The entrance—at the back of a coffee shop, through a shadowy corridor of metal mesh walls—takes some sleuthing. The house specialty is the Thai miracle combo of sour, briny and charred. If you’re looking for pad Thai, keep looking. Days after my first visit, I was still daydreaming about a snack of shrimp, peanuts and a fish sauce, tamarind and galangal dressing, wrapped in a fresh betel leaf. How did they pack so much mighty flavour into something so tiny? Same question about the fresh-shucked oysters funked up with fish sauce and flecks of garlic chips, about a dip of pork and shrimp paste that beats the best bolognese, and especially about the vertiginous smoky depths of a red curry with P.E.I. scallops. And once I got past my omigod-omigod-omigod panic sweats, I had to admit the octopus with banana blossoms, chunks of pomelo and an unholy dose of bird’s-eye chili was absolutely terrific, too.
I went back to Favorites five times in the next two months, including for a ridiculously extravagant, 10-course New Year’s Eve dinner that ended with a jam jar of black rice pudding and passion fruit. Simple though it was, it managed to be the most delicious part of the night, and seemed to put everything—Russian hypersonic missiles, Saved by the Bell reboots, life—in perspective. Yes, we had a lot to drink. And I might be a little obsessed with Favorites, but it’s justified. It’s run by three of the city’s most innovative restaurateurs: Monte Wan of the Thai street food spots Khao San Road and Nana, and Jesse Fader and Jonathan Poon of the casually perfectionist hangouts Bar Fancy, Superpoint and Paris Paris. By hiring the chef Haan Palcu-Chang to run Favorites, they’ve levelled up.
Palcu-Chang is new to Toronto restaurants, even though he’s from here. He’s 35 and grew up in the Beaches, son of a Romanian mother and a Taiwanese father. After chef school, he cooked in progressively more high-flying kitchens in Vancouver and Europe, including the Thai upstarts Maenam and Kiin Kiin. For a few minutes, he returned to Toronto to work for Grant van Gameren at Enoteca Sociale, and to run a series of pop-ups called Farang Ki Nok (a Thai phrase for “cheapskate foreigner,” an ironic jab at himself). He spent a year as a Singapore-based restaurant consultant, using every spare weekend for eating tours of Thailand. One day, out of the blue, he received a text message from Poon asking if he’d be interested in coming home.
He told me he lives for the long restaurant nights and the pleasure of physical exhaustion. But he’s also one of our most cerebral chefs (before he found his calling, he was about to enter into a graduate program in history), taught Thai cooking at George Brown and talks about his Favorites menu as his manifesto to challenge received notions about Thai food. He’s a disciple of the seasons, prioritizing what’s freshest and grown nearby. What’s freaking a few unsuspecting people out (see the social media jabber about Favorites) is how he magnifies flavours. He’ll spend hours perfecting that seafood curry, slowly reducing coconut cream, frying shrimp paste until it caramelizes, fine-tuning it with palm sugar and tamarind and a glug of fish sauce. A spoonful is guaranteed sensory overload.
By the way, he has nothing against pad Thai. They even serve it here, but strictly on Mondays, and it’s off-menu. Perversely, there are only 10 orders available. The night I lucked out, he made it with soft-shell crab. It was pad Thai heaven.
Favorites, 141 Ossington Ave., myfavethai.com