Joanne Kates reviews much-hyped collaboration between Susur Lee and Drake at their King Street hot spot, Fring’s
Plus Hemant Bhagwani is back at the top of his game with Indian Street Food Co.
FRING’S 455 King St. W. $80 Dinner for two
Fring. What is a fring? The server says it’s a sauce made basically of ketchup and mayo. Which only slightly blows my mind. I’m still trying to figure out why one of the best chefs in the world (yes, the world!) opens a restaurant called Fring’s in collaboration with a rapper. Susur Lee’s name is on the menu as chef and owner; his partner is Drake, and it’s tough to get a reservation at Fring’s. Go figure. I’m still scratching my head. Fring’s is gorgeous, warehouse chic at its hyper-coolest. There are old brick walls punctuated by curlicued iron artworks.… A big slab of illuminated marble. Perforated metalwork screens in pretty patterns. A fab sculpture with coloured lights on the ceiling above the maître d’ station at the entrance where very busy and clearly very important young women don’t meet your eyes. Mongolian lambswool on the backs of the club chairs down the middle of the dining room. The clever aesthetic of Susur’s wife Brenda Bent is the imprint here, at its most entertaining.
The menu is a hybrid of bar food and fusion. Okay, we’re at King and Spadina. Makes sense. Although I mourn for Susur’s haute cuisine, if this new MO is fantastic, I’ll make do. But c’mon. Crispy chicken sliders? The menu says they’re with melted cheddar cheese and remoulade; the server says the sauce is mostly fring — mayo and ketchup — and the result is the same fried chicken sammy that’s being overused all over downtown. It’s the quiche of the post-millennium.
Then there’s the Asian — spicy tuna tartare with tempura crisps and corn sesame chips. The tuna is nice if you like a $24 app. We can’t find any tempura crisps, and the chips are good. I like Loblaws’ corn chips too. Not so different.
This from the chef who’s famed in culinary circles for his iron-fisted control of both his kitchen and the front of his house. Whose bar was not high, but stratospheric. Who was begged by financiers with deep pockets to open restos in New York and Washington. Jetted to Singapore first class to cook for billionaires. And was worth it!
Susur Lee’s name is on Fring’s, but clearly the maestro isn’t in the kitchen.
One evening we wait an hour for our main courses and both arrive lukewarm. The beurre blanc on the $32 prawns has thinned out, and the so-called French potato cake seems like a combo of leftover potatoes and overcooked peas. The $38 lamb chops are gristly. The J.K. fries we ordered (clearly a homage to Jamie Kennedy, another great Toronto chef no longer in the kitchen) never arrive. Nobody offers us dessert.
I understand if Susur Lee, at sixty-ish, having been standing on his feet sweating in kitchens since he was 15, no longer wants to do it. I respect that choice. I also understand about branding and how tempting it must be to put your name on the project — and the menu — and reap some benefit from all those years of hard work. But I can’t help feeling sad, as a fan of Susur’s superb artistry, that it’s come to this. I knew all was not well with Amaya on Bayview. My previously most beloved Indian resto had slipped. First there was the adulteration of the cooking, the little slips like overcooking the lamb chops and too much cream with the prawns. Then they started selling Groupons and the service went to hell. You could just tell the heart had gone out of the place. It didn’t help that owner Hemant Bhagwani had expanded at a ferocious rate — up to eight Amayas at one point. Talk about diluting the brand.
But oh joy, Mr. Bhagwani came to his senses. He closed some of his Amaya branches and gave the others to someone else to run, deciding to focus 100 per cent on the Bayview Amaya, which he knew had lost its vision. This man is very smart. He closed Amaya, did a breezy reno to make the room more casual and fun, and reopened it as Indian Street Food Co.
Which is now a dream come true. Lovers of Indian food will be over the moon here. They start you with a splendid little lassi scented with saffron, pistachio and almond. The app that puts a big smile on my taste buds is chaat: Crispy puffed rice with pomegranate, potato, tamarind chutney, chickpeas and yogurt — sweet, hot, fabulous.
Most of Mr. Bhagwani’s new items are inspired by the street food of his homeland. I personally was too chicken to eat street food in India, but I ate in people’s homes and did notice that the interest level of the spicing of the food seemed to increase in inverse proportion to the pretension of the surroundings. So bring on the street food!
Street-inspired spicy chicken tikka is the most exciting tasting tikka I’ve ever tasted, and serving it on buttery flaky paratha with mint chutney is inspired. Tamil kothu roti (from Sri Lanka) is equally jazzy — chopped paratha with raw cabbage, chilies, exotic sprouts, onions, coriander and lemon. Supercharged savour! Charcoal grilled prawns come in a sweet little tiffin box with crunchy noodles and mango slaw. Arvi tuk is a splendour of jumped up flavours: A base of crunchy fried taro topped with tamarind chutney, kachumber (Indian chopped salad), chili spiced yogurt and thin slices of watermelon radish. Super yummy!
Best of all: Mr. Bhagwani has done away with tipping. He adds a 12 per cent admin fee to every bill and splits that among his staff — from dishwasher to maitre d’ — equally! Which creates a pretty delicious atmosphere when the Visa machine hits your table and there’s no tip button to push.
Clockwise from left: the gorgeous dining room at Fring’s, ISFC’s charcoal grilled prawns and their arvi tuk