Country 075 – Bhutan (Lhasa Kitchen… or is it Potala Kitchen?)

Lhasa Kitchen (Potala Kitchen?)Location: 1422 Queen Street West, Toronto
Websitehttp://www.lhasakitchentoronto.ca/

I’m not gonna lie: I’m kinda cheating with this one.  Lhasa Kitchen is a Tibetan restaurant — one of many on this particular stretch of Queen — but when I looked it up online, they had a whole section on their menu dedicated to Bhutanese cuisine.

Lhasa Kitchen (Potala Kitchen?)

When I showed up, however, the restaurant was actually called Potala Kitchen, and the dishes from Bhutan were MIA.  It was an odd turn of events (odder still: as I write this, there isn’t a single reference to Potala Kitchen online, even on the restaurant’s website).

Bhutan and Tibet are neighbours; their cuisine must be somewhat similar.  So… close enough, I guess?

Lhasa Kitchen (Potala Kitchen?)

I tried a couple of things.  I started with the beef momo — essentially a Tibetan version of steamed Chinese dumplings.  The skin was slightly dry and the minced beef inside was a bit tough, but these were still pretty tasty (not to mention a great deal at seven bucks for a very generous order of ten).

Lhasa Kitchen (Potala Kitchen?)

I also tried the pork shabtak, which was an unqualified home run.  This featured a whole bunch of thick slices of ultra-tender pork belly and slippery fried onions in an oily, intensely flavourful sauce.

Lhasa Kitchen (Potala Kitchen?)

It comes with something called tring-mo — a big, fluffy steamed bun.  You eat it kind of like you’d eat roti; you tear pieces off and dip it in the pork.  Rice is an option, but this was way more interesting.

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Country 065 – Laos (Sabai Sabai)

Sabai Sabai
Location: 81 Bloor Street East, Toronto
Websitehttp://www.sabaisabaito.ca/

I’m gonna admit that pretty much the only thing I know about Laos is that it’s where Hank Hill’s neighbour is from on King of the Hill.  I sort of figured that I’d be learning about all kinds of countries while doing this blog, but to be honest, not really (unless you consider eating a dish or two without context to be learning about a place, in which case, sure!  I’m learning a lot!).

But now I can tell you about a couple of Laotian dishes I had at Sabai Sabai, so I guess I know a tiny bit more than I did before.

Sabai Sabai

I started with the laap lao, which the menu describes as a minced pork salad, and the “most popular dish of Laos.”  Well, okay.  Sold.

I can see why it’s so popular in Laos (and elsewhere) — it’s delicious.  It’s a simple dish, with a bowl of ground pork accompanied by a plate of iceberg lettuce leaves for wrapping.  The pork absolutely pops with flavour — it’s addictively tangy and herby, and it’s almost impossible to stop eating.  The fresh crunchiness of the lettuce is a perfect accompaniment to the flavourful pork.  It’s great.

Sabai Sabai

My main was the mee kati (coconut noodles).  This was really tasty, though it was exceptionally awkward to eat.  It essentially comes deconstructed, with the plate consisting of a pile of dry noodles topped with crispy onions, a small bowl of sauce and chicken chunks, and an even smaller bowl of crushed hot peppers.

I wasn’t sure how to approach this.  Was I supposed to pour the sauce over the noodles?  The way the plate was arranged, it didn’t seem like it.  A bowl would have been more appropriate if this were the intention, plus there was a banana leaf on the plate, and if I poured sauce over the noodles, some of it would inevitably wind up under the leaf.  So… no pouring, I guess?

Sabai Sabai

But because the noodles were completely un-sauced, they all stuck together in one stubborn clump.   I eventually sprinkled the hot peppers onto the noodle clump, and then tore off chunks and dipped them into the sauce.  But I clearly over-dipped my first few clumps, because by the time I was about halfway finished with the noodles, the sauce was almost entirely depleted.  It wasn’t the best.

It tasted really good, though!  For all the awkwardness of actually eating it, that’s what really counts — the sauce was creamy, coconutty, rich, and delicious.  The crushed peppers gave it a mild kick, and the fried onions added some crispiness and a decent amount of flavour.  The chicken pieces tasted a bit leftovery, but all in all it was a tasty dish.  I just wish they’d drop the unwelcome pretension and serve it assembled in a bowl like normal people.

Country 064 – Libya (Parallel)

ParallelLocation: 217 Geary Avenue, Toronto
Websitehttps://parallelbrothers.com/

I wasn’t sure which country this would fall under.  Parallel’s website describes itself as “Middle-Eastern and Mediterranean,” which doesn’t exactly narrow things down.  I ordered shakshuka, and Wikipedia lists Libya first in the list of countries where this dish is served.  So sure, Libya it is.

Parallel

Parallel is a new restaurant from the people behind Ozery Bakery (which sells some good stuff, FYI).  They also make and sell their own tahini, which features heavily in most of the dishes on their menu.  You can see the very impressive looking machine they use to crush the sesame seeds at the back of the restaurant.

Parallel

I ordered the hammshuka, which is shakshuka that’s served on a bed of freshly-made hummus.

It was very, very good.  The hummus was odd; not surprisingly, the tahini flavour was front-and-centre.  The lemon was almost imperceptible, and if there was any garlic at all, I couldn’t taste it.  It was subtle and unlike any hummus I’ve ever had, but it grew on me.

Parallel

Better was the shakshuka (which, for the initiated, is a dish in which eggs are baked in a thick tomato sauce).  It had a rich, garlicky flavour, and the eggs were cooked perfectly.  It was topped with a very liberal amount of good-quality extra virgin olive oil — enough to give the dish EVOO’s distinctive nutty flavour.

I ordered it with roasted eggplant (other add-ons include goat cheese and roasted peppers), which turned out to be a wise choice.  The eggplant was smoky and amazing, and complimented the shakshuka perfectly.

Country 061 – Uzbekistan (Taj Restaurant)


Location
: 1698 Eglinton Avenue West, Toronto
Websitehttps://www.facebook.com/TAJ-Restaurant-282739815479810/

When we told the waiter (and, I suspect, owner) at Taj that this was our first visit to the restaurant, he pretty much ordered for us.  He gave us a handful of suggestions, then when we neglected to order immediately, he said okay, how about you order this, this, that, and this, and before we knew what was happening the menus were gone and he was in the kitchen (to be fair, we could have said no, but it all sounded good, so we went with it).

It was really bizarre; in pretty much any other setting I probably would have been peeved, but he did it in such an earnest and friendly way that it was hard to be too miffed about it.

Of course, it also helps that all of the food was delicious.

And thankfully it’s an inexpensive place, so despite the fact that we wound up spending (and eating) more than we wanted to, it still only amounted to about 25 bucks each for more food than we were able to eat.

We started with a salad and an enormous round loaf of freshly-baked bread.  The salad, which consisted mostly of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and red onions, was simply dressed and featured really fresh ingredients.  It was quite good.

The bread was warm and homey and satisfying.  It was slightly sweet, and while we weren’t quite sure what we were supposed to eat it with, it was certainly high-quality bread.

Next was the samsa, which was kind of like a Chinese-style bun, but encased in delightfully flaky pastry.  It was crammed with juicy, fennel-infused ground lamb (it was also about the size of my fist and surprisingly heavy, so between that, the salad and the bread we would have been all set for lunch, but I digress).

The final dish was plov (and we got a plate each of this rather than the shared plate we were assuming).  This actually reminded me a lot of qabuli palau, which is Afghanistan’s national dish, and which I sampled at Naan and Kabob.  They both had a pretty similar base — rice, carrots, raisins, and chunks of meat — but the spicing here was much more satisfying.  The raisins and the carrots added subtle pops of sweetness rather than the in-your-face sugar assault from the Naan and Kabob version.

The addition of chick peas gave the dish some added substance, and the chunks of lamb were fork-tender and intensely flavourful.  I love lamb, so maybe I’m biased, but it takes a dish that was already delicious and cranks it right up to eleven.

Taj Restaurant - the salad Taj Restaurant - bread Taj Restaurant - the samsa Taj Restaurant - the samsa Taj Restaurant - the plov

Country 058 – Ireland (Fynn’s of Temple Bar)


Location
: 489 King Street West, Toronto
Websitehttp://fynnstemplebar.com/

Add “boxty” to the list of things I hadn’t even heard of before starting this blog (and in case you’re a member of the “what the hell is boxty?” club, as I was until recently, it’s an Irish take on the potato pancake).

Fynn’s has a couple of boxtys (boxties?) on the menu; I went with the Dublin steak and mushroom boxty.

The boxty was actually much closer in consistency to bread than I was expecting — it had a chewy, bready texture that was more like naan than a traditional potato pancake.  It was unexpected, but it worked quite well with the stew inside.

As for the steak and mushroom stew, it was true to its name and crammed with mushrooms and chunks of beef.  The beef was slightly on the tough side, and there was one spice that I couldn’t quite put my finger on that was a bit overpowering, but for the most part it was tasty and satisfying.

Flynn's of Temple Bar - the outside Flynn's of Temple Bar - the boxty

Country 057 – Kyrgyzstan (Chaihana)


Location
: 1000 Finch Avenue West, North York
Websitehttp://chaihana.ca/

Chaihana is tucked away in a fairly anonymous office building; though there’s a small sign outside, it’s very easy to miss.  My dining companion and I had the entire restaurant to ourselves — outside of the staff, the place was deserted.  It’s pretty much the definition of a hidden gem.

A lot of hole-in-the-wall joints like this can be dingy and unwelcoming, but Chaihana is clean and colourful; they’re definitely trying to attract more than just the grizzled regulars you’d expect in a place like this.

They specialize in the ‘stans: the website mentions Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan.  The dish I ordered is actually the national dish of Kyrgyzstan, so that’s a fourth ‘stan to add to the roster.

I ordered beshbarmak, which a pretty simple dish — boiled beef (which is sliced), topped with sauteed onions and served on a bed of very broad noodles.   There’s really not much more going on than that — there’s some green onions, dill, cracked pepper… and that’s about it.  It’s basic, hearty comfort food.

The pasta was a bit mushy and it was incredibly greasy (you know when you’re eating something really greasy, and your lips get grease-slicked with every bite?  Yeah), but it was pretty satisfying.  The tender beef, the noodles and the onions all go quite well together.

It’s served with an equally simple bowl of soup — basically just broth (mutton, according to Google) with a little bit of dill and some green onions for colour.

Chaihana - the beshbarmak Chaihana - the soup

Country 055 – Nepal (Hakka Khazana)


Location
: 735 Twain Avenue, Mississauga
Websitehttp://www.hakkakhazana.ca/

Hakka Khazana is a Nepali/Chinese/Indian restaurant.  That feels like they might be spreading themselves a bit too thin, but hey, sometimes you have to take what you can get.

The first dish — and the clear highlight — was the palungo ko saag.  Though a cursory Googling shows this to be something akin to creamed spinach (but without the cream), the version served here was very, very different.  Maybe this is a regional variation, like how American barbecue differs depending on where in the South you are.  Or maybe it’s just inauthentic — it’s impossible to know for sure (okay fine, it’s actually very possible to know for sure, but that would require way more work than I’m willing to put in for this blog).

The version of the dish served here was basically just some kind of stir-fried baby bok choy.  Authentic or not, with a nice hit of garlic and a strong dose of curry-like spices, it was a very pleasant surprise.  It was one of those dishes that doesn’t seem particularly spicy at first, but then delivers a strong kick that lingers.  It was great.

The kasi ko masu — basically a fairly standard mutton curry — didn’t fare quite as well.  It was fine; the sauce had a nice flavour, even if it was a bit milder than I would have liked.  But nothing about it particularly stood out, and the mutton was rubbery and tough.