A few weeks ago I met up with my friend Lynsey for some gossip and some South/Southeast Asian street food from Rickshaw Bar on Queen Street West.
We met up at 5:30pm only to realize the restaurant did not open until 6:00pm. I understand why the restaurant opens at 6 o’clock, but you would think they would try to capture the immediate after-work-crowd? I guess there isn’t an after-work-crowd in that area? We loitered outside on Queen Street for half an hour, people and dog watching, and leaning on hipster bikes. We were seated quickly and there was only one other couple who made the same mistake as us. The restaurant filled very quickly, and by about 7 o’clock it was full.
The restaurant is very simple: smooth concrete floors, simple wooden tables, exposed brick walls with traces of graffiti and tagging, a long dark bar running the length of the restaurant and industrial copper pipe lighting. We were seated at the first table of the long row of banquette seating and were ready to enjoy some food. Like many restaurants in Toronto, Rickshaw is a sharing/tapas style restaurant so we were able to sample across the menu.
I have to mention our server. Or servers with an “s” I should say. When we were first seated, Server #1 seemed great. He was engaging, excited about the food and made suggestions on the menu. He was understanding about my allergies and checked with the kitchen regarding preparation and accommodation of this. Ok, great. A great server can be the difference in feeling comfortable, safe and happy while dining out with an allergy, especially when you have a nut allergy at an Asian restaurant. We tried to order various beef-related dishes (Ismaili beef curry, khao shay, Makai curry) but everything with beef is prepared with cashews and therefore is off-limits to me. Server #1 didn’t make this connection that all the beef is prepared together and that this might be an issue. He had to return to the kitchen several times to confirm if beef dishes contained nuts. We tried to order the khao shay which he said might contain nuts and he would check with the kitchen. He asked for a substitute order in case the khao shay contained nuts so we requested the lamb mishkaki. SERVER #1 NEVER CAME BACK. Not to tell us that yes, in fact because the khao shay is prepared with all the other beef and it will have nuts or that because of this, he had put in our alternate order. FINE.
Then Server #2 came to our table and asked if we would like anything else. We said Server #1 was checking on something for us and that we had another order coming. Server #2 offered to check on that for us. Server #2 actually came back and said no, your replacement order was never put in with the kitchen and no, you unfortunately you cannot order anything with beef because all beef is prepared together. From that point on, Server #2 was our server. I don’t know how or why this switch occurred but I am glad it did. He took care of us for the rest of our meal. He brought us the lamb mishkaki and our desserts. I left a larger tip then I normally would because we were abandoned and then saved by Server #2.
Back to the food. To start we had the Scallop Puri.
The Scallop Puri with scallop tartare, spiced puffed rice, cucumber, chili oil and lime.
This is a beautiful and simple dish. I love the bowl it is served on with its low sides and leaf-like shape, transporting you to a South-East Asian jungle, as if you are enjoying street food, roadside on the edge of a dark and mysterious jungle on a giant tropical leaf from the trees contained in the jungle. The puffs of rice are crunchy, light and with a slightly nuttiness from the rice. The scallop tartare is almost non-existent. You get a bite of fishiness, none of the texture or butteriness of scallops and then it is overwhelmed by spicy citrusy notes. I did enjoy this but it will not satisfy scallop or tartare cravings your may have.
Then we had the Pakora Fritters.
The Pakora Fritters with potato, zucchini, onion, apple and green chutney.
These were delicious. They were very similar in texture and taste to the squash fritters at Sabai Sabai. The vegetables were grated into thick strands that were then battered and fried. The coating was crispy, light and not greasy. It didn’t overwhelm the subtle flavours of the potato and zucchini. The natural flavours of the vegetables were able to compliment the batter, and offer the first tastes of summer. The chutney was fruity and played up the bright flavours of the zucchini.
Next we had the Spiced Coconut Chicken.
The Spiced Coconut Chicken with green peas, curry leaves and cilantro.
This was my favourite dish of the night. The broth was creamy and thick from the coconut milk and had a touch of sweetness to it. The sweetness mellowed the spiciness of the dish, which allowed the spices to gradually build and the flavor to slowly intensify. Hidden in the luscious broth were tender pieces of chicken that fell part so easily when grazed by a fork or spoon. Ordering rice on the side allows the broth and chicken come together as more of a cohesive whole on a bed of rice, making it more of an entrée rather than a soup. Don’t order the rice if you want to eat as much as possible and not fill up on plain carbs.
And lastly we had the Lamb mishkaki.
The Lamb Mishkaki with grilled lamb, tamarind, mint chimichurri and naan.
Lamb is one of those meats that I have a difficult relationship with. No, it has nothing to do with ethical reasons (I am a horrible person, I know. Did I mention I love veal?) it is the flavor. I don’t mind the taste, I just always forget what it tastes like. Whenever I have the first bite of something with lamb I think “oh right, that is what lamb tastes like.” But that did not happen this time. This time I LOVED the lamb.
It was tender and soft, and had a lighter flavor to it. The lamb is marinated in yogurt which gives it a bit of sweetness and adds to the tenderness. The chimichurri added a floral brightness to the lamb and the naan was a crispy yet doughy plate for it all to sit on. If you like lamb, you definitely need to order this. And if you are like me and you are not sure if you like lamb, you will like it like this.
Although we were absolutely stuffed, we of course ordered dessert. Lynsey had the crispy milk pastry and I had the coconut panna cotta.
Crispy milk pastry with milk, cardamom, almonds and rose petals and the coconut panna cotta with coconut, pineapple and lime.
The panna cotta was light, milky with hints of tropical fruit. It was absolutely delicious and easily rivals any traditional Italian panna cotta I’ve eaten. Although I was absolutely stuffed this did not push me over the edge.
Our meal at Rickshaw was delicious and I would definitely return. The food is accessible but still different from both your every day cuisine and traditional South East Asian food. It expands your horizon to what street food can be and transport you to the crowded street markets of Asia with every bite.