If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, superstar chef Susur Lee must be blushing. Side Door, which just opened in the spot last held by Foundation, has much in common with Lee’s eponymous and wildly popular Asian fusion bistro on King Street in Toronto. With its contemporary twist on traditional dishes, relaxed lounge-style seating, and convivial sharing plates concept, the brand new Side Door in the heart of the Byward Market may ring a bell with fans of Lee. It’s no coincidence. Both Executive Chef Matt Charmichael and Chef Jonathan Korecki (Carmichael’s sous-chef at Restaurant E18hteen for the past four years) worked under the Hong Kong-born restaurateur and have now poured their experience and love of East-meets-West flavours into this city’s first bona-fide contemporary Asian-fusion bistro.
With the owners of Restaurant E18hteen and Social behind it, it’s no surprise that the atmosphere is an impressive mix of trendy, chic, and sophisticated. It helps to start with the stunning bones that are characteristic of these heritage buildings — sprawling, sexy, storied spaces with craggy stone walls.
As part of the “revamping” of the space since its Foundation days, the glassed-in atrium area at the front of the restaurant has literally been raised up. This helps to rid the space of its basement feel. With its minimalist decor, fresh white oak tabletops, and sleek black leather bench seating, the table-cloth-free zone manages to achieve a casual, cozy feel. Don’t be surprised to be seated at a table next to strangers here, just as you would at a family-style Chinese restaurant. Similarly, the menu encourages diners to order several dishes for sharing. Vegetables, rice, seafood, and meat dishes — everything is ordered “a la carte,” with lots of options of smaller and larger plates and lighter and heavier fare, all of it ideal for nibbling the night away. “It’s the way most foodies prefer to eat anyway,” says Carmichael. “It’s the food I love to eat.”
Carmichael just returned from a month-long trip to Australia and Thailand, a culinary journey that has inspired several items on the menu. At a cooking class in Bangkok, he discovered the secrets to making authentic, deeply layered curries such as Panaeng. “It takes us an hour and a half with a mortar and pestle to pulverize the fresh herbs and dried spices,” he explains. The resulting aromatic paste is mixed with coconut milk and served over large chunks of meltingly tender braised short ribs. The dish is topped with crushed roasted peanuts and thinly sliced lime leaf. A bowl of jasmine rice and sugar snap peas with miso and parmesan can be ordered separately. There’s a menu of fresh frisky cocktails, featuring ingredients like green tea and yuzu, as well a selection of sake in addition to the international wine list. King Pilsner, an Ontario craft beer and Chef’s choice as an excellent accompaniment to spicy food, is on tap.
Chef Korecki is particularly excited about the tacos on the menu, which are made using a special machine that flattens and rolls the corn tortilla dough out onto a hot griddle. Warm tacos are topped with a tomatillo chutney called chow chow, not unlike salsa verde, and layered up with an assortment of ingredients including authentic Chinese barbecue pork, Bajan crispy fish, and soy ginger shrimp. Chef is still awaiting the arrival of the mini donut-making machine (“straight from the CNE,” he says) so he can start serving up plates of chocolate-dipped or cinnamon-dusted darlings soon.
The Side Door Contemporary Kitchen & Bar, 18b York St., 613-562-9331. www.sidedoorrestaurant.com
Open Monday to Saturday from 5 p.m.