Helmed by husband and wife duo Andre Au and Joanna Hon, Bitter Melon is a restaurant bar that opened on November 25 with the aim of challenging the definition, and common perception of what a Chinese restaurant is or can be.
“We feel that Chinese cuisine has lagged behind other Asian cuisines when it comes to innovation,” says Au. “We are looking to change that by presenting classic Chinese dishes in new and exciting ways and incorporating ingredients that are not typically found in Chinese fare.” The influence goes both ways: Bitter Melon’s executive chef, Hermaway Lay (Clio, Kasa Moto and Momofuku) has taken traditional French, Italian and American classics and infused them with “unconventional” Asian elements.
The menu is light and refreshing, and features just 12 standout dishes. First-timers must try the foie gras on toast, the beef heart tteokbokki, the Peking chicken wrap (crispy chicken skin, scallion, spicy bean curd and Peking sauce) and the sea bream crudo (kelp, yuzu kosho, olive oil, Sriracha foam and smoked shoyu).
Au says the team at Bitter Melon are also trying to introduce ingredients “that were common to us growing up but may be relatively unknown to Canadians.” Century egg—a preserved egg that takes weeks to artfully master— is one such example. “For those unfamiliar with its flavour, texture and appearance, it can definitely be an ‘acquired taste’,” Au says. “We hope to foster appreciation for such ingredients by presenting them in a more approachable way.”
All of the food is paired with a carefully curated and thought out cocktail menu which, again, is infused with Chinese and East Asian elements. “Some may even say the cocktail menu is the main focus of our restaurant,” Au says. “Much like the food menu, I felt compelled to create a well-thought out cocktail menu that incorporates Asian liquours and ingredients because, from my knowledge at least, it simply does not exist in Toronto and I believe it should.”
The cocktail program was designed by Farzam Fallah, a well-known name in the industry in Toronto. It is now headed up by Daniel Desir, Bitter Melon’s bar manager. “With the help of Farzam, we have created a cocktail menu that moves from fruity, floral and refreshing to bolder and more booze-forward as you go down the list,” Au says. Many of the cocktails incorporate Asian liquors. While cocktails are the focus, Bitter Melon also offers a modest selection of wine, beer, whisky and, most notably, baijiu. “While we understand baijiu may not be for everyone, for those who are bold enough to give it a try, it may be an eye-opening experience; both figuratively and literally,” Au says. “The ABV for baijiu ranges between 35 to 60 per cent, with most of our offerings being upwards of 50 per cent.”
Bitter Melon is located at 431 Spadina Ave and is open Tuesday to Thursday from 5 p.m. to 12 a.m. and Friday and Saturday from 5 p.m. until 2 a.m.