CUISINE: Modern Vietnamese ADDRESS: 118 Dundas Street DATE: July 7, 2014
NOTE: This special edition review completely breaks the rules of the blog. Tamarine is not a new restaurant to Ian and I: in fact, it’s our FAVOURITE restaurant.
When Ian and I started this project, it was a selfish journey: let’s eat a bunch of new good food and have an excuse to go out for dinner!
But the blog, because of all of you who have read and supported and talked to me and given me feedback, and corrected my typos (thanks Mama and Ian!), has become something different: it’s become a resource, a place to look for restaurants that you might want to check out, take your family to, have a birthday meal at, whatever.
So, to that end, I make, and remake every few months, my top 10 list, so that people have a go-to resource of the restaurants I think they should go to.
I also did it so they’ll stop asking me all the damnnnn timeeee.
(Just kidding. Ask me all you want. I love feeling IMPORTANT.)
OLD CHURCH FRIEND: Where should we go for Valentines?
ME: Check the Top 10.
THEATRE PAL: Where should I take my parents when they come from out of town?
ME: Check the Top 10.
AWKWARD STUDENT: I’m 16, and want to take a human girl on a date. Help me, Teacher Lady! ME: Oh, bless.
Tamarine interior. It looks even better when you’re not dining at 5pm.
But it occurred to me that my Number One restaurant, my very favourite, doesn’t have a full review. Tamarine, the restaurant that has sat at the top of the list since the very beginning, the the place that Ian and I are so familiar with, we refer to it as Tammers.
IAN: What’s blog dinner this week?
MEGAN: Ummmmm…Fireside Grill.
IAN: Ew. Let’s just go to Tammers!
MEGAN: So, my family wants to go to Shoeless Joe’s for birthdays this Sunday.
IAN: Ew. Why can’t we go somewhere good? Like Tammers.
IAN: Where do you want to—
We’re so infatuated with this restaurant, we have cutesy nicknames for it.
So, I present to you a recounting of probably our 100th visit to this restaurant. I would love to hear in the comments how many of my friends and family have been to Tamarine with me at some point over the last three years.
SPOILER ALERT: It’s EVERYONE.
Cameron and Bryce admiring my MEIKONG MARTINI at Tamarine, 2011.
Sarah shovelling Tamarine’s house special, Pad Thai, into her GAPING MAW, 2012.
Andrew and I at Tamarine, pre-Brickenden Awards, 2013. I dressed as Cookie Monster for the Occayzh.
My beautiful friend Erika, who moved to NY, texted me while we were at Tammers. I told her where we were, and she immediately had a food memory from our favourite place:
OUR TAMARINE MEET-CUTE:
Tammers was a friend of a friend: our close friends Sarah and Bryce were in a pretty hot-and-heavy love affair with Tamarine.
We met on a warm June night: June 4, 2011. I remember the date exactly, because Bryce and I had just finished two intense days of auditions for the show we were producing at the Palace, WHITE CHRISTMAS. We were heading into callbacks on Sunday, after seeing 105 amazing performers. We were exhausted and emotional.
And let me tell you, that spicy beef hue soup was REJUVENATING. The food at Tamarine is known to be LIFE-CHANGING.
In fact, I was sitting in Tamarine when my now-friend Becca emailed me to say she had missed the auditions; is there any way she could come before the callbacks on Sunday?
And she got the lead. See? Tamarine is LIFE-CHANGING.
We have gone to Tamarine for many momentous occasions since then: birthdays, opening nights, award ceremonies. We were even there when Sarah and Bryce told us they were moving away from us, to Toronto. Ian and I expressed how excited we were for their new opportunities, and then I headed to Tamarine’s beautifully-appointed bathroom. Sarah followed me in.
ME: Noooooooooooooo. Go away!!
ME: I came in here so I could cry BY. MYSELF.
And, as it turns out, Tamarine has very soft Kleenexes.
Tamarine is an off-shoot of Quynh Nhi, the long-standing Vietnamese restaurant on Wharncliffe, and is located across the street from Budweiser Gardens, next to Kingsmills. So it’s always facscinating to me how many people haven’t heard of it.
I have told so many people about this restaurant, I feel like I’m witnessing to people about it.
MEGAN: I’m sorry ma’am. Do you have a moment to talk to me about heaven? And by heaven, I mean lemongrass chicken?
I’m a Tamarine missionary: less white shirt/backpack/Joseph Smith, more skirt/purse/Green Papaya Salad.
Unlike me, Ian grew up eating a lot of Asian food, mostly Chinese (as we all know, the Rumney family bastardized ethnic food of choice was TACOS). Christmas Eve, Friday night dinners were all full of chicken balls and fried rice. When Ian and I got married, I brought the jalepenos, Ian brought the goopy red sauce that sits in your fridge until you move.
So it was Ian’s family that first took me out for Vietnamese food. I have always remembered Ian’s mom selling it to us.
LINDA: it’s like Chinese food, but FRESH!
And that is so true of the menu at Tamarine. Its take on modern Vietnamese food has Asian flavors that you are familiar with, like ginger and soy and lychees and papaya, but at Tamarine it’s just much…fresher.
It’s bright, it’s modern, and prepared with care.
The other difference with Tamarine and your average Vietnamese restaurant is that Tamarine is absolutely beautiful inside. It has the vibe of an elegant New York hotspot that I would realistically never get into.
It’s all black and marble and cool blue lighting; it’s minimalistic, not simplistic, and very modern. It’s absolutely the right place for taking your parents out, or for your birthday, for a fancy night, a more casual Monday, for whatever. Beyond that the service is exquisite. Long, the owner of Tamarine, has got to be the nicest restauranteur in London. Ian, the person who would never set foot in a bed and breakfast because “we might have to talk to people,” will make a special stop at the Quynh Nhi booth at any food festival to see if Long is there.
Last year, I was almost an hour late meeting some friends at Tamarine. I had been late to start, had jumped in a cab with no cash, realized I didn’t have my debit card because I switched purses, had to have the cab driver drive me BACK to my house, only to discover that my formal dress had been caught in the door, and had been dragged through the January slush for 20 minutes.
So, basically, a typical day in the life of Megan.
So when I got to Tammers, I was ALL FLUSTERY-FLOO. Before I even sat down, I started regaling my friends with the story. Long quietly walked over, asked if there was anything he could do, and without a word, I handed him my bulky winter coat. My friends stared at me, agog.
ME: It’s OK. Long’s my friend.
The thing is, Long is wonderful, and his servers are also great. They describe the dishes with passion and exquisite detail, and you know they really admired the food being prepared, as opposed to toeing the company line. And over the last three years, Ian and I have figured out that everything is amazing. I have eaten almost three-quarters of the dishes on the menu on their extensive menu. Some of my favorites include that spicy beef hue soup that I have the very first night I eat there, but I also really love their clay pots: rice veggies and meat, cooked in coconut milk and other seasonings, and baked in a clay pot in the oven. It is one of the heartiest and most heart warming foods that I’ve eaten.
Reflecting on the food legacy of Long and his parents, I am filled with longing that I could have been born to parents from somewhere else, mostly for the food. Think about the perks: you get to visit your home country: Long went with his family to Vietnam for a month last year! Your, like, nonna or whatever you call her makes you cookies with honey and stuff in them. You have all these relatives that know all your business…and hijinks ensue…
I haven’t really thought it all out, but it seems great.
So last Monday, we decided to treat our eight guests to the wonder that is Tamarine.
We know how goooood this place isssssss….
Our guest stars for dinner were three of my costars from the misbegotten-but-beloved production of the Sound of Music: Kristin, Adrienne, and Vita, the last two who also co-starred with me in the #36 KING OF PIGS blog. I'm Adriene! I'm Kristin! And we're…adorable!
And I’m Vita. And I know TOO MUCH…
Also joining us were my student, costar, and co-pepper-eater Kenny, and his girlfriend Izzi, both of who visited #19 DEMHAI DANG with us back in September, with Izzi’s dad Richard. But in her first HIGHLY ANTICIPATED appearance on the blog, was Izzi’s mom, NORMAAAAAAA.
JESS: I’m here too!
Norma and I have anticipated her appearance on the blog for a long time, but both of our busy schedules haven’t allowed it to happen. But when Kenny’s mom made an appearance in #41, LONDON GRILL, Norma stepped up her campaign to make the blog happen.
Norma’s visit to the AZ RESTO TOUR is highly-anticipated for a couple of reasons.
- Norma is definitely a foodie. When she travels, she goes to cool restaurants She goes to celebrity chef places, like me, and knows who they are. She once posted pictures on Facebook of special Asian mayonnaise that she bought in Toronto, because she was so excited about it. The thing that was repellent was that the mayo comes in a bag. Now, I know people who are not from Canada think milk in bags is gross: try to describe our milk to an American and they somehow get this picture in their head that it comes in, like, an a grocery bag, loosely sloshing around in the grocery store. But I’m here to declare that mayonnaise in a bag is the grossest thing I’ve ever seen. That being said, she served it to me on a homemade Okonomiyaki (Asian seafood pizza), and it was kind of amazing. But they should rethink their packaging.
- Norma is famous both at school with Izzi’s friends, and in the theatre community for being hilarious and sarcastic, but she is also known and deeply loved by my close friend Rob, who had her as a professor at Western. See, Norma is a pop music professor, and is also known as one of the most hilariously sardonic and opinionated women in history, which is everything we like.
ROB: Her voice is two octaves lower than mine. I want to be her when I grow up.
Norma originally grew up in Boston and has a very dry sense of humour that takes a little getting used to.
NORMA: What’s this? You bought a house?
JESS: Yep! I just bought my own house. I just moved in this week!
NORMA: We obviously pay teachers too much if someone your age can buy their own HOUSE.
(An hour later, Norma told a deflated Jess she was kidding.)
Norma is a liberal, feminist, hyper-literate, hyper-intelligent university professor of pop music. AKA the woman we all want to be when we grow up.
But because of her music prowess, I live in fear of catching Norma’s reprisal. She loves David Bowie, but hates Queen. Ian really likes music, so he and Norma were talking about the recent concerts he’d been to, including Queens of the Stone Age, Jello Biafra, and St. Vincent.
NORMA: I wanted to go to St. Vincent.
IAN: She was amazing.
MEGAN: You say that about every concert! (to Norma) Everytime he comes home, I ask him how the show was, and he says AMAZING.
IAN: It was, THOUGHHHH…
But when it came up that Ian and I were going to the Lionel Richie concert at the end of the month, I didn’t even bother to turn my head. I knew what the look would be.
Here’s the first thing you need to know about Tamarine: the drink menu is ON POINT.
My favourite: the Mei Kong Martini, made with lychee, blue curaçao and crack, as far as I know.
Another delicious concoction.
Ian’s choice: Tiger beer.
Adriene was telling a pretty amusing* story about her first day at a new job and a Post-It note entitled “DOCUMENTING THE SMELL”, when Norma looked around, nonplussed.
NORMA: Where’s all the blog magic?
KENNY: There’s magic?
NORMA: All these dinners always seems so witty. I don’t hear a lot of witty.
Clearly our conversation needed to be streamlined in order to get our banter up to Norma standards. I think Norma is hilarious, but Kenny’s always vaguely nervous around her. As the mother of Kenny’s girlfriend, it’s Norma’s job to torture Kenny: a job that she takes extremely seriously.
When Norma came to see THE MUSIC MAN at the school, I ran into her in the lobby. Norma had just read Kenny’s bio, and was chuckling as she walked up to me.
NORMA: Oh, Kenny. I just read his bio. He only thanked Izzi so that everyone would know he was straight.
MEGAN: Oh, I don’t think he was worried about that. He was thanking his inspirations. He also thanked Meryl Streep! NORMA: Exactly.
But at blog dinner, it quickly became apparent that Kenny was the straight man. The straight man for Norma’s dry humour.
Norma peruses the menu.
NORMA: (to the menu) Yes, but what sense is most caressed?
NORMA: It says HERE (points) that the food was designed to caress your senses. Which one is most caressed?
MEGAN: I can already see that you are setting up Norma for these jokes.
KENNY: Haha. Ya! I set them up and she knocks them out of the park.
MEGAN: Yeah. You’re like the straight man.
NORMA: (incredulously) He isssss??
Meanwhile, Izzi impressed me with her preparedness for this blog dinner.
IZZI: Last time, I feel like I didn’t know how to describe anything that we were eating. So this time, I googled a bunch of words to describe food.
MEGAN: Such as?
MEGAN: Good start.
In a lesser restaurant, our pretty waitress with the noticeably high voice, would be just a server. But our waitress was personable, professional and knowledgeable, taking the time to go through the menu, pointing out both personal favourites and describing the most popular choices on the menu.
Ian and I tried to temper our excitement, but everything that garnered a mention was met with scary levels of enthusiasm.
JESS: Well, I know this is boring, but I think I’m gonna get the Pad Thai.
MEGAN: It’s SOOOOOO GOOOD THOUGGGGGHHHH.
KENNY: I told Izzi I’m going to get the same thing as her just to bug her.
MEGAN: What’s she getting?
IZZI: Barbecue vermicelli bowl.
IAN: That’s AMAZING!!!! One of my favourites.
VITA: Spring rolls?
MEGAN: Yes. Oh god, yes!
We’re like proud parents.
You know that thinggggg, where you’ve seen a movie and somebody else hasn’t? And instead of being able to enjoy it, you just keep looking over the other person at the good parts, waiting for them to have the same reaction you did? And then looking at them expectantly for an immediate response?
MEGAN: (as someone lifts the fork to their mouth) Riiiiiiight????
That’s the exact experience of going to your favourite restaurant for blog dinner.
Both Ian and Norma ordered that green papaya salad as an appetizer: one of my favorite things on the menu. An unripened papaya is julienned, dressed with tamarind vinaigrette and tiny strips of shredded spicy beef to make a salad that is fresh, bold and refreshing.
I asked Izzi what she thought of the salad, as she was eager to use the words that she had googled.
MEGAN: Ok, Izzi. Describe that salad!
IZZI: It’s zesty!
NORMA: It’s not zesty.
NORMA: Not rich.
IZZI: And light. And that’s all the words I googled.
NORMA: Do you want more?
IZZI: No. It’s too spicy.
Some of the other ladies and Kenny had gotten the world famous spring rolls. I looked down at the crispy shells and was immediately jealous that I hadn’t gotten to indulge in some of those as well.
Simmering with envy, I asked them how they were.
KRISTIN: So good. I really like it with the lettuce and mint around it.
KENNY: There’s the perfect ratio of chicken to….whatever else is in a spring rolls.
Soon enough, our entrees were there, and conversation quieted to a “blog magic” level.
Kenny’s cashew chicken, served in a spicy sesame sauce.
Kenny yearns to have the blog presence that my friend and former student Andrew possesses. Andrew, he of the extensive vocabulary and the unique perspective on life, always has a metaphor to describe his food, so Kenny decided to start doing the blog in the lens of blog regular Andrew.
KENNY: (trying…hard) When you start on the vegetables and meat…it’s as though you are walking on the southern region of East Asia…
MEGAN: Southern region? Of East Asia?
KENNY: Yeah….with a designer straw hat placed upon your head.
KENNY: Once you venture onto the mountain of rice that sits upon the fiery mound of your plate, it’s as though the rainshower has poured upon your sweaty brow.
KENNY: The rice was the volcano that had erupted years ago, but the destruction is still there.
NORMA: Pfft. Destruction. That sounds like you.
KENNY: This sauce is the right amount of spicy. It’s like…tongue.
MEGAN: But, did you like it?
Ian got one of his regular menu items, the caramelized salmon, served with tomatoes and cilantro.
NORMA: Just like the bands that you sees.
IAN: This is one of my top five FAVOURITE meals
Jess got the classic, the dish that the waitress said was “80% of what comes out of the kitchen”, the BEST IN LONDON Pad Thai.
JESS: It’s just the best. It tastes exactly how you hope Pad Thai would, and has a heat that sneaks up on you. Yum.
OK, I’ll admit: Adriene’s food didn’t look AMAZING.
It looks a little like something that a cat barfed up.
When I asked her to describe it, Adriene looked at her plate in disbelief.
ADRIENE: It’s incredible. It’s sweet and spicy and the squid tastes like butter. I want carve out a little spot, and camp in there. I want to shrink myself down…. it would take a long time to eat….
She was out of her mind with delight, and was offering up samples of her buttery squid to all.
KRISTIN: I do not like that texture at all. I immediately hated it.
Norma, Kristin and I all got the clay pots, with caramelized pork or chicken over jasmine rice. It’s served with fish sauce to be poured over the entire dish.
I absolutely love this dish. Unlike most things I order at restaurants, this dish isn’t spicy. It’s not bold-flavoured. It’s SUBTLE. It’s just a bunch of stuff in a bowl, expertly prepared.
KRISTIN: Alright, this was wonderful. I like that the veggies were big.
This dish is so delicious, even Norma was sincere.
NORMA: Ok, it really is good. It has a depth of taste. Texture. Right that down. It’s spicy and sweet, but not in a cloying way.
Vita and Izzi ordered the bbq vermicelli rice bowl with shrimp.
VITA: (breathes in deeply) Divine. Salty, sweet. Divine.
Izzi had given up on her google words, and finally started talking more like herself.
IZZI: YAYAYA. It made me this (giant smile) happy. It’s making my nose run! It’s delicious.
We had a delicious, luxurious, 2-and-a-half hour dinner at Tamarine. This place is so good it make my sarcastic nature hide away. Like Norma, I can’t even be sardonic when talking about Tamarine. I have to gush. It’s just the best restaurant in London.