Bitter Melon: What's the vibe

Toronto chefs have been diligently working to undo the stigma of a cheap and cheerful Asian meal for some time now. After all, dumplings and noodles take just as much skill, time and money to produce. So why is there an inherent bias when it comes to spending money on Chinese-style tasting menus and fine-dining concepts?

Andre Au and Joanna Hon, owners of Bitter Melon in Chinatown, want to "take a bite out of the unconventional" with their roster of small plates tapping Japan, Taiwan, Korea and China for inspiration, and creative cocktail menu. The name, Bitter Melon, refers to the tropical fruit widely grown and eaten in Asia — just one of many Asian staples that North American palates may be unfamiliar with that appear on the menu. The menu hopes to marry these unfamiliar elements with western ingredients and fine-dining stalwarts to ease diners into a surprising but delicious meal. 

With red lanterns and foliage dangling over the individual booths (Solid Design Creative curated the space), Bitter Melon is a cozy way to spend an evening. Design touches like the bar's frontage, which looks like dozens of tiny apothecary drawers, are visually stunning and give your weeknight drinks an element of much-needed escapism. 

Bitter Melon: What's on the menu

Dishes vary in price from $7 for salads and very small plates to $35 for their most expensive item: a sinfully delectable Foie Gras on Toast with white miso paste and dehydrated mandarin. We sampled a tasting menu comprised of nine dishes, but guests can order the same items à la carte to get a sense of the scope of Bitter Melon's offering. 

Beef tartare with gochujang at Bitter Melon

The first course knocked it out of the park with gems like the top-notch Asian Slaw salad with a lovely sesame crumble; plus the gochujang-laced beef tartare featuring pear, haam choy and topped with taro chips. The middle course fell a little flat with a texturally challenging baby octopus and namesake pickled bitter melon; and a corn dog that seemed a tad gimmicky and less sophisticated than the rest of the menu. 

Chef Wan's menu picked up full steam for our third and final course, with a series of beautiful blended dishes that provided decadent flavours (rich foie gras, silky pork belly) embued with Asian panache. Our favourite dish of the whole evening, though, was the Beef Heart Tteobokki. The chewy rice cake bathed in spicy, savoury beef heart ragu, sprinkled with Parmigiana Reggiano and cured egg yolk was truly a struggle to share equitably. 

Bitter Melon: What's on the drink menu

Farzam Fallah (Cloak Bar) may have departed Toronto, but he left his mark on the city with one final exquisite drink menu. As you might expect, Bitter Melon's cocktails are heavy on the Asian spirits: Sochu, soju, Japanese whisky and lots and lots of baijiu find their way onto the list. Drinks like the Lay Zi Fizz riff on the classic gin fizz, with yuzu, coconut and jackfruit twists. Meanwhile, the 8 Treasure Decoction serves two and pours a mind-melting combination of flavours like junmai sake, tonka bean and peach tea in a clear, clarified format from a Japanese teapot.

The Accountant, Bitter Melon's version of a dirty martini

Our favourite, by quite some way, was the Hung 7 Gung. This Asian spin on the manhattan is an unbelievably smooth sipper thanks to the genius addition of cynar and sesame oil. It would be churlish not to experience at least a couple of Bitter Melon's cocktails, expertly shaken and poured by their bartender, but  East Asian liquors, international whiskies and a small selection of local beer and wine are available if you can't be tempted. 

Dinner and drinks for two: around $150 before tax and tip

Bitter Melon; 431 Spadina Ave;