It was really a bizarre jump to go from the upscale Sassafraz to Kensington's Kings Cafe, a vegetarian restaurant making it's home in one of the larger space along Kensington Avenue's southern half. While I have a huge love, near obsession with vegetarian, vegan and other healthy foods, this is not a positive review. Sadly, Kings Cafe makes very boring Chinese style food with their only real adventurous note being the addition of some known vegetarian meat substitutes like seitan and tempeh.
Read on, brave follower!
It would be so, so unfair to say that everything at Kings Cafe was bad- it wasn't There were some real winners on the menu, and for me these dumplings take the prize. Unlike other steamed buns which are mainly dough and come very light on filling, this was the other way around. It was full of diced veggies, and tasted especially of mushroom. The three small buns arrived on a steamer. I think we left them sitting a few minutes too long, since trying to grab them with our chopsticks, and then our hands, made the tender skin fall apart.
Here is where my opinion of Kings starts to go awry. A couple bites in and Adelle and I, as we had ordered the same soup, began to doubt the wisdom of our selection. There are plenty of excellent and interesting textures which can be created in a soup. The salty water that makes a good miso, the heavy body of a chowder, and all ranges in between from smooth butternut to hearty minestrone. From hot and sour soup, I expect something in the minestrone spectrum: not very dense, but with chunks of interesting food. This hot and sour soup had the texture of cheap plum sauce- the thick, oily kind. The flavour was not strong, or spicy. It really wasn't good, and neither of us finished even half. Though the mushrooms, tofu, and especially bean curd all tasted good by themselves, the terribly viscous 'liquid' they were embalmed in was a complete turn off.
Perhaps my advice when venturing into this glowingly fresh-looking restaurant is to stick to the apps and dim-sum. This tiny wonton soup which came with the large bento box (below) was actually very nice, and available from the starters menu. It was salty, watery in the right way, and the won tons were pleasantly chewy. Simple and good. The soy fritters were one of the more interesting items ordered. Basically they were small nuggets of rolled soy. I don't think they were battered, but were deep fried plain. Crisp on the outside and with a mushroom like texture on the inside, they had very little spice, but a flavour hard to describe. It came with steamed cut carrots and green beans, but from the texture, and the shape of the carrots, I suspect they came from frozen.
Hungry for REAL food, Lexie ventured out to order one of the combos, which comes with a handful of side dishes, including that little won ton soup. Here we have purple rice (a blend of different varieties of rice to make a purple colour), seasonal salad (which was actually fruit salad with cucumbers), spring roll, and soy nuggets. No, we did not change the presentation so that the spring roll and nuggets looked like that! That's how they arrived. They were also what you'd expect in terms of flavor. The spring roll was crisp fried and full of soft, vinegary veggies, and the nuggets, other that their distinct soy-flavour and slightly too squidgy texture, were like good old McDonald's chicken nugs. The fried bean curd was both tasty and original. Again we were presented with something with a fried texture, but the bean curd at Kings Cafe is really delicious. With teriyaki sauce on it, and a crunchy nori bottom, it had a lot of flavour going for it too. The nori base was a particular hit with me, since the seaweed kept the teriyaki from being overpowering.
If you're from Toronto, I hope you've explored Chinatown. You should know that it's dotted with a score of little bakeries, where the buns, breads and cakes are cheap and plentiful! To cleanse our palate after that greasy soup, we wandered over to the closest reliable hole in the wall baker and loaded up with sesame red bean buns, almond cookies, and whole wheat bread.
Did I also mention that I bought a peanut crunch mochi ball at the bakery? I did! It came with the tip of a latex glove stuck to the bottom. Discovered AFTER taking a nice big bite out if it, thanks!
I really, really want not to a stereotype of bad Chinese food, but alas. Not today, Chinatown. Not today.