About a year ago, hospitality industry veteran Trevor Lui along with some partners launched Kanpai, in Toronto’s leafy Cabbagetown neighbourhood, dishing up Taiwanese-style snacks.
Early on a Thursday night, the joint is jumping, with a boisterous birthday celebration taking up the back corner and most of the remaining wood-topped tables filled to overflowing. It’s an intimate, fun space, buzzing with energy and decked out in a boho-chic look of reclaimed wood accented by Edison bulbs. A busy open kitchen, and a dazzling hip hop soundtrack, further animate the room.
Chef Ike Huang draws inspiration from the street food served at Taiwanese night markets. At Kanpai, everything is either steamed, wok-seared or deep-fried. Flavours are intense; textures, pitch-perfect — for example, in the irresistible snack plates, deep-fried anchovies tossed with crunchy peanuts, and crisp fried red chilies dusted with spice and speckled with crunchy peas.
Taipei slaw made from julienned potatoes and jazzed with chili oil somehow has the satisfying crunch of a cabbage-based version. Fresh mint, cilantro and bird’s eye chili brighten perfectly textured Brussels sprouts and pork belly bits. Taiwanese popcorn chicken — lightly battered chunks of thigh dusted with spices — is juicy and tender. Das Bao sees fried chicken schnitzel loaded onto a soft bun along with pickled veg and kewpie mayo.
Impeccably tender and subtly sweet pork, presented on a sizzling platter, is another highlight, along with the Red Rooster rice stir-fried with pork and veggies and kicked up with Szechuan pepper sauce. House-made wontons, sheathed in ultra-thin wrappers, stuffed with juicy pork and drizzled with aromatic chili oil, are not to be missed.
And for goodness sake, don’t leave without trying the super-fun desserts — delightfully chewy, sesame-crusted ‘ping pong’ beignets stuffed with purple yam and sweet potato, and the smallest mochi (chewy rice cakes) I’ve ever eaten, battered and filled with black sesame and garnished with blackberry compote and peanuts. It’s a sophisticated Taiwanese take on PB&J.
Throughout the evening, Lui manages the front-of-house with aplomb, boundless energy and good humour.
Seating 60 people and accommodating 80, cocktail-style, Kanpai is available for group buyouts. The restaurant also caters events.
— Don Douloff has been a restaurant critic for over 25 years and, during that time, has critiqued almost 1,000 eateries. In 1988, he studied the fundamentals of French cuisine at Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne in Paris, France. During his time in France, he furthered his gastronomic education by visiting the country’s bistros, brasseries and Michelin-starred temples of haute cuisine. He relishes exploring the edible universe in his native Toronto and on his travels throughout Canada and abroad.