Bitter Melon Toronto

Bitter Melon

Bitter Melon is a contemporary Asian cocktail-focused restaurant that serves flavour-packed small plates with unconventional touches in Toronto's Chinatown.

For first-time restauranteurs Andre Au and Joanna Hon, creating a space where diners can choose their own adventure from a chill evening with cocktails and snacks or create their own tasting experience full of fun flavourful bites.

"In general, there's this pervasive feeling of cheapness for Chinese cuisine. I believe that Chinese cuisine is one of the most sophisticated in the world, and I want people in Toronto to see that. That's what we're trying to do here," Au tells blogTO sharing that he hasn’t seen as many innovations in Chinese cuisine in contrast to other Asian cuisines.

Bitter Melon Toronto

Daniel Desir with owner Andre Au and executive chef Hermawan Lay.

"I’m passionate about my city and my culture, but I’ve been [in Chinatown] for over 30 years and it hasn’t changed. We're trying to be the change we want to see."

The fully accessible Solid Design Creative space incorporates traditional Chinese decor and transports diners to a back alley in Hong Kong, Shanghai or Tokyo, or at least a facsimile of it.

Bitter Melon TorontoThere's the entrance lounge dripping with red lanterns and booths divided with millwork with abacus beads.

Bitter Melon TorontoThe north wall flanking bar looks like an apothecary cabinet, while the rear dining room is a skylight-lit indoor garden that gives direct views to the open kitchen.

Bitter Melon TorontoOther details, including custom artwork like an intricate dragon and phoenix brass cut-out, was inspired by the decal on Au and Hon’s wedding invitations in the lounge, and Easter eggs like neon signs tucked in the brick-lined room's narrow back alley-like setting.

Bitter Melon TorontoThey've brought on executive chef Hermawan Lay, formerly of Clio, Momofuku Toronto, Kasa Moto, who has created a modern East Asian menu that's injected with flavours from China, Korea and Japan, but with French and Italian influences. The menu is filled with small plates that encourage sharing but also a sampling of flavours that some might find intimidating.

Bitter Melon TorontoBaby Octopus ($21) dresses a serving of the tender cephalopods with pickled bitter melon in black bean sauce. The drink-friendly bites are served with dollops of yuzu aioli and togarashi pepper.

I'm a fan of Japanese marinated octopus, a red-stained snack that's slightly sweet and pleasantly savoury. This variation leaned more umami and deep but still with all the delightful textures I love from the ingredient which was given a bit of a sweet, sour, and mildly bitter lift from the pickled bitter melon.

Bitter Melon TorontoMenu items including the Beef Heart Tteokbokki ($19) embody an intersection of cultures.

The dish melds together a flavourful slow-cooked beef heart ragout with chewy rice cakes then dusts the savoury comfort dish with Parmigiano, shaved cured egg yolk and threads of itokiri chili.

Bitter Melon TorontoLay has taken the liberty of injecting familiar dishes with Asian ingredients. For instance, a Taiwanese spin on the Korean Corn Dog ($7) features a Taiwanese sausage dipped and fried in a buttermilk cornmeal batter, then drizzled liberally with honey and mustard.

Bitter Melon TorontoBut the true surprise is encountered on the first bite where a core of mozzarella cheese is tucked at the handheld snack’s top, for the most epic cheese pull beginning.

Bitter Melon TorontoSpring Roll & Green Sambal ($11) is filled with potato, glass noodles, carrot, cilantro, green chili, and garlic.

Bitter Melon TorontoCentury Egg & Tofu ($15) is a share-friendly starter that tops silken tofu with unctuous slices of the traditional Chinese preserved egg that's christened with a savoury-umami combination of shredded scallion and aromatic fried garlic. Finished in soy sauce, the vegetarian-friendly course is dressed with a hint of house-made chili oil.

Bitter Melon TorontoThis is a classic homestyle dish that's been gussied up for the environment but stays true to the simple dish's traditional favours, modernized by using the sweet fried garlic versus raw minced.

However, Lay's addition of the fried glutinous rice nuggets isn't only delightfully crispy with a semi-molten bouncy center but also tiny sauce-absorbing pockets of joy.

Bitter Melon TorontoThe Asian Slaw ($17) is made of red cabbage, jicama, and carrot with toasty sesame crumble. The refreshing starter is served with a creamy shiso dressing to dress as heavy or light as you'd like.

Bitter Melon TorontoUsing hand-diced eye of round tossed in gochujang with chopped haam choy (pickled mustard greens) instead of cornichons, Beef Tartare ($21) is brightened up with crisp diced Asian pear. The combination is then topped with a quail egg yolk and served with homemade taro chips.

Bitter Melon TorontoMarinated in char siu sauce overnight, laboriously prepared Pork Belly ($21) sports an unctuous fat cap that's almost dense-bouncy the way braised down fat can be meaty pleasing. Served on star anise, clove and bay leaf spiced béchamel that's sided by a pineapple, jalapeno, gochujang, and cilantro salsa.

Bitter Melon TorontoPlump Beef Pot Stickers ($15) feature tender perfectly pleated dumplings filled with ground beef, water chestnuts and seasoned with sesame oil. It's served on miso hollandaise and made pretty with micro herbs and edible flower petals.

However, it's the lacy crisp that shields the nicely cooked dumplings that mimic the crispy skirt that's oven served with a pan of potstickers that catch my attention. It's lovely.

Bitter Melon TorontoFoie Gras on Toast ($35) serves seared foie gras with flame-blistered orange segments and quenelles of burnt white miso paste butter on toasted white bread.

In addition to a small selection of wines, sakes and beers, there's a host of imported spirits including baijius, rare Japanese whiskies, sochu, scotch, rye, and bourbon.

Bar Manager Daniel Desir executes the drinks pastry chef-turned-mixologist Farzam Fallah has created that taps into spirits and flavours from the East Asian pantry. In addition to riffs on classics, there are floral, fresh, fruity, savoury, and bitter flavours found for both alcoholic and non-alcoholic options.

Bitter Melon TorontoThe fresh cucumber garnished Yangge Dynasty ($18.88) is a gin and soda-like cocktail made from toasted jasmine rice–washed Collective Arts gin, rose water, and topped with sparkling coconut water.

Bitter Melon TorontoLee Ho Fook ($19.88) combines El Gobernador pisco, spirit-forward baijiu, lychee, lime leaf, and Japanese yogurt soda.

Bitter Melon TorontoThe Lay Zi Fizz ($20.88) is a riff of the Ramos Gin Fizz, which is normally considered a bartender's nightmare given the amount of time it takes to make properly. This rendition is made from white rum, jackfruit, orange blossom, lemon, and seltzer before it's capped with a coconut yuzu foam.

Bitter Melon TorontoHung 7 Gung ($21.88) is a dangerous number that uses Maker's Mark bourbon, sweet vermouth, Cynar, Dewanosato Junmai sake and has a rich toasted sesame oil finish.

Bitter Melon TorontoBitter Melon is on Spadina Avenue south of College Street. 

Photos by

Fareen Karim

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