I haven’t been to Vietnam yet, although I am in the midst of arranging a trip there. I’ve been watching Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations”, and I am intrigued. It has been a while since I’ve had Vietnamese food, but I remember it fondly. It is a cuisine that contains a brilliant balance of aromatics, heat, sweetness, and sourness. It is all about the yin and yang, the sweet and salty, the cool and the warm, the fresh and the fermented. The dishes are fresh and fragrant.
Pinky’s Ca Phe opened about a year and a half ago at 53 Clinton in a tiny unmarked house just north of College Street. They don’t take reservations, they have no phone, and there are no signs outside. It is exactly what I picture a restaurant in Hanoi or Saigon to be like. Entering this house was like entering a time warp. It was dimly lit, intimate, kitschy, a little warn and edgy. Neon signs and strings of red lanterns, and shiny gold metallic fringe for decoration. It resembles what I imagine an old Vietnamese bar to look like, a funky hole in the wall, playing a cool soundtrack courtesy of the bartender and GM Ihn. The seats are worn swivel stools or low wooden tables. Outback where they barbecue, you will find some additional seats in the garden. This place is not for everyone who likes their modern comforts, but I found the junk shop vibe to be cool.
We made sure to get there early so we could snag some seats, before the crowds descended.
The chef/proprietor is Leemo Han. He owns a couple of other restaurants, Hanmoto, and Oddseoul. I hear a few more spots are in the works.
The menu is small but all the dishes are well executed. It is more like a Vietnam snack bar. But there was more than enough to make a large meal, and other options that I want to come back and try. The menu had a fusion of South Asian flavours, and you can understand why when you look at a map of Vietnam. The country has China to the North, Laos and Cambodia, and nearby Thailand to the west, and the South China Sea to the east. There was also a huge French influence, as French missionaries began arriving in the 18th century and stayed until 1954.
My favourite dish of the evening was the tiger’s milk ceviche, that blended pieces of yellowfin tuna, scallops, and surf clams, Brazilian nuts, with coconut milk, Thom Yum paste, chilies, lime, avocado, and cilantro. This was served with crispy taro chips to help you scoop up this fragrant, addictive dish. Next time I’m not sharing and I’m ordering my own.
Another highlight is the marrow beef, inspired by a Vietnam Cambodia butter beef. The thinly sliced beef is topped over herbs, and is sliced sushi style, served in an actual marrow bone, with fried garlic and shallots with a side of sweet soy dressing. We also tried a fresh, crisp mango/papaya salad served with squid. The soy fly rice (not a typo), was another winner, containing deep fried soft shell crab, salmon roe, tobiko, egg, broccoli stems, lettuce and noun cham. The lemongrass chicken banh mi, served on a French baguette, with laughing cow cheese, chicken liver pate, chili jam, sriracha, cucumber, red onions, pickled carrots and daikon radish was good, but next time I will try the pho beef dip, as that seemed to be the sandwich everyone was ordering, a shaved beef brisket, with asiago, bean sprouts, Thai basil, hoisin, cilantro and sriracha. The eggplant in a clay pot, was my least favourite dish, although it was still very interesting, a mix of Japanese eggplant, sweet soy reduction, pickled chilies and cilantro. You better love cilantro if you eat here as almost every dish contains this herb. I’ll be back to try the sticky chicken legs, the mushroom vermicelli and the grilled short ribs.
There were two desserts offered, a tres-leche, Vietnamese style, with allspice, cardamom, cinnamon etc. or a grilled purple yam, served with coconut ice cream, lime and Vietnamese condiments. I found it to be interesting, but perhaps would not to be to everyone’s liking.
There are three beers on tap as well as can and bottle offerings. I tried a cocktail called The Pink Lady, made with gin, raspberry, mint, lemon and egg yolk. Ihn makes a STRONG drink. There are a number of craft cocktails, foco loco’s, made with rum and fruit juices, or hua-hua tea, a potent Vietnamese blend with 5 types of liquor. Of course, they make all the classics too.
I say be adventurous, and you will be treated to a super cool, bohemian, urban vibe. This hidden treasure in the midst of Little Italy serves exciting food with unique, bold, healthy, colorful, and distinctive flavours, with a harmony and variety of textures.
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