Lake Inez is a charming and cosy craft beer gastropub in Little India with Asian-inspired eats and comfort food that took over the space formerly occupied by Siddhartha Pure Vegetarian.
Tangentially related to The Wren (its co-owner, Dennis Kimeda, is also a co-owner here, and his friends and fellow Lake Inez co-owners Patrick Ciappara and Zac Schwartz have been affiliated with the Danforth pub), this spot has a different vibe - less saloony and more homey.
Named after the tiny lake on which Schwartz's grandparents had a cottage in Michigan, this place has an air of nostalgia and a slight whiff of exoticism to it.
There's an eclectic assortment of decor; chandeliers, a hodgepodge of antique/vintage furniture acquired off Kijiji and a stained glass and tile mural that Schwartz painstakingly created behind the beer taps all somehow make for a cohesively classy look.
Lake Inez is meant to function as both a snack bar for beer lovers as well as a bona fide place for dinner. Both the beer and the food here are terrific.
Twenty-four rotating taps all offer craft beers from local brewers that include Burdock, Halo and Left Field, the latter of which is hyper local, as it brews in the same 'hood. Bigger bottles of craft beer meant to be shared are also available.
We try a glass of Indie Ale House's Sunkicked ($7.50), an Imperial Wit aged in cognac or tequila barrels. It's one of the most fascinating beers I've tried so far, citrusy, a bit sour and boozy.
As for the food, chef Robbie Hojilla (The Harbord Room, Hudson Kitchen) was recruited to helm the kitchen. "He fell off a cloud and into our lap," Schwartz tells me, admitting that they "seduced the chef" to come work for them.
Hojilla's cooking is inspired by the Asian flavours he grew up with, combined with techniques he acquired while working in some of Toronto's top kitchens. The menu (which should change up regularly) offers a mix of small and large sharing plates meant to complement the craft brews.
From the small plates, we start with sunchoke skewers ($6), grilled over binchotan (Japanese charcoal) and slathered in a teriyaki glaze, a sunflower seed dressing and bits of bacon for good measure.
I usually eat sunchokes mashed, so it's a nice change for me to have them more firm and slightly crunchy. The sweet, tart dressing has the distinctive, citrusy flavour of yuzu, contrasting well with the salty bacon.
Braised mussels ($19) in a Filipino sinigang (smoked-ham-hock-and-tamarind broth) arrive covered with a sprinkling of chopped cilantro, chillies (their spice grows as you keep eating) and pork crackling.
One of the larger sharing plates, this is a flavourful dish that keeps on giving, as there's the added bonus of soaking up the tasty leftover broth with a side of steamed jasmine rice ($3).
Carbs are my comfort, so my fave of the evening is the substantial portion of housemade egg noodles ($22), tossed in a shiitake and oyster mushroom black bean sauce and topped with pickled greens and crispy enoki.
There's lots to discover here; I'm pretty sure this is a veggie dish, yet the mushrooms make it feel meaty and full of umami. The thick noodles have a satisfying chewiness to them and the crispy enoki almost taste like fried onions (read: addictive), while the pickled greens add bright hits of acidity.
For dessert, we get the coconut sorbet ($9), which is a yummy tropical adventure in both taste and texture. It's not something I would normally order (chiffon cake, the other option, would be my first choice), and I'm glad this is suggested instead.
Caramelized bananas, chocolate sauce, bits of fresh pineapple, roasted peanuts and freeze-dried durian accompany the soft, super-coconut-y sorbet, and even though it sounds like there's a lot going on, it all works surprisingly well together.
Most impressive is the durian, which I normally avoid like the plague (the stuff literally stinks). In freeze-dried form, it's much less pungent, yet still retains its flavour—brilliant!
During our visit, the room is lively and filled with patrons. It's clear people are excited to have something like this in the area, whether they are fans of The Wren and/or Robbie Hojilla's cooking.
Kimeda and Schwartz live in the neighbourhood, and Schwartz informs me that they wanted to open here because Little India is "like magic."
He describes it as a place with a bold colour palette and a great late-night community. "Maybe I'm over-romanticizing it, but I think it's just badass."