What’s on the menu at Bitter Melon, a new spot on Spadina for “Toronto Chinese” small plates and cocktails

What’s on the menu at Bitter Melon, a new spot on Spadina for “Toronto Chinese” small plates and cocktails

Including a Taiwanese take on a Korean corn dog

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Name: Bitter Melon
Contact info: 431 Spadina Ave., 647-368-8380, bittermelonrestaurant.com, @bittermelon.to
Neighbourhood: Chinatown
Owners: Andre Au and Joanna Hon
Chefs: Hermawan Lay (Clio, Momofuku, Kasa Moto)
Accessibility: Fully accessible

On the northern periphery of Chinatown, at Spadina and College, husband-and-wife team Andre Au and Joanna Hon have opened a beguiling spot for thoughtful cocktails and small plates. “We classify ourselves as ‘Toronto Chinese,’” says Au. The menu is rooted in East Asia (mainly Chinese, with some Korean and Japanese influence), but South Asian, French and Italian ingredients are married in dishes like beef heart ragu tteokbokki and miso-buttered toast topped with foie gras. “We’re creating a unique cuisine that reflects the city as a whole: Toronto is very multicultural, so we’re mixing it all together—like the city itself.”

From left to right: Andre Au (owner), Hermawan Lay (executive chef), Godfrey Liu (front of house manager), Joanna Hon (co-founder), Daniel Desir (bar manager)
The food

When it comes to the dining format, Au says he was inspired by tapas and dim sum. “Tapas and dim sum aren’t so different,” says Au. “The latter is just in the afternoon with tea.” Hon and Au also hope that the small-plate format will encourage those less familiar with East Asian staples (like bitter melon, for example) to try things outside of their comfort zones. “Century eggs are something we grew up eating every week in Hong Kong, but many Canadians haven’t tried them because the colour—a black-brown exterior with a greenish-black yolk—can be off-putting,” he says. “But, by presenting these ingredients in a less intimidating way, we’re hoping to foster appreciation for them.”

The century egg—a duck egg that’s been preserved in a mixture of clay, ash, salt, quicklime and rice hulls for several weeks—is served on silken tofu and topped with house-made chili oil, fried garlic, crispy tofu bits, soy sauce and scallions. $15

 

For his take on Korean corn dogs, chef Hermawan Lay swapped out the usual hot dog for Taiwanese sausage. The first three bites are gooey cheese, and the bottom half is the thick-ground pork sausage ($7). Pottery artist Felicia Semiawan, who also happens to be chef Lay’s wife, made the dishes used for the corn dog and tartare

 

This beef tartare is made from hand-diced eye of round tossed in gochujang and sesame. Chopped haam choy (pickled mustard greens), diced Asian pear, a quail yolk and a side of house-made taro chips complete the dish. $21

 

After luxuriating in a char siu marinade overnight, this pork belly gets a 30-minute roast at 400°F before the heat’s turned down for a three-hour braise. It’s plated on a bed of star anise–infused béchamel and topped with a piquant pineapple salsa. $21

 

Fluffy white bread is given a healthy smear of white miso paste butter and topped with lobes of seared foie gras and singed orange segments. $35

 

This Italian-Korean mashup is a rib-sticking marriage of rice cakes (tteokbokki) and beef heart ragu. The sauce, which gets cooked down for 90 minutes, is topped with parmesan, cured egg yolk and itokiri togarashi (a shredded red chili pepper). $19
The drinks

Pastry wunderkind turned alcohol alchemist Farzam Fallah is the brain behind Bitter Melon’s cocktail list. One of the reasons Au and Hon tapped Fallah to oversee their bar program was for his knowledge of East Asian spirits and flavours: after trading in his chef whites in 2016, he moved to Hong Hong for a stint. Here, he’s built a cocktail list that moves from fruity, fresh and floral to bolder and booze-forward, plus a couple of zero-proof options. Some of his cocktails are riffs on the classics; others are pure Fallah-fied fantasy.

The wine selection, meanwhile, is succinct: just two reds, two whites and a single sparkling. That’s because imported spirits, not grapes, are the focus here. There are eight baijius (a sorghum-derived Chinese liquor) on offer, including one that’s been aged for 50 years, as well as a number of rare Japanese whiskies, including Hibiki Harmony. Sochu, scotch, rye and bourbon round out the mix.

The Yangge Dynasty is built around jasmine rice–washed Collective Arts gin. A splash of rose water, fresh cucumber and some sparkling coconut water build on the herbal base ($18.88). “It’s like a gin and soda with added character,” says Au, who decided to price all the drinks auspiciously: they all end in 88, a lucky number in Chinese

 

Lee Ho Fook (which translates to “fortune for your mouth”) combines El Gobernador pisco, baijiu, lychee, lime leaf and Japanese yogurt soda. $19.88

 

Inspired by the Ramos Gin Fizz—a notoriously demanding cocktail that takes around 12 minutes to make properly—the Lay Zi Fizz is far from lazy. This tropical interpretation combines white rum, jackfruit, orange blossom, lemon and seltzer. Coconut yuzu foam forms the crown. $20.88

 

The Accountant is Bitter Melon’s take on a dirty martini, which swaps out vermouth for Dewanosato Junmai sake. And, instead of one focal spirit, there’s two: a mix of Roku gin and shochu. Salinity comes from ponzu, and rather than an olive, the drink is garnished with a Chinese tea quail egg. $20.88

 

Empereur Jaune is a blend of Courvoisier VS, blended scotch whisky, lemon, turmeric, ginger and cardamom. $20.88
The space

Walking into Bitter Melon feels like stepping into a narrow Hong Kong side street, complete with neon signs. Instead of stalls with street vendors, an open kitchen at the back of the narrow space is animated with chefs buzzing back and forth. Solid Design Creative (Paradise Theatre, Bar Koukla, Maison Selby, DaiLo) added decorative nods to Chinese culture, including lanterns, abacus beads integrated into the booth millwork, and custom artwork, like a backlit brass cut-out of a dragon and a phoenix (a recreation of what was on Au and Hon’s wedding invitations). “I’m super obsessed with ancient Chinese elements,” says Hon, who loves how the bar mimics an apothecary cabinet. “It’s perfect since many of the cocktails infuse herbs and spices.”

Although Bitter Melon doesn’t have a patio, they’ve created an indoor garden beneath a skylight