- 794 Dundas Street West, Toronto, Ontario
- Family-style plates from $7 to $18.
- Jamaican-Chinese, Canadiana
- Vegetarian Friendly?
- Lame cocktails, good beers and a very short wine list.
- Dundas West goes to the beach with an iPod full of old-school hip hop, turned up extremely loud. Kind but occasionally befuddled service.
- Anything off the specials board. Or go with four friends and order the entire menu for $99.
We were deep into a plate of Patois' jerk chicken chow mein when the glorious possibilities of Jamaican-Chinese cooking first became clear to me. The dish was Chinese on the bottom – it was crunchy, starchy, salty and satisfying in the way that only deep-fried chow mein noodles are. But the top was an edible island dance party: a shimmering skein of warm-spice succulence and jerk chicken hunks mixed with oyster sauce and vegetables, smouldering with Scotch bonnet heat.
As the noodles relaxed and swelled into the sauce, the tastes and textures of two distinct dishes from different worlds combined into a delicious new entity.
"Jamaican and Chinese are SO perfect together!" a friend of mine marvelled, barely pausing as he plowed through a second helping.
The restaurant's "dirty fried rice," a mix of hard-seared pork and beef, Chinese sausage, wok-sazzled rice and Cajun spices, drew a more emphatic response from another dinner mate. "Every time I'm drunk for the rest of my life I'm going to want a kilogram of that!" he said.
Patois is the first restaurant from the chef Craig Wong, a 32-year-old former sous at Luma and The Granite Club, who spent a year on the line at Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée in France. His parents emigrated here from Jamaica in the 1970s; the restaurant, Mr. Wong has said, takes its inspiration from the hybrid cuisine that Jamaica's ethnic-Chinese population developed over generations, as well as from his travels, and the foods he learned to love around Scarborough as a kid.
It's a deeply Toronto restaurant, in other words. Mr. Wong does his jerk chicken with Jamaican spice, but on a Portuguese-style rotisserie. (It's good, though I prefer the pimento wood-smoked original.)
Yet Patois also owes an enormous debt of inspiration to the wave of young, hip and pointedly irreverent new-Asian kitchens that have remade dining across North America in the last 10 years. Like New York's influential Mission Chinese Food, Fatty Crab and Momofuku restaurants, L.A.'s Kogi BBQ, and Oddseoul here in Toronto (to name just a few of them), the cooking and atmosphere at Patois are as much a celebration of American fast food culture and hip-hop fashion as of more traditional Asian foodways.
There is nothing Asian or Jamaican (or, for that matter, original) about the restaurant's very good fried chicken, apart from the sweet Sriracha sauce it's served with. And the little room's tone and décor borrow heavily from Patois's peers.
As at Oddseoul, the 65-seat space is panelled with galvanized steel roofing, and the music was old-school hip hop the first night I ate there, played at brain-fragging volume.
In place of Mission Chinese's enormous dragon on the ceiling, Patois hangs inflatable PVC pool toys.
And the chef indulges in a fair bit of stunt cooking – in the sort of dishes that have become known in the last few years as high-end stoner food. I'd put his tasty but derivative "pierogi-style kimchi potstickers" into that category. And the "Jamaican patty double down" – a bacon, cheese and Sriracha sandwich that uses flaky, lard-based beef pastries as the bread. (To be clear: that sandwich is a very enjoyable abomination.)
Maybe that's what it takes to draw a city's fickle diners to a room with a specialty – Jamaican-Chinese-Canadian cooking – that isn't widely known.
If it takes his double-stacked beef burger, I'm okay with that. Mr. Wong uses sweet, butter-based Chinese pineapple buns for the bread, and slathers oyster sauce mayonnaise alongside the tomato and iceberg lettuce. The fried cauliflower is battered like fried chicken, so it's sweet, crunchy and salty, but creamy-centered from time in boiling oil.
The chef's cooking shines most, though, when he allows himself to abandon the hot-in-2012 trend sheets. His best work the two nights I ate there appeared on Patois' specials board.
He's been running a take on Chinese chili crab lately: rock crabs blanched and then shallow fried in their shells, like the original, but with jerk paste in place of the usual chili sauce. They were sweet and sticky – I would have taken a bib, if anybody offered one; the only way to eat this sort of food is to go feral with it – and nicely fiery when we had them, and the meat prized out of the shells in buttery hunks.
Even better was Mr. Wong's "Death Row picanha:" Chinese-style beef and broccoli, but made with an extraordinary cut of beef. Picanha is common in Brazil, but almost never found in North America; Mr. Wong found the cut down Dundas West at Nosso Talho, the Portuguese butcher. It's tender and hugely flavoured, but covered in a thick cap of fat that bastes the meat as it sears.
Mr. Wong served it sizzling in a pan, sliced into thick, wobbly-fatty, bloody-centred hunks. It's the best steak I've had in recent memory, seven ounces for $18.
I'd love to see more of that, and less of the fried chicken – less of the commodity dishes that everybody else in the city does. I'd love to see more of the spaghetti vongole he made one week (I never got to try it) with littleneck clams, Chinese sausage, black beans and tarragon. I'd love to try his "Chinese Bolognese," a special that combined Berkshire pork, tomatoes and soybean paste with tagliatelle noodles. And I'd love to see a little more of the cooking at the root of Patois's mission. The chef has so far chosen to ignore a fairly rich tradition of Chinese-Jamaican cooking around Toronto's suburbs: the spiced goat stews with preserved lime sauce and ginger, or the Jamaican-Hakka soup noodles topped with slices of egg rolls and Scotch bonnet chiles. I don't know of a single other downtown restaurant that's doing those.
"That's chef food," Mr. Wong told me – his customers wouldn't like it. When he said that, a little piece of me died.
Desserts are excellent. There's bread pudding made with those Chinese pineapple buns and boozy rum raisins. You should get that and the jackfruit: rich and creamy ripe with a subtle pong under its deep tropical fragrance. Mr. Wong dredges the slices in sweet tempura batter, and then fries the fruit to a crisp. (The Chinese nod: a drizzle of condensed milk over top.)
In interviews before Patois opened, Mr. Wong pledged to show the city that "Jamaican food is so much more noble than the stuff we eat out of Styrofoam containers." He's part-way there, but honestly. There's some pretty great Styrofoam-tray Jamaican around the city lately. (To wit: the jerk chicken at Kensington Market's Rasta Pasta.)
And either way, you can't claim nobility and then build your business on Jamaican patty double-downs.