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Mengrai Thai review

Food Tourist Jan 2, 2008 11:05 AM

Finally had dinner at Mengrai Thai on Friday Dec. 21st evening. Food was pretty good overall but service was absolutely hopeless. Despite two phone conversations with Allan the owner, and emails from him (after a two week interval during which he was supposed to email me the proposed tasting menu but then claimed he lost my email address when I finally called a couple of days before to reconfirm the reservation), when we arrived on time for our 8:00 pm reservation, they claimed they thought we were supposed to be there the previous night! So, our table had already been given away and we were forced to join together two tables near the front door instead of the lovely cushioned area.

Allan bounces with energy as he speaks enthusiastically and lengthily about everything from their upcoming culinary tour of Thailand, to our food allergies, to the minute details of his proposed tasting menu which had been promised to us for the low price of $29.50 instead of the “regular price $37.50”.

Service was laughable throughout the evening but we all know that a true chowhound can put up with many flaws in service and décor to pursue tasty food.

We ordered drinks by the glass (wine, lychee martini, teas). Lychee martini tasted very fruit juicy with no alcohol taste…probably a great way to get drunk!

Four of us ordered the full tasting menu, and one ordered a la carte.

The 2nd course arrived first (terrific spicy pumpkin soup and battered morning glory), followed literally 2 minutes later by the 1st course (delicious taro roll, tiny shrimp roll, chicken in pastry cup, and yellow mango salad) which they placed on the table behind each of our soup platters. Several minutes passed and then one shared platter of attractive but bland cold summer rolls arrived in the middle of the table, the wrapper nearly impossible to cut or chew. I hate cilantro but those summer rolls really needed some. Then, the 3rd course (slightly overcooked king prawn with mushroom and cucumber slices with curried avocado sauce) arrived so that we now had 3 plates each squeezed in at every place setting. At this point, Allan mentioned that they would slow down for the next course.

Our main female server constantly and excessively leaned and reached over my companions to deliver or clear plates. A male server delivered empty wine glasses to our table near the beginning of our meal with the promise of complimentary drinks, only to be back moments later with the explanation that he had delivered the glasses to the wrong table! Even my cajoling didn’t bring him back with free drinks.

The fourth course arrived family-style. Ultra-rich “bankers braised lamb” reminded me of fish because of its unusual texture and fattiness. The seabass dish was tender but tasted slightly fishy which I presume to be “authentic” but seemed to be missing the advertised fruit gastrique. The “#54 red curry chicken” was ever so slightly dry. Original pad thai was fairly flavourful but its tofu didn't bring a smile to my face. Pineapple organic beef fried rice served in a pineapple was quite good though missing the advertised basil shrimps.

After a suitable interval after the main course was cleared, sometime after 10 pm, everyone received individual plates of green tea ice cream instead of the advertised ginger, with a soup spoon full of coco-rice and mango. Upon request, the server happily exchanged only my green tea ice cream for the yummy ginger variety though didn't offer any coffee/tea at the end of the meal. No mention of the mysteriously absent third part of the advertised dessert trio! Our a la carte guest also received the green tea and rice dessert at no extra charge.

We were all stuffed and quite happy at the end of the meal and couldn’t believe the variety and amount served for $29.50 even though the menu-writer and chef had differing ideas.

Yes, I would return for another meal at Mengrai, but would order a la carte, because the tasting menu was simply too much food and too many tastes all at once!

At the end of the meal, one of their business partners/co-owners who had been sitting at a nearby table unexpectedly got up and came over to chat and inquired into our favourite dishes. It was just one person too many interrupting our group experience. Around 10:15 pm the music became noticeably loud (jazz) for about half and hour and by 10:45 they had shut off most lights and were clearly waiting for us to depart.

Now that I’ve experienced a few tasty dishes at Mengrai, I'd be happy to streamline and simplify on my next visit! Overall, it was good, though not excellent food.

  1. Full tummy Jan 2, 2008 07:49 PM

    How did it compare to other Thai restaurants you're familiar with?

    9 Replies
    1. re: Full tummy
      Food Tourist Jan 20, 2008 06:28 AM

      Ooops.

      Mengrai attempts to be a little more discerning in terms of presentation and ingredients, and of course, it is all done in a gorgeous atmosphere. Other Thai places downtown tend to be more hearty and family-style and usually have less variety in taste. But I haven't tried the other famous places like Vanipha Lanna or Young Thailand or Somporn Thai. (I have tried Salad King, Green Mango, Thai Plate, and Golden Thai, all because other people dragged me to these places, sometimes multiple times.)

      My other favourite (except for their pad thai which is terrible) is Thai Pepper in Brampton. They actually do a proper green mango salad. But it's a very simple atmosphere with infamous slow service at suppertime. Take-out is quick and easy.

      1. re: Food Tourist
        l
        LobsterKing69 Feb 25, 2008 01:02 PM

        I am quite shock that they claim they dont use msg. I am allergic to msg and my body feels it right after. So dissapointed. I had the lemongrass soup shrimp and the bass.... now i am questioning,.... is the bass actually really fresh as they claim?

        1. re: LobsterKing69
          vorpal Feb 26, 2008 04:44 AM

          I'm not clear on what you meant. Are you saying that you went to Mengrai and had an MSG reaction after eating there?

          They certainly don't add any MSG to their food, which is common for the majority of Thai restaurants. That being said, when you eat Thai food, small quantities of MSG are pretty much unavoidable since it is often included in some form in sauces like, for example, oyster sauce; I've never seen a brand of oyster sauce without at least modified cornstarch in it. Furthermore, depending on how your sensitivities run, fish sauce and soy sauce are packed with free glutamates by their nature. Coconut milk often has sulphites (and the brand they use at Mengrai, Aroy D, absolutely does), which can intensify an MSG response.

          I have a serious health condition that's exacerbated greatly by MSG (although does not seem to respond to naturally occurring free glutamates). I have experienced some symptoms after eating Mengrai, but I'd probably consider it one of the safer choices I've had in the city.

          1. re: vorpal
            c
            cacruden Feb 27, 2008 08:31 AM

            Have not been to Mengrai, but I was hoping they did not use canned/boxed coconut milk. It would be nice if someplace in Toronto would actually buy a coconut grater and press (industrial size - usually floor standing - I have seen them in markets in Thailand). Fresh coconut milk/cream does make a difference.... I guess I will just have to continue to dream.... I make my own curries based on grating my own coconuts, but I have only tried to do a duck curry once - and I definately need improvement on the duck portion...

            1. re: cacruden
              vorpal Feb 27, 2008 05:30 PM

              Having made my own on several occasions, I agree that it makes a significant difference; however, I think that it takes significantly long to do that it probably wouldn't be feasible for a restaurant of any popularity with dishes the cost of Mengrai's. That and here in Toronto, strangely, I've only seen young coconuts, which aren't appropriate for coconut milk, I believe.

              1. re: vorpal
                c
                cacruden Feb 27, 2008 07:40 PM

                I can only see a few potential areas where the cost could be introduced:

                1. The coconuts, but I would think that buying in bulk could bring that cost down - Dominion has them at 1.49 per (although they are a little narrow). Since they are old, they can be shipped on regular shipping freight. One coconut should be able to make enough for two people I think (or one of me).

                2. Equipment - one is a floor standing grater (don't know how they shell it since they generally had a hole in one end and was missing the complete shell - maybe cracked a little - but it is not cracked in half); one one floor standing industrial press. It would be nice if some common supplier in Toronto actually produced the coconut cream/milk for distribution daily.

                Being that the coconut is produced in Thailand; and is affordable to the general public (wage vs sale price); that even if it costs more in Toronto - it would be similar on a price/wage ratio. Obviously it is a little different since they are locally grown, and ours would have to be from central america.

                Indians, SE Asians, etc. (for which there is a fairly large population in Toronto) use coconut milk/cream. Since coconut cream (fresh) does not last long; it would be one more item that could drive people to come into the market/grocer on a more regular basis (and therefore potentially sold more stuff more often).

                Now if you have to produce it like me, it would obviously take more time.... I have a manual coconut scraper (indian design) - where it is almost like an upright beater with a single bulb consisting of 6 blades that rotate using a handle. I figure I can crack a coconut and grate it in around 6 - 8 minutes. The adding of water, and squeezing takes a little longer.

                I have seen frozen coconut (grated) which can be defrosted and squeezed for milk - so I wonder if there is also frozen coconut milk/cream in Toronto. I figure that would be the next best thing since freezing typically retains taste better.

                1. re: cacruden
                  koknia Feb 27, 2008 11:22 PM

                  I just buy unsweetened shredded coconut and make my own. Even in Thailand you don't see places grating their own coconuts.

                  1. re: koknia
                    c
                    cacruden Feb 28, 2008 05:45 AM

                    That is because they don't need to - they just go to the market and pick up a bag of coconut milk (the market has a industrial sized grater, and press). Why do all the hard work when it is done for you?

                    They also don't use canned coconut cream/milk. Canning is the worst thing for many things since it causes the taste to change - freezing typically keeps the taste better.

                    1. re: cacruden
                      vorpal Feb 28, 2008 08:20 PM

                      At least a few of the markets on Spadina sell coconut milk in boxes, and it does taste vastly better than the canned stuff and is only slightly more expensive. Still not as ideal as freshly made, but coconut milk is one thing where I draw the line at making it myself on a regular basis.

    2. c
      cacruden Feb 27, 2008 08:34 AM

      Was that "battered morning glory" .... morning glory salad? Morning glory salad is usually served in two parts, the battered deep-fried morning glory and a bowl with the rest of the salad -- which is mixed together at the table so that the morning glory does not get soggy before you serve it.... I have had it several times in Thailand, and it is verrrry good.

      1 Reply
      1. re: cacruden
        Food Tourist Feb 27, 2008 05:20 PM

        Nope, it was just like pakoras of morning glory with no salad components! And I share your sentiments on freshly grated coconut milk...after making some myself at a cooking class in Zanzibar, I was convinced...but I'm not sure that the fresh coconuts available here would produce the same results.

      2. c
        cacruden Feb 27, 2008 08:38 AM

        "Several minutes passed and then one shared platter of attractive but bland cold summer rolls arrived in the middle of the table, the wrapper nearly impossible to cut or chew."

        Sounds like they might have made them too far ahead of time and put them in the refrigerator - I find the wrap gets to hard and chewy when you try and save them in a refrigerator.

        1. y
          Yum2MyTum Mar 13, 2008 06:18 AM

          Last night, I dined at Mengrai Thai with a companion and we were suitably impressed; I think we both agreed that it was our best experience of Thai food in Toronto (although not quite up to the standard in cities like Bangkok, New Haven and Ithaca...)

          We ate basically the same thing that Food Tourist ordered above; we were particularly impressed with the pumpkin soup, which was absolutely delicious: nicely spiced, thick, without being too rich. The starter platter also impressed - particularly the taro fried dumpling. We shared the red curry chicken which was not dry at all but full of chunks of succulent chicken, lychee and pinapple. And we shared a dessert - sticky rice with fresh mangoes and blueberries.

          They have some kinks in the operation of the restaurant that need ironing out, and the location is a bit out of the way, but I think our experience merits a repeat visit.

          Thanks to Vorpal and everyone else for hyping Mengrai Thai so much - we wouldn't have ventured out without your recommendations!

          3 Replies
          1. re: Yum2MyTum
            vorpal Mar 13, 2008 08:48 PM

            Glad to hear that you enjoyed it! I'll be dining there tomorrow night and I'm greatly anticipating it... especially with your mention of sticky rice with mango and blueberries, which I haven't heard of on the menu before.

            1. re: vorpal
              y
              Yum2MyTum Mar 14, 2008 07:11 AM

              Vorpal: it was listed as sticky rice with mango, but the blueberries were a nice surprise! Enjoy!

              And TorontoJo - I'm sorry you guys didn't enjoy it - and for the hefty tab! We ended up paying $29 per head.

              1. re: Yum2MyTum
                vorpal Mar 14, 2008 08:54 AM

                Awesome. I had the blueberry-free version before and while it was different than what I'm used to for that dish, I really enjoyed it. I'll certainly be getting it again tonight now!

                I agree that the cost of dining-in can be a bit steep, but the takeout prices are phenomenally good for the quality of food. Additionally, you'll receive a 10% discount if you pay cash. Fortunately for me, one of my close friends who I visit quite frequently and who doesn't like to cook lives just around the corner from them.

          2. estufarian Mar 13, 2008 11:13 AM

            As this thread has been reactivated, I'll jump in also.
            Had many of the same dishes described above and also have mixed reactions.
            The good news: tremendous flavour in pretty much all dishes served.
            Less good: textures were not that great - indeed the battered morning glory was particularly 'droopy' instead of crisp. Also several dishes were a little tepid for my taste - especially the pumpkin soup (which otherwise had great flavour). Similarly the chicken in pastry cup had an 'uncrisp' cup - unlike the crunchy cup I've had elsewhere (commonly called 'Golden Baskets'). The Bankers lamb was also a bit mushy. But the Bai Ling Nepalese Mushroom dish was perfect - crunchy veg and slightly chewy mushrooms - my favourite dish there.
            All-in-all a creditable performance but at $85 for two before tip (with only 1 glass of wine - not each, just 1) this is at the very high end of pricing in Toronto. I'd still put Linda ahead of this on a total performance basis - but Mengrai is probably #2 for me (excluding price considerations).
            I also found the service sloppy - we were twice served dishes intended for other tables (maybe ours wandered too - which might explain the tepid nature of some dishes). And they really seemed to hustle us for extras, offering 'special tonight only dishes at half-price' (or similar). I also found the spicing fairly mild - but assume that could be fixed on any future visit if I asked for 'spicy'.

            1. TorontoJo Mar 14, 2008 07:07 AM

              We just had a Toronto chowmeet there last week and I think the general consensus was that dinner was good, but not great. For me, it did not live up to the hype or the price tag, which was $60 - $70 per person. Hopefully, we'll get a full write up of the dinner soon. We did a $45/person tasting menu.

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