Michael van den Winkel and Jennifer Gittens are bringing a new flavour to Toronto with Little Sister. The owners of neighbouring Quince Bistro just might be the first to feature Indonesian eats on a midtown menu, but as food trends go in Toronto one wonders if they’ll be the last.
After a two-week soft opening, the couple are prepped to serve their island spices to the masses. They hope to draw in a local crowd for share plates and a more sophisticated bar scene than the surrounding wing joints and dusty watering holes.
Start off with a fresh Ubud Hangout (Tanqueray Kangpur gin, jalapeno black pepper syrup, muddled cucumber, cilantro, and orange bitters) or choose from a few local taps as dusk sets in from the sunny front window. Prepare to linger over the 21-item menu, if you like. As chef Michael describes it, Little Sister is to be relaxed and savoured.
Indonesian edibles are not oft found around the city, and as one catches a glimpse into the kitchen through industrial paned glass it may be suspect to see that there are no ethnic faces. The Indonesian influence actually comes from chef Michael – a tall, pale, bespectacled Dutch man. He first learned to cook during a mandatory 14-month stint in the Dutch Navy. Indonesia is a Dutch colony and it was tradition in the military service to serve Indonesian food every Wednesday. (One can only stomach so much potatoes and herring.)
He took home the spice mixtures (bumbu) and vastly contrasting flavours as he began what is now a running 44-year career as a professional chef. Each dish at Little Sister is laced with its own bumbu, a unique combination of seasonings – ginger, galangal, nutmeg, clove, black pepper, coriander, coconut, cinnamon, turmeric, chilies, lemongrass, et al. – pounded together into a paste and stir fried in oil to release the flavours. Each bumbu takes between five and 16 hours to make and is then rubbed on a protein to be stewed, barbequed, roasted, or turned into soup.
“I don’t try to cook for the white people,” chef Michael chuckles. “There are things on the menu that we really can’t alter.” Vegetarians and those with shellfish allergies take heed. There are a few veggie dishes, like the roasted cauliflower salad and grilled mustard greens, but nearly everything on the menu contains shrimp paste (terasi) in some form.
Textural differences can separate Indonesian cooking from other Southeast Asian nations, but nothing jumps out as being entirely off the radar. Minced beef and green onion wontons from Jakarta called pansit, “shrimp cocktail” lettuce wraps with sambal, pickled cucumber and crispy shallot, and a sensational Sumatran spiced beef croquette are all great starters. The latter, Michael admits, is more of a take on a “bitter ball,” a typical Dutch junk food.
Larger traditional dishes, like udang kari (shrimp coconut curry), are served over fragrant jasmine rice. Babi panggang features tender roasted pork belly with fresh chili sauce atop pickled bean sprouts.
Little Sister spans the palatal range from salty to sweet, tangy to spicy in one bite. The range of diners it attracts is what’s left to be discovered.
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