When I got my first job, working in the kitchen at Three Small Rooms (then the best restaurant in Toronto), my Bubby, an immigrant, said to me: “We sent you to Wellesley for this?”
Same deal for Noureen Feerasta’s parents. She grew up in Lahore, Pakistan, and always wanted to be a chef despite her parents’ desires for something snazzy involving a suit and an office. Feerasta narrowly missed a trad Pakistani marriage at age 17. She bailed three days before the wedding and all that’s left to show for it is a quite spectacular beaded wedding dress on the wall at Rickshaw Bar as you enter.
What does it mean when someone pursues a career against their parents’ expressed wishes? And sticks with it? It means you’re a person of enormous grit and passion. This is chef Noureen Feerasta and Rickshaw Bar is her dream come true. She is not about to screw this up, which is why the lovely little bistro receives 110 per cent of her passion.
Ms. Feerasta has lived in Florida and Montreal and studied cooking in Dubai. She’s cooked at Origin and Momofuku and staged at the three-Michelin-starred Alinea in Chicago. All of which have clearly lightened and brightened her touch.
IMAGE: CJ BAEK
But she started cooking at home, absorbing curry and pakora from her Ismaili parents’ genealogy and experience — her family’s time in Burma infected her khao shay with complex rich broth that’s 10 times more interesting than the trad Thai coconut soup in khao soi, and topped with what she calls crispy strings, which are wonderful flaky house-made parathas that she deep-fries and cuts into “noodles.”
Her restaurant is plain, decorated only with that gorgeous dress as monument to the life she didn’t choose. The extravaganza is all on the plates: Scallop ceviche is a chili-kissed lime-scented treat with coconut milk, crispy puffed rice and complex masala spicing. Potato pakoras crackle like glass, with nary a hint of grease.
Chef makes those light crispy parathas and uses them to redefine tacos as Asian. Fab filling is crunchy veg fritter with slightly pickled cabbage and coriander-tinged yogurt. Fragile naans form the base for silken smoked eggplant with piquant sheep feta. And her fish is impeccable, sautéed branzino with garlic and lemongrass in hot chili sauce.
Even desserts are distinctive: Coconut panna cotta is exotic limpid velvet topped with puckery pineapple gel — a sophisticated nod to molecular gastronomy. For milk pastry she reduces milk for hours on low heat, flavours it with cardamom and deep-fries it in phyllo packets, strewing it with rose petals and almonds.
And about rose petals — We strew them in chef Feerasta’s path, in homage to her passion and her skills.
Rickshaw Bar, 685 Queen St. W., $65 for two