Linda, a restaurant located in a glorified strip mall known as the Shops at Don Mills, is unlike other Thai food places. I've often felt that fine dining Thai food was a kind of oxymoron in this city. Overcooked rice noodles and dishes excessively sauced are sadly the norm. Add the fact that the Shops at Don Mills customers are at the mercy of our seasonal climate, schlepping bags from one building to the next, leading them further away from their distantly parked cars, it might be easy to think it's not worth the trip to Linda but that would be a mistake.
About a year ago, Linda and Ernest Liu, owners of the renowned Salad King, moved their upstairs restaurant to the Shops at Don Mills. Salad King was my regular hangout as a nearby Ryerson student and it still has a steady flow of fast food Thai fans on a budget. Linda offers something completely different and that's the intention.
One day Linda Liu got tired of the quick-service style of Salad King and wanted to offer more of a dining experience in an intimate setting. She opened Linda upstairs from Salad King but some of her customers didn't get the idea of experiential dining. "They were saying why would I pay more for this when I can get something similar downstairs?" Linda said. "They missed the point."
So Linda was reincarnated at the Shops at Don Mills. The menu offers upscale options in a variety of visually stunning and interactive dishes. The Mieng Kum ($8.95) is a hands-on appetizer that consists of small servings of peanuts, dried shrimp, shredded coconut, sliced bird's eye chilli, minced shallots and chopped lime, assembled on an aromatic leaf topped with a soy-based sauce. Jeff, a prince amongst servers, provided a story about each dish as he delivered them. He explained that the aromatic leaves are imported directly from Thailand. These were betel leaves, a delicious and healthy foil for the savoury assortment, said to have a variety of medicinal healing properties.
Tableside service is common and often by Linda herself. The Crispy Duck ($18.50) includes two braised legs coated with a batter reminiscent of pub-style fish fried to a crunch. The server then debones and shreds the duck at the table.
The shredded duck and crispy skin is served with thin pancakes, hoisin sauce, celery, green onion, and king oyster mushroom slices. The duck meat has a dry-ish texture but the wraps are savoury with a tasty crunch from the crispy coating.
The Green Curry Chicken ($15.50) is chock full of just tender vegetables including broccoli, green peas, snap peas, green peppers and basil, plus generous slices of breast meat cooked in the house-made green curry sauce.
All the curries at Linda are made from scratch. No pre-made jars or cans. A while back at Salad King, the Liu's hired a Thai chef and for years Linda watched his every move to learn everything possible. He instilled in her that the key to good Thai cooking is to make everything yourself, including creating a signature curry. Linda spent a week in her garage testing different curry recipes until she came up with what she wanted as a signature combination.
This curry is showcased prominently in the Fish Curry Hot Pot ($18.50), uniquely presented in a paper pot set over a flame at the table. It gets high marks for presentation.
The curry has lots of depth and tastes earthy. The heat on the paper pot softens the grape tomatoes adding a slight tang to the dish. The skin-on turbot comes delicately dusted and fried before being added to the sweet and sour curry with okra.
Another highlight is the Bangkok Stir Fry ($16.50 - top photo) made of perfectly cooked bean vermicelli noodles. It's overflowing with sliced vegetables including broccoli, bell peppers, carrots, onions, egg, bean sprouts, peanuts, fried tofu and fresh cilantro. The noodles are simple, light, and refreshing.
For the finish, Linda offers pistachio ice cream, made on premises and served with fried bananas lightly battered and gooey. Sticky rice is also available perched on a mango slice topped with coconut cream. The mango was under-ripe out of season however the rice was sweetly perfumed.
If the prices at Linda are too steep, they offer monthly prix fixe specials. A complete three-course dinner goes for $25 a person. Menus are featured on their website. Complimentary valet parking is available weekday evenings and all day on weekends.