[REVIEW] Sabai Sabai Toronto Restaurant Review
It's been two long weeks of vacationing, translated into two long weeks of restaurant dining x 2 meals each day. After being in what seems like an American-portion-food-coma, coming home to my own kitchen always feels a bit like a revelation. What to cook first? What exciting tool to pull out? Which knife is going to get the first slice? Well, it's always nice to dream of a healthy home cooked meal (even if you're the one doing the cooking), but the reality is, coming home from a two-week vacation means I haven't done any grocery shopping or meal planning. And what I did find on this unfortunate occasion upon our homecoming (hello there, past-date cheese, milk, yogurt, and cabbage) was definitely not the be had. Alas, another meal out. But this one promised more excitement than what I had grown accustomed to because a) the Toronto dining scene runs circles around Palm Beach's and I was particularly excited about our restaurant choice and b) we had dinner guests! Not that starring across the table at my beloved every night for the past 2 weeks was losing its charm but it's always nice to go out with friends, especially when it's for tapas.
Sabai Sabai is the new (opened mid-December) Thai restaurant, run by husband-wife Thai-food guru's, Nuit and Jeff Regular. These were the folks to open (and later leave) the ever popular Sukhothai, and Khao San Road. Rather than the traditional portions and dishes found in other Toronto Thai establishments (including the aforementioned two), SS instead serves up Northern Thai tapas. As an uninhibited eater with a vast palate, I am a huge fan of tapas style dining, especially when I have more than one dining companion with me. I mean, just think of all those times you've made the server stand beside you as you change your mind a million times on whether you want the chicken or the beef. This way, you can have them both (and maybe a few more options, depending on the sizes). Furthermore, tapas are meant to be shared and savoured one succulent morsel at a time. To me, this communal style embodies what I love so much about food. Sharing it with the people I love!
Much like the playful approach to the menu, the room itself at SS is hip, casual and comfortable. Despite being a totally full house of mainly 20-30 year olds, the noise level was completely manageable. Busy enough to catch the vibe, but low enough to speak across our table without any strain.
Service was pleasant, friendly and informative. We were greeted with a smile so bright it could replace a few of the restaurant's lighting fixtures, and were shown to our table near the back of the house. I appreciated that our server was quick to bring water glasses and share plates, and check up on us periodically to see how everything was. He also didn't rush us out or immediately deliver the bill once our food was all finished. My only concern was that the meal itself was too quick. I know this eat-and-run style may be the approach of the restaurant, but I would have appreciated if our server maybe fired our items off in stages throughout the evening. The result was that we were in, ordered (and we lingered on this a touch) and finished our meal all within an hour, and that everything just got piled onto our table at once before I could hardly decipher what it was. Bare with me folks. As a result of this hasty execution, my tasting notes are superficial, at best.
Cocktail list at SS is limited and basic as only a Thai Mojito (available by glass or pitcher) and the Thai Long Island Iced Tea were offered. We did a pitcher of the former, and 3 tall glasses of the latter. The mojito had a pleasant hum of lemongrass, but I found it needed another kick of lime to drive the flavour home. The Iced Tea was maybe a little too sweet, despite the alcohol content, and not really a cocktail I personally would go for again.
Food wise, we pretty much conquered the majority of the menu. Our server recommended 2 - 2 1/2 dishes per person, which turned out to be a perfect amount. We all actually left satisfied, but definitely not "full". That potentially could have been mediated by a dessert menu but alas, SS doesn't have one, so we planned for a little liquid dessert (aka. drinks at Cold Tea Bar) after. So between the 4 of us, this is what we had:
Crispy Shrimp Chips with Sweet and Savoury Tamarind Dip
These were very fresh, crunchy shrimp chips with just enough fish flavour that it wasn't at all obnoxious or offensive. While I loved the flavour of the dip, I found it a touch too thick and cloying for easily dipping the delicate chips in without over-doing it.
Green Papaya Salad
A perfectly balanced salad. It was fiery, sweet, sour and herbacious, with a wicked fresh crunch factor. Definitely a must order to balance out all of the meat dishes.
Khao Soi, Egg Noodles in Coconut Curry Gravy with Beef
This was the milder of the two curries but it certainly packed an aromatic flavour punch. It tasted to me a bit of warm cinnamon and baking spices, which paired nicely with the super tender beef and the crisps that garnished the top. It was a little hard to share, however, since the beef pieces were so massive and so few (I think there were only two big chunks), and the noodles were too long to avoid a splatter. But mess or no mess, a really solid dish.
Braised Chicken Green Curry
With a completely different flavour profile, I loved this curry as well. It was much spicier than the former, with a more pronounced element of sweetness, and was served with lots of julienne vegetables in addition to the meat. Again, we had the issue of large hunks of chicken, but even if you ended up without a substantial piece, the sauce itself on rice was satisfying.
Crispy Fried Fish with Special Sweet and Tangy Tamarind Reduction
One of our favourite dishes of the night, my only regret was that we only ordered one! The fish was impossibly moist, coated in a super light and crunchy batter, and fried without any hint of undesirable grease. I was worried the tamarind reduction would be overwhelming, but instead I got a perfectly balanced burst of flavour that complemented the fish.
Red-Flame Morning Glory Stir Fry
Intensely garlicy and savoury, this was a nice vegetarian dish to break up some of the sweeter flavours in the meal.
Grilled Pork Salad with Fresh Herbs and Roasted Ground Rice
Another favourite of mine. The pork was served cold, but had a beautifully balanced heat level, a really supple texture on the inside and a glorious crunchy exterior.
Grilled Chicken Wings, Sabai Sabai House Marinade
Meh, probably my least favourite of the bunch. The wings were magnificently juicy, but didn't have any distinguishing flavour or crispiness on the outside.
Grilled Northern Thai Pork Skewer with Nam Chim Dip
A simple dish, but a well prepared one. The pork was very moist and seasoned well, and paired well with the sweet and tangy dip.
So for 1 Mojito pitcher, 3 Long Island Iced Teas, 9 tapas, 1 order of white rice, and 1 order of sticky rice, the bill came to $165 including tax and tip. Incredibly inexpensive for a night out for four with delicious and fun food. No, nothing was ground breaking, but it was all executed well, seasoned nicely and agreeable. If Sabai Sabai was around in my Ryerson days, I'm not sure I would have got much studying done with all of the good eats at arms reach, but I sure as hell would have enjoyed it! A great addition to the downtown core, and my now number one option for a post-shopping-I-spent-too-much-and-walked-too-much meal (hey, maybe their hasty pace will become a blessing!)