200 Bathurst Street
On one wall of the minimalistic room is a portrait, blown up, of a Vietnamese family. Five pouting black and white children standing erect like planks of wood in the foreground, a man and a woman seated stiffly behind them. “That’s me, to the left,” gushes Sydney, tittering behind one hand. It has been less than a year since she opened Lalot north of Queen on Bathurst, a few doors beyond the dilapidated Oak Steam bathhouse with its “Men Only” scrawled across the window. Despite her eternal optimism, even Sydney acknowledges a dinner hitting the forty dollar mark (without alcohol) is a risky venture for a neighbourhood replete with goths, crack dealers and the odd homeless man circulating the tables for change.
Sydney exudes the artsiness of Queen West West in a La Coste turtle neck and a pair of sleek black-framed glasses, babbling on excitedly about Madonna’s English Roses, the excellent décor at Bymark (“yet all those suits, bleh, nobody interesting to schmooze with”), the produce at the new Pusateris up in Yorkville, how the owner of the über-trendy Drake hotel occasionally pops by, gesticulating madly, “oh you guys should definitely come to the opening party next Friday”.
Yet though tempting to pass her off as a floozy, at best a charismatic host, beneath her affability is a keenness, an undercurrent of perfectionism, a remnant of the black and white child staring stoically from the photograph. And such is Lalot. On the surface—the ubiquitous drone of St. Germain in the background, the clean lines of tables and couches trailing both walls, a small but perfectly arranged terrace in the back, Reidel wine glasses, a lovely orange hue infusing the whole place. The atmosphere is nothing more remarkable than your run-of-the-mill King Street West establishment, but there’s a precision and sophistication to the cooking which elevates Lalot to one of Toronto’s most exciting new dining experiences.
For starters try the spring rolls with lobster and shrimp, perfectly crisp and not too oily with a great tangy dipping sauce. And the tamarind soup big enough for two, flooding our bodies with a delicious warmth as we watch the snow falling beyond the window. The salt-n-peppa calamari – magnificent – but the house specialty appetizer, a beetle leaf wrapped around a thin slice of beef flank, well, it’s not as good as we expected it to be. Still, 3 out of 4 is a pretty good tally and we wait with excitement for the main dishes to arrive (also a little trepidation too, as Asian restaurants with such excellent starters often have nowhere to go but down).
But Lalot defies the formula. A stupendous Drunken Chicken, a gourmet variant of General Tao’s, not too original but how often have you craved this dish with succulent pieces of white meat, not like the regurgitated dreck that’s served at Mr. Pong’s down the street? A duck breast with peanut sauce on a mound of bok-choy that is adequate but not spectacular. A side of steamed eggplant that literally melts in your mouth with a hint of garlic and spice. The piece-de-resistance, the dish that will keep us coming back for more, is the caramelized catfish in a clay pot. Who knew this whiskered bottom-feeder, a fish that is notoriously unpleasant to the palate, could be reduced to nuggets of tenderness swimming in a rich sauce of fresh red chilli peppers? Sydney giggles as we scrape the caramelized onions from the bottom of the pot, emitting little Pavlovian sighs of pleasure.
No room for dessert but Sydney, being Sydney, graciously brings over a few scoops of green tea and red bean ice cream anyway.