The strip mall is an oft-haphazard compilation of businesses. In this city they invariably contain at least two of the following: a convenience store, a nail salon, a liquor mart, or a small restaurant. The lucky ones house hidden gems, the family-run cafés that surprise and delight with cleverly-crafted dishes and the attention to detail too frequently absent from larger operations. One unusually lucky strip mall on the southern frontier of the Norwood neighbourhood houses a boîte of such skill, the venerable Viphalay.
A serene, rectangular room dressed in burgundy, black and off-white respectfully displays Southeast Asian artifacts and gives no inkling that a very busy roadway is just steps away. Scores of diners, their faces animated and voices lively, tuck into glistening mounds of rice and lashings of aromatic sauces. Which of the menu's temptations fuel their vivacity? It includes both Thai and Laos fare. The latter, incidentally, is the only land-locked country in Southeast Asia. That aside, the menu includes many nods to the sea, in the form of shrimp and fish. Tropical fruits, noodles, beef, chicken and pork are worthy ambassadors of the terrestrial realm.
Shrimp and pineapple triangles leap out from an appetizer roster that includes salad rolls, satay and crispy wontons. When they appear, ferried to the table by an especially affable waiter, their limelight is stolen by the garnish. The garnish is a hand-carved rose. Its deep crimson petals are carved from a beet, but it looks like a rare gemstone, an ethereal bloom coaxed from a giant garnet by a gentle hand. The triangles themselves are crisp and steaming. Careful dissection reveals a fat, creamy, pink shrimp curled around a cube of fresh, zippy pineapple. A tiny dish of sweet chili sauce allows one to add heat as desired.
It is far more difficult to choose a main course, but massamun curry is intriguing. It includes potatoes, peanuts and chicken in a thin curry sauce the colour of yellow ochre. This Thai staple marries coconut milk, tamarind sauce, cinnamon, fish sauce and turmeric with beautifully tender potatoes and gargantuan peanuts that tread the border between chewy and crispy. A variant of this curry features beef instead of chicken, but the more assertive taste of beef may very well overwhelm the nuances of this curry. Chicken, rather, is impressionable and easily takes on the essence of its flavourful counterparts. In this curry, strips of fork-tender chicken absorb the golden sauce, which is initially sweet but finishes with a gentle bite.
Garlic prawns, my second entrée, arrive with another stunning beet-rose. Here, a tumble of chubby crustaceans is deep-fried in a hint of batter. It is a far cry from the doughy, grease-laden, deep-fried shrimp that characterize far too many buffets. The prawns are adorned with a generous sprinkle of deep-fried garlic; the kiss of oil reveals a distinctly nutty flavour. A scatter of fried basil and kaffir lime leaves finishes the dish, infusing it with notes of citrus.
Dessert, enthusiastically recommended by our aforementioned waiter, is nothing short of remarkable. Crepe-like roti are rolled, sliced, and pan-fried until seductively golden. They recline in a puddle of rich condensed milk and are dusted with sugar. The delicately crunchy exterior yields to a warm, sweet cloud. No other adjectives are necessary, or adequate. Evidently this is breakfast food in Laos. After devouring this marvel, how can pancakes ever again be satisfying?
The cuisine of Laos and Thailand strives for harmony of flavour and texture; to that end, Viphalay excels. Each dish unites heat with sweet, crisp with smooth, zip with mellow, and not only emerges in perfect balance, but whisks the diner away from the mundane to the exotic. How many strip malls can do that? V
Mon – Sun (11 am – 9 pm)
10724 – 95 St