or the very good cocktails, or the genuinely impressive craft beer list. And those fries alone are reason for visiting. I'll never look at poutine the same again.