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.
About a decade ago, my husband and two kids and I were roaring around Chiang Mai on motorbikes, hot in pursuit of what was reputed to be the best barbecue joint in northern Thailand. Go down this soi (a small street in Thai), then take three lefts and a right, another two lefts, veer right for a while, and soon you’ll be there. Sure. In your dreams.
After almost two hours of fruitless searching, we decided to give up. It couldn’t be that great anyway. We’ll have noodles in soup for lunch like every day, for a buck a person including Thai beer with ice cubes in it.
And then suddenly there it was. Gai Yang Wichianburi. One skinny guy sweating over a large charcoal barbecue filled with half chickens. A grotty counter. Dirty plastic tables and chairs. Pretty much all Thai people chowing down on the most scrumptious imaginable Thai-seasoned barbecued chicken and somtam (green mango salad) with cold beer. The chicken is moist and perfectly seasoned, the green mango salad fresh and fab. It’s served on cheap plastic plates. Part of the charm.
And we still love it. Over frequent visits they’ve added a grimy sink with a cold water tap for washing your hands, and ice cubes in the beer. But the food hasn’t changed.
After so many yummy visits to Thailand, I have grown less able to eat Thai food here at home. So much sugar, so much coconut milk, the sharp flavours dulled by the fat and sugar.
So when Jonathan Poon (famed for Paris Paris, Bar Fancy and Superpoint) partnered up with Monte Wan of Khao San Road (one of the few honest Thai spots in town) and chef Haan Palcu-Chang (who’d worked at a Michelin-starred spot in Copenhagen) on Favorites, I bit.
It’s a funny entrance, through what is a Sam James coffee bar by day, and then you walk through what feels like Thailand: way too hot narrow corridor past a bank of charcoal barbecues. Dark, steamy, sweaty: Thailand!
But the dining room in the back is Toronto all the way. Chilled by AC, a wall of windows, green marble tables and oak high tops, very noisy and très chic.
And then the fun begins. There are salty/sweet raw oysters topped with deep-fried shallots and nam jim sauce, the classic Thai dipping sauce for fish, made from garlic, fish sauce, sugar, lime and fiery bird’s eye chilies. There are betel leaf wraps of dried shrimp, oodles of ginger, roasted peanuts, tamarind and palm sugar. These are BIG flavours, Thai all the way. The house-made northern Thai–style sausage is dotted with emerald and ruby — coriander and chilies — and is even better than in northern Thailand because it’s softer, with the same savour.
We love the one-bite treat of pork & chicken cooked chewy in cane sugar with toasted peanuts and bird’s eye chilies sitting on a small piece of pineapple, topped with deep-fried shallots and fried garlic, on the side a leaf of Thai sawtooth coriander; and the thin charred sweet spicy lamb chops with nam jim jao sauce, from the Isan area of northeastern Thailand. It’s the classic northern BBQ dip made from fish sauce, shallots, green onions, palm sugar, tamarind, lime and chilies. With the lamb we also get the rarely seen aromatic sawtooth coriander leaf, Thai basil and bird’s eye chilies. (Caveat emptor on the last item.)
Then, the pièce de résistance, they bring the P.E.I. scallop red curry. Anywhere else in town, this would be a gloppy thick canned coconut stew. But Messrs. Poon et al, in their hunger to give us more authentic Thai cuisine, elect to simmer the coconut milk for hours, separate out the fat and cook it down with garlic and spices, and then at the last minute, to smooth it out, throw in the coconut milk and fresh scallops. Splendid!
Their sole misstep is rewriting som tam (green mango salad) with Ontario corn, cherry tomatoes, shrimp, toasted peanuts, raw green beans, dried shrimp, chilies and salted duck egg. It’s a noble effort, but a bit dissonant made with corn, because fresh corn is so sweet — and green mango just isn’t sweet. But this is a splendid restaurant. Close your eyes and you could be in northern Thailand.