CUISINE: Viet-Thai ADDRESS:1249 Huron Street DATE: September 20, 2013
My current number one restaurant in London is a Vietnamese restaurant, Tamarine. Located on the corner of Talbot and Dundas, it is a beautiful, elegant restaurant with luxe furnishings, sophisticated lighting and I would argue the nicest and most welcoming restauranteur in London, Long. The food there is at once homey and elegant, and is the kind of beautiful Vietnamese cuisine that Ian’s mom once described as “like Asian, but FRESHER”.
This is the restaurant I recommend first to any visiting relative, any friend going downtown, and to any student trying to impress a date (NOTE: this question HAS been asked of me—more than once!!)
As you can tell from the above photo, Demhai Dang is NOT that place.
It IS, however, serving possibly the best Vietnamese food in London.
This week’s blog dinner was attended by one of the motliest crews yet.
Our lady Becca was there, of course. She’s not officially married to Ian and I yet, but she might as well be…
But in a blog first, we enjoyed the appearance of two of my FAVOURITE young co-stars, Kenny (currently in rehearsals with me in a production of the Sound of Music in Ingersoll) and Izzi (my co-star in last year’s Passionfool production of The Crucible).
Izzi and Kenny helped me thrift for our upcoming school play. They also visited me in the modern day, time-travelling from the year 1901.
Two of the tiniest hipsters in London, this couple is going to be in my Grade 11 Drama class next semester. They share a love of vintage shopping and being adorable quirksters. They were also both going to see Metamorphoses at the Palace that night, the destination of Becca and I after this Friday night dinner.
And since any dinner can only be improved by the inclusion of a dry British wit, Izzi’s dad Richard joined us in our third restaurant-in-a-plaza sojourn of the year (the previous two, #12 CHINESE BBQ and #16 DANCING GREEK, earned an aggregate score of 3.75 out of 5).
Demhai Dang is on Huron Street, a part of the city that we’ve been heading to for a lot of these meals, although I suppose it makes sense. Because this is a blog focused on restaurants we HAVENT been to, a lot of them are located in the part of the city that we don’t live in. But after visiting a few of these places, I’m starting to feel resentful of all of the delicious local options for people that live near Highbury. If we want to roll out of our house to eat somewhere within five minutes, we have the choices of a bunch of chain restaurants (Shoeless Joes should never be considered a dining option) and fast food places (the whole neighbourhood was gentrified and revitalized when that KFC/Taco Bell combo finally opened). Ian has resorted to bringing home biryani from Toronto rather than choosing from our neighbourhood dining options.
Demhai Deng’s interior would never be described as “luxe”. If I could put a finger on it, the decor would have to be dubbed “Asian Nail Salon Chic”. The walls are covered with floor-to-ceiling mirrors, always appealing when you are person horrified by the facial expressions you make on a daily basis; and who doesn’t want to see themselves from four different angles when they’ve managed to jam that chopstickful of rice noodles into their gaping maw?
The wall-mounted tv added much-needed ambience by showing the CNN Headline News station, and the musical staff depicted on the sign was validated by the presence of a karaoke machine spotted near the kitchen. But the most exquisite element of any “Asian Nail Salon Chic” decor is always the utterly confounding Mounted Posters. While the photos in my nail salon has the standard “roses against a piano keyboard" motif, Demhai Deng had posters of the aspirational variety. One touted "THE BENEFITS OF A HIGHER EDUCATION" with pictures of a bunch of douchey cars. But here’s the thing:
1) No one with a masters degree drives an Iroc.
2) Sunsets are free.
The point is, as I said about the interior of Boss Hog’s Smokin’ Chophouse (ugh, still a horrible name), this is not the place you take your in-laws to talk proposals.
Demhai Dang has a huge menu: there were over 50 specialty drinks alone! But as is the style with many Asian restaurants, the menu had lots of numbers, but no descriptions. Menu item #73 was so confusing and repellent that Kenny felt compelled to order it:
Lucky for him, they were out of penny wort…
Because there were also no pictures, we had a hard time imagining how big the portions would be. From what I saw, there was no single item over NINE DOLLARS, and many of them were under six, so I wasn’t sure if the food was “small plates style” or not. Keeping an eye on the time because of the play we were going to see, we grabbed the ordering pad and sort of went into it blind.
We also decided to go with an exotic drink each, which was cheap and fun!
Kenny and Izzi got Lime icy things, which looked beautiful, and made them look even more like a vintage photo from the 50s.
Ian got a honeydew melon (Note: ewwww) drink, which literally just tasted like honeydew melon and ice.
If you like that kind of thing…
Becca got a lychee icy, which she described as “a full can of lychees, the syrup in said can, and ice”.
Obviously, that would be heaven in a glass.
And, because Kenny didn’t end up with his Penny Wort first choice, I ended up with the weirdest drink of the night: a “THREE BEAN ICE”, served with, as described, three beans, and the dominant flavour of coconut cream.
(The beans only really provided texture. I realize it looks like creamed corn in a milkshake glass.)
Our food was exceptionally quick: beautiful plates and bowls of wonderful-smelling stuff starting arriving at our table less than ten minutes after we submitted our order.
Kenny and Izzi ordered variations on the same thing: pork and rice with veggies. They arrived quickly and with plenty of accoutrements: sauces, bean sprouts,limes, hot peppers and fresh mint were placed centrally to be added to any dish.
I first noticed Kenny’s finicky eating when our musical theatre class travelled to Sheridan College last year. He basically subsisted on plain hamburgers during the two-day trip. The boy hates condiments.
So it was a testament to the quality of the food that Kenny not only commented on the sweetness of the pickled carrots on the side of his meal, but he poured the bowl of chili fish sauce over his meat and rice.
He’s trying to be a more courageous eater, which probably explains why he had this expression a little later in the meal.
At first, Becca had whispered to Ian that she was afraid that she couldn’t eat ANYTHING that the restaurant offered: the menu options were definitely a little pork-and-beef heavy, a no-go in Becca’s weird world of eating. But she ended up selecting a beautiful, simple seafood soup, and she and Ian both had these little gems, a favourite shareable of the table. While the term “minced and molded shrimp” may give you pause, trust that this classic Vietnamese dish, served and cooked on a piece of sugar cane, was absolutely delicious.
Richard, Becca and I all ordered soup as our entrees: Richard’s was a simple broth loaded with beef, veggies and vermicelli.
Richard described this meal as “….good. Very good.” Note: Richard said, more than once, that he wasn’t a food critic. But it does LOOK very good, if that’s any indication.
Becca’s soup was absolutely full of seafood, which she said was nicely cooked. She describe the broth as “very simple, but perfect”.
Ian and I ordered spring rolls to start, which were large, crispy and super fresh, if not the most appealingly presented ones we’ve seen.
But unlike that over-priced, overrated Bungalow, these spring rolls were less than five dollars, with more than double the springrolly goodness.
My soup was the Beef Hue soup, recommended by a friend of Jess’ as “the best in London”. And after one bite of the giant bowl (I ordered the “small” for $7), I had to agree. It was spicy, the beef was tender, and the broth had a depth of flavour that was both simple and sophisticated.
Always put fresh cilantro on steam bowl of soup in front of me. YES.
But to me, the real stunner meal of the evening had to go to Ian, who eats Vietnamese a lot more often than I do, and who scanned the menu quickly and knew exactly what he wanted: a vermicelli bowl.
Shrimp on a stick, glazed pork, salad and a spring roll topped a huge serving of vermicelli, served with a fish sauce you pour on. This giant meal was only $9 and has made me dream of Demhai Dang in the days since we ate there.
As we munched happily on our meals, Kenny continued to eye the plate of condiments that sat in the middle of the table. He leaned over to me.
KENNY: You should eat one of those peppers.
Now, this statement, in any court of law, would not constitute a binding contract of any kind. And yet I knew, in that moment, that I would be eating that pepper.
This is the same mindset that saw me live without nose hair for several weeks in high school, after someone suggested I should snort a line of buffalo wing sauce.
(It is amazing that I have an advanced degree, isn’t it? That I am allowed to teach the future?)
What I didn’t know was that the boy who won’t add ketchup to a hamburger would join me in that quest.
This is a good idea, right?
We looked at each other, counted down, and I took a small bite to test the heat. Kenny took a small bite, immediately followed by a big one that engulfed the rest of his pepper.
And in the moments after, the back of my head started sweating. And Kenny looked like this:
Kenny has clearly made an error in judgment.
(Note the mirrors and poster of exotic drinks in the background.)
Everyone had a good laugh, and only the mildest amount of panic ensued. But then, I noticed that Kenny was no longer at the table.
MEGAN: Izzi, where’s Kenny?
IZZI: In the bathroom, I think…
MEGAN: Hmmm. Is he OK?
(Kenny returns to the table, sweaty and shaking)
KENNY: Well, that was the worst mistake of my LIFE. (pause; thinking) If that’s true, I guess I have a pretty good life.
MEGAN: You didn’t throw up, did you?
MEGAN: Well, what were you doing in there all this time?
KENNY: Mostly crying and clawing at my tongue.
So, Kenny returned, drank his entire glass of water, and was still sweating an uncomfortable amount. He insisted he didn’t need milk or anything, but when the waiter returned, I decided to see if they had any in the back. And that’s when the waiter shared with us a great piece of advice:
IF YOU EAT SOMETHING SPICY, LET SUGAR DISSOLVE ON YOUR TONGUE, AND THEN DRINK WATER TO WASH IT AWAY. IT ABSORBS THE CAPSAICIN OIL AND IT RINSES AWAY.
Kenny tried it immediately, and reported with relief that it had worked.
So, of course, I had to try it for myself.
By eating the rest of my pepper.
And thank god, it does actually work. But that doesn’t make me less of an idiot.
Yes, Demhai Deng is not fancy, but it is unbelievably delicious. And for less than $20 per person, we got a huge meal, a great night, a funny memory, and a piece of advice that will come in handy for the rest of my life.