Table Talk: Joanne Kates reviews Hawker Bar
I have an unfortunate thing with chicken wings. I wish I didn’t. Wouldn’t it be great if I couldn’t get enough kale … or rapini … or Brussels sprouts?
Good luck with that. As for the chicken wings problem, dining at Hawker Bar was an opportunity for major backsliding. Some wings are all crunch, no savour. Sometimes the reverse is true. But these wings do both: they’re marinated for a day in soy sauce, ketjap manis (sweet soy sauce), sesame oil, Shaoxing wine, and a rub of Szechuan peppercorn and Chinese five-spice powder. Which gets the complex flavour in deep. They fry them crisp … and I’m a goner … eight, nine, 10 wings.
The spicing is Singaporean, as is all else at Hawker Bar, an attempt to Ossington-ize Singaporean street food, as seen through the lens of Alec Martin, a chef from Melbourne, Australia, where Singaporean street food is all the rage. The latest addition to the Ossington strip, Hawker Bar is an eensy-weensy charmer that doesn’t take reservations (what else is new?).
It’s almost unbearably cute, thanks to fat stools made of upright logs, tables both hightops and regular, a lovely wooden bar, and servers who are all sweet, no attitude.
Chef Martin struggled to source Singaporean ingredients in Toronto and has risen to the challenge. The son-in-law eggs are served with prik nam pla — this is a variation of the Thai dish the mother-in-law would make for the groom the day after the wedding. The eggs are soft-boiled, quick-cooled, shelled and then deep-fried until they’re crispy on the outside but still runny inside. They sit on a thick pool of house-made cooked-down chili jam and are to be eaten in one bite to obviate egg yolk on chins. Fab small hit.
My other favourite Hawker dish is chili salt tofu, cubes of silken tofu fast-fried and dusted with house-made chili salt, which packs the wallop that gives tofu the wake-up it needs. Squeeze fresh lime on top, dip in chili jam BBQ sauce, try not to sneeze — and smile big. Cut it with cucumber salad, thin shaved cucumber dressed with thin shards of baby ginger, dangerous red chilis and pickled red onion in rice wine vinaigrette with fried sticky rice for crunch.
Mains are slightly less dazzling but great value: $24 buys a perfectly fried fresh sea bream big enough for two, decorated with sliced banana blossoms, cubed dragon fruit, marinated red onions and cherry tomatoes, all on sweet lime and ginger sauce. Four people would be happy adding an order of chicken laksa, Singaporean yellow curry enriched with coconut milk. It’s soupy and very spicy, full of soft rice noodles and topped with a son-in-law egg and crispy noodles that demand to be eaten before they go mushy.
Epicures may wish to skip dessert: Singaporean sno-cone is food for eight-year-olds, and the banana fritters are (a) greasy and (b) far too strange looking, thanks to their coating of bright green pandan plant.
Save for dessert, Hawker Bar is a summer must-visit. Stroll lower Ossington and it’s hot town, summer in the city.
Hawker Bar's chicken wings, above, and chili salt tofu, below
Hawker Bar, 164 Ossington Avenue, $45 Dinner for two
Joanne Kates trained at the Ecole Cordon Bleu de Cuisine in Paris. She has written articles for numerous publications, including the New York Times, Maclean’s and Chatelaine, and she was the Globe and Mail's restaurant critic for 38 years.