Story by Adrian Brijbassi
Vacay.ca Managing Editor
TORONTO, ONTARIO — Before Sasi Meechai-Lim pulls out the swords and begins to channel the spirit of a 15th-century general from Thailand, we cook. She has prepped king prawns imported from her homeland, each one large enough to run the length of my palm. Garlic has been peeled and diced, coconut milk poured into a bowl, and a ball of curry paste — pre-made by Meechai-Lim and stored in her restaurant’s fridge — sits docilely in a ramekin. Canola oil is already hot in the skillet.
She hands me a spoon, pours in the garlic, and instructs me to stir. Just like that I am cooking with the Queen of Thai.
Meecham-Lim and her husband, Allan Lim, run one of the most unique and wonderfully delightful dining rooms in Canada. It offers cooking classes, using organic ingredients and healthy twists on traditional Thai recipes, and serves some of the best cuisine of its kind in the nation. Housed in an easy-to-miss yet historic space that was once home to an early-1900’s brewery, Mengrai Gourmet Thai is noted for the celebrities it has served as much as for the high quality of Meecham-Lim’s cuisine. The likes of Samuel L. Jackson, Jackie Chan and Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan are among the big names who have dined at Mengrai, which attracts such celebrities in part because of its under-the-radar location on Toronto’s east side, close to popular settings for movies but away from the bustle of the downtown core.
A host at the restaurant once made Mick Jagger wait 40 minutes for a table because she didn’t recognize him and he was late for his reservation. According to Lim, the Rolling Stones’ singer had read about Mengrai in a UK newspaper and made a point to visit during a stay in Toronto a few years ago.
While filming “Hairspray” in the neighbourhood, John Travolta was so impressed he raved about the restaurant to his Hollywood friends and Drew Barrymore flew in from New York for a meal, Lim says.
A recording studio above the restaurant attracts Toronto’s music icons, including The Weeknd and Drake. During the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), which in 2017 runs from September 7-17, it wouldn’t be a surprise to spot a few notables at the tables.
Thai Restaurant Cooks with Heart
Some of the celebrities even lend their name and time to Meechai-Lim’s other passion besides cooking. She runs a charity in Thailand called Treetop Country. It provides education, food, and shelter for children living in destitute situations. Mengrai Thai donates 20 per cent of its profits to the charity. The call to give back came from the chef’s other uncommon ability.
After the spicy meal we’ve cooked and eaten, Meechai-Lim dons a ritualistic kimono and head band, lights incense near one of the restaurant’s many statues of Buddha and in front of a depiction of the general whose spirit she calls to visit. She then carries ornate antique swords to Mengrai’s lower dining area and begins to sharpen them. She takes deep breaths, sighs, and rolls her neck. After many minutes, her husband tells me, “It’s happening. The General is coming. You will speak to him.”
The general doesn’t always arrive when called, Lim informs. This time, he not only appears — Meechai-Lim does undergo a convincing transformation during the reading — but he comes with information for me. My interest in the reading is to connect with my wife, Julia, who passed away in March 2016 and who I believe is residing in the spirit world. The general seems to know this fact as he relates, through Meechai-Lim, details about my life and marriage that only my wife and I would know. While engaging in such conversations may be viewed as eccentric, it can also be healing, I’ve found. This occasion was too. Despite a language barrier, I understood the messages being conveyed and they were mostly positive.
Afterwards, it occurs to me that my visit to Mengrai Thai was far more than an encounter with food. It was sensory in every way possible. As emotional of an experience as I’ve ever had in a restaurant. I left marvelling at Meechai-Lim’s skills in the kitchen, talents outside of it, and sincere approach to life.
The day I learned to cook Thai food turned out to be heavenly in more ways than you might imagine.
MORE ABOUT MENGRAI GOURMET THAI
Address: 82 Ontario Street (corner of Richmond Street), Toronto, ON (see map below)
Cooking Classes: The courses take place Saturdays and Sundays from 3:30-6:30 pm, and Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 5:30 pm. Prices start at $75 per person for a class that teaches one dish and includes a course prepared by the chef. The “Full Experience” class ($105) includes lessons on three dishes as well as additional selections from Meechai-Lim. Discounts for the classes are available for couples and groups. Check the restaurant’s website for details.
Menu Price Range: Most items cost less than $20. The priciest dish is whole snapper served with Panang Curry ($28).
You Must Try: Chef Sasi’s Pad Thai ($16). Though not as saucy as most Western-style varieties of this dish, Mengrai’s version is authentically Thai, made with organic ingredients and served with prawns.