Table Talk: Joanne Kates reviews Soos

I eat around. Familiarity with other parts of the world allows me to say with certitude that in Toronto we have the most choices in Asian food of any city in the world. Okay, so the Thai food is better in Thailand and the sushi is better in Japan.

But outside of an Asian cuisine’s home country, we’re not to be outdone. You can see it in the food stores as well as the restaurants. Where else in the world do mainstream supermarkets sell lemongrass and tamarind and lime leaves?

But Malaysian cooking has been under-represented. The Soo family had the estimable MataHari on Baldwin Street for 13 years, but sold it. They’ve now reopened on Ossington at the epicentre of hipsterland, a sweet cosy boîte called Soos, with two rooms. The front room has one wall done in oversize black-and-white stripes with the word Soos in huge print, and the back room is cool in a whole other way: It’s a semi-private table for 12 (think party!) with red chairs and walls papered in elaborate retro print.

The food is from the Chinese-influenced part of Malaysia, the tendencies gently fusion, the prices easy on the wallet. As in pulled chicken tacos in miniature soft flour tortillas, the meat scented with lemongrass. Their satay is some of the yummiest in town, super-tender chicken and beef served with chili-kissed peanut sauce.

More Thai feeling is the slaw made from green mango with sweet red pepper, carrot shreds, toasted peanuts and sesame seeds, with fried shallots on top and ample heat from chilies. All over Malaysia they serve laksa. It’s a soup/stew that recalls the khao soi of northern Thailand minus the deep coconut creaminess of khao soi. Laksa is a curry with just a hint of coconut, in this case with chicken, shrimp and tofu (all nicely cooked), both fat and thin rice noodles and the scent of galangal, turmeric and lemongrass. And some heat.

One doesn’t think of dessert as being a strong suit of Eastern cuisines, but Soos does an astonishing Asian version of crème caramel: They flavour cream cheese with coconut, sweeten with gula mekala (Malaysian for palm sugar) and bake it in little ramekins for a result at once creamy and loaded with flavour. This is not your deli cheese cake.

And Malaysian is not your easiest Asian. The cuisine lacks the sweetness of Chinese food, the thick coconut creaminess of Thai curries, and the sexy raw fish mouth feel of Japanese. Which may partly explain why Malaysian cooking has such scant traction in Toronto. And why the other Ossington bistros seem so much more busy than Soos. But I for one am a little tired of some of the more obvious Asian cuisines as they’re interpreted here, and am happy to be turned on to the subtle pleasures of Soos.

SOOS, 94 Ossington Ave., $35 Dinner for two

Joanne Kates trained at the Ecole Cordon Bleu de Cuisine in Paris. She has written articles for numerous publications, including the New York Times, Maclean’s and Chatelaine.

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