Issan Der – Mediocre Thai with an identity crisis
|Location||2961 Dundas Street West|
Eating Thai food is almost always a win for me—it’s the perfect symphony of rich flavours, vibrant colours and bold spices. But I don’t just eat anywhere (because this b*itch has standards, you know). Restaurants that have made the cut include Pai, Sabai Sabai and Khao San Road. Why? They have honed the complex mélange of ingredients, such as Thai Holy basil, nam pla (fish sauce), lemongrass, tamarind, coconut milk and galangal. They turn their noses up at sugary pre-made sauces that our Canadian taste buds have come to know. They’ve revived the art of authentic Thai food. Dining at any of these restaurants—from food to service to décor—makes me feel like I am back in Thailand, ready to hop in a tuk tuk and whiz off into the traffic-filled streets.
I was intrigued when I heard about Isaan Der, Toronto’s newest Thai hotspot. The bustling, family-run Junction joint specializes in north-eastern Thai cuisine and the chef, Chatsuda, cooks from the heart. Being a new spot and having a “no reservations” policy, I was expecting a line-up of Thai-obsessed foodies when I grabbed dinner there mid-week. I arrived early and was greeted by a friendly server who led me to a table at the back. The walls were painted a rich purple. Thai phrases decorated one of the walls. But the space’s main focal point was the kitschy, wall-mounted assortment of straw baskets. There were several tables for smaller parties as well as larger communal high tops beneath the small lights that hung from the ceiling.
While I waited for my guest to arrive, I sipped on a watered-down mojito with some bruised Thai Holy basil that was masked underneath a pile of ice. Not impressed.
After greeting my guest, we perused the menu. My immediate response: “this is not authentically north-eastern Thai.” I was expecting a more polished menu with stronger Laotian influences. Instead, it was a mishmash of Thai favourites (Pad Thai and Tom Yum soup) as well as other common Asian dishes (cashew chicken). There were, however, some staple dishes native to the northeast, like som tam (green papaya salad), laab (meat salad) and sticky rice.
With the help of our overly attentive server, we chose three entrées to share from different sections of the menu—a grilled dish, a noddle dish and a curry. First up was the pla tod (deep fried basa fish) and corn salad served on a banana leaf in a woven basket. It must have been fresh from the deep fryer because it was si chaud and the portion was generous—two large fillets. Although the fish was fresh and flaky, there were limited notes of turmeric, garlic and lemongrass. The sweet corn salad was slightly upgraded canned corn. Pardon? The dipping sauce, on the other hand, gave the dish that extra kick it needed and we asked for more.
Our pad si ew, a stir fry with strong Chinese influences, arrived next. While I was hoping to see more green and orange from the Chinese broccoli and carrots, it was a heap of brown noodles (a tasty heap, I must admit) and a generous portion of chewy beef.
The Panang curry, characterized by its creamy orange sauce, fiery heat and Malaysian influences, came highly recommended—and we were not disappointed. I practically had to stop my guest from licking the bowl clean. Chef Chatsuda nailed the flavours, but her chicken was too thickly sliced for a curry and the portion needed to be more generous. Servez-nous plus, s’il vous plaît! Against a meagre puddle of sauce, the chicken and veggies emerged like an island, whereas the island should have been submerged.
When it came to presentation and plating, there was an identity crisis. Thai food is not pretentious. It’s rustic. It aims to please with its combination of sweet and sour flavours. The vibrant orange Panang curry, which I thoroughly enjoyed (and, quite frankly, wanted more of) was plated in a shallow white bowl that would be commonplace in a chain restaurant—not a casual Thai spot. When I compare this to my other Thai standouts in the city, such as Pai, curry is appropriately served in a coconut shell.
With any new restaurant, kinks inevitably need to be iron out. Isaan Der will eventually get there. Overall, the service was friendly, quick and pleasant—especially in light of a lively takeout business. Dishes were hot and flavourful, but I would have liked to see a more refined menu of north-eastern dishes coupled with a consistent dining experience that really transports my taste buds to Thailand. Everything was well priced and we left feeling very full. C’était vraiment délicieux, mais j’ai déjà assez mangé. If you happen to be in the Junction and feel like Thai or want some takeout, you won’t be disappointed. But, when I’m craving Thai, I’d rather go back to Pai.
Mme M. xoxo
La rubrique de Madame Marie
1 étoile – Run. Before you get the runs.
2 étoiles – Mediocre, but nothing you couldn’t make at home.
3 étoiles – C’est bon, with some standout qualities.
4 étoiles – Many memorable qualities and excellent execution. Compliments to the chef.
5 étoiles – Formidable! Michelin Star quality. Book a reservation immediately.