Before my visit to Toronto this past fall, it had been quite a long time since I had last visited the city. I still have some lingering memories of driving away from the CN Tower in a charter bus with my 10th grade band class, starstruck at the city skyline, and sad to see it get smaller and smaller as we departed.
I vaguely remember seeing The Phantom of the Opera there, and wasting some time milling about at an upscale mall with my equally bored classmates. Occasionally, when cleaning out one of my many boxes of keepsakes and other junk, I come across a few photos from that trip. Still steeped in my goth ways, I appear pale and puffy and out of place next to my more clean-cut classmates. Though I loved travel even back then, I was filled with too much teenage angst to truly appreciate the city.
Needless to say, this trip to Toronto was different. It might as well have been my first visit. Everything about the city seemed absolutely brand new. It was as if all of Toronto was fresh creation — bright and hopeful and barely able to control its wild electric pulse.
Everything about the city
seemed absolutely brand new.
And I’m not the only one who thinks so highly of this place. Toronto was voted the best city to live in by the Economist Intelligence Unit, which compared it to dozens of other major cities. And Youthful Cities named it the best city in the world for young people.
After arriving in the city, my sister (and trusty travel companion) and I met up with Shy, a friend who was delighted to have us there in her hometown. An exuberant person with expressive eyes and a genuine laugh, she added even more excitement to our voyage.
Though it was a week night when we met up with her, Shy was fully ready to take us out for a night on the town, and suggested we go downtown for dinner. Our visit happened to coincide with the Toronto International Film Festival, which added another layer of bustle to the city. Every corner we turned, we were met with crowds of young, well-dressed people, either shuffling to a bar or restaurant or standing in line outside a theater. As for us, we were making a beeline for Pai Northern Thai Kitchen, a new eatery on Duncan street, just blocks from the CN Tower.
Pai Northern Thai Kitchen
Here’s the lowdown on Pai: You may have to wait a minute to get a seat in this intimate, dimly lit basement restaurant, and even once you’ve settled into this hotspot, your food may take its sweet time getting to your table. It seems word of its excellence has traveled far and wide. That’s OK. Order a glass of red wine, relax and enjoy the tempting aromas of the dishes that pass your table.
After we ordered, Shy divulged the story of the young owners, a couple who met in Thailand, fell in love, and decided to open an eatery in Canada to serve authentic Thai cuisine with a bit of hippie flair. I’ll admit the shabby chic decor revealed a bit of that personality, but most people dining at Pai were a little more polished, and the space was anything but quiet and laid-back.
Our meal kicked off with an appetizer of crispy, oily spring rolls atop a bed of shredded carrots. For my entree, I chose the Chef Nuit Pad Thai — not a very original choice, but sometimes I just can’t resist. Pai’s version of the dish impressed me. Maybe it was the fresh ingredients, the generous portions of my favorite elements, like peanuts, broccoli and bean sprouts, or maybe it was the house-made tamarind sauce that did the trick.
In any case, this mix of spice and sweet hit the spot, and managed to place itself higher than many Pad Thais I’ve tried in various cities. Pad Thai is hard to screw up, but I think it’s also hard to make it outshine all the other Pad Thais out there.
A quick glance at the menu will reveal a variety of dishes that are, unfortunately, not vegetarian/vegan friendly. Though I’m used to — and entirely OK with — only having a few dishes to choose from at most restaurants, I think meat eaters would find many intriguing dishes to sample. And if you need it, Pai offers several different spice classifications, including “foreigner spicy,” which is just one step below “Thai spicy,” the level we spice-lovers all aspire to.
Pai Northern Thai Kitchen
18 Duncan St.
Mon-Thurs: 11:30 a.m to 10 p.m.
Fri-Sat: 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.
Sun: 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.