The familiar, fun vibe of Sabai Sabai

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Photos courtesy of Sabai Sabai

by MARITES N. SISON

A line-up at a restaurant is always a good sign. But it’s even more so when it’s in a neighbourhood known more for its gritty character than culinary adventures.

Sabai Sabai, Toronto’s first Thai/Lao restaurant, opened at Church and Dundas streets last December and has been drawing crowds the area has never before seen.

It helps a lot, of course, that its chef is Nuit Regular, known to her hordes of fans as the goddess in the kitchen during her reign at the restaurants Sukho Thai and Khao San Road. (She and her husband, restaurateur Jeff Regular, left Khao San Road last year; they still operate Sukho Thai at the original location on Parliament, south of Dundas, and have opened another branch on Wellington East, near the St. Lawrence Market. A new restaurant with a new concept is reportedly in the works.)

Put simply: you don’t know Thai food until you’ve tasted Nuit’s dishes. Much of what Toronto knows as Thai cuisine comes from Thailand’s central region; Nuit specializes in food from the cooler, mountainous region of the north, where she grew up in a family that expected everyone to help out in the kitchen.

The perennial crowd favourites—deeply fried, freshly grated squash fritters and kao soi, a Burmese-influenced curry and noodle dish popular in northern Thailand and Laos—are on Sabai Sabai’s menu. But so are over 20 other dishes that you know you must try because they sound so tantalizing:  northern Thai curry fish custard,  steamed in banana leaf; holy basil stir-fried shrimp; grilled certified angus beef salad with fresh herbs and roasted ground spice; and red flame stir-fried morning glory, to name a few.

But people come to Sabai Sabai as much for the food as for the restaurant itself, which has a familiar, fun and friendly vibe. That was the plan all along, according to Nuit and co-owners Jason Jiang and Seng Luong.

“Whenever we get together, we have a lot of fun. We laugh a lot. So we’re like, ‘Let’s make this into our business model,’ ” said Seng. “We can translate that into a restaurant where we treat guests like they’re in our home…You come in and you don’t feel like you’re in some cold restaurant.”

Adds Jason, “The city is so hectic and moving at a fast pace; you come to Sabai Sabai and you go back in time and just relax.”

The restaurant has certainly lived up to its name, which means “relaxed” in Thai and “together” in Tagalog. (Nuit’s husband, Jeff , is of Filipino descent.)  Sabai Sabai diners usually come in pairs and groups, but even those who arrive solo won’t feel lonely since the servers are friendly and willing to share their knowledge about anything on the menu.

Jason and Seng, who love to entertain friends, say the restaurant is a reflection of that. Thai and Lao culture, says Jason, emphasize kindness and hospitality. “When people step into our homes, we look at them, we smile and we greet them. That’s how we grew up.”

The menu, the drinks and the décor are meant to evoke a communal gathering. Thailand has many eating styles, says Nuit, and Sabai Sabai’s concept is similar to the Asian custom of eating small portions of food while drinking liquor and shooting the breeze. It’s similar to eating at a Spanish tapas bar, except that people stay put, sometimes for hours—they don’t do a tapas bar crawl.

Sabai Sabai is unlike a regular restaurant where “every dish has to come at the same time in order for everyone to have dinner together,” says Nuit. “Here, people don’t have to wait; they can eat as food comes.”

And boy, do people eat. “People like to sample dishes [the tapas menu range from $4 to $9]—not just one big entrée,” says Seng. “And since the atmosphere is relaxed, they always want to come back.” And they definitely do come back. The menu is often updated, especially the desserts—one week the dessert menu might feature kanom krok, described as “a creamy coconut pancake commonly prepared on the street sides of Thailand,” and the next, Khao Niew Sangkaya, a classic, coconut sticky rice with custard.

Last April, diners paid $45 each to take part in “Songkran,” the traditional New Year Festival celebrated in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Burma and Sri Lanka; they were treated to an incredible eight-course dinner and dessert buffet.

‘A collaborative effort’

The idea for Sabai Sabai emerged during a celebration of Nuit’s and Jason’s birthdays. (Both were born May 31.)  “It started off very humbly, just a bunch of friends having fun,” says Seng. “It just happened. Nuit has a very good track record already,” adds Jason, and we said, ‘It’s time for us to have a restaurant together.’ ”

By then, Nuit and Jeff, Jason and Seng had been friends for six years. Jason and Seng were frequent clients at Sukho Thai, and their shared passion for food—especially Thai and Lao food—brought them all together.

“When we tasted Nuit’s food, we were like, ‘Oh, my God, we have to meet the chef,’ ” says Seng, whose family moved to Toronto, via Laos and Thailand, when he was eight.

“We would cook together…It brought back memories of the food that we grew up eating,” says Jason, who was also born in Laos and grew up in Toronto, along with Seng, near the area now known as The Junction.

Northern Thai and Lao cuisine share similar attributes and have influenced each other due to their proximity. “We have a similar base of ingredients, ” explains Nuit, “like fish sauce, shrimp paste, fish, bagoong (Tagalog for fermented fish or shrimp and salt), anchovies and we have the same vegetables.”

The curries also tend to be mild and light; spices such as wild ginger, tamarind, holy basil, kaffir lime and galangal are often used. A slight difference would be that Thai food uses more coconut, says Seng, and Lao have more soup bases and vegetables.

Everything from the menu to the décor at Sabai Sabai has been a collaborative effort, says Jason. “It all came naturally.” The vintage Asian prints, collages and modern stencils, says Seng, just evolved. The light pink, red, blue and green lanterns with gold trimmings that were flown in from northern Thailand in time for Songkran looked so at home in the restaurant that the owners decided to keep them there.

Unlike Jeff and Nuit, Jason and Seng are first-time restaurateurs. “Jason has always wanted a restaurant and that seed was planted in his head many, many years ago,” says Seng. “I was indifferent. I love food, but I never really dreamed of having a restaurant…But I enjoy cooking and entertaining, so it all makes sense now.” Seng still has his nine-to-five corporate job; after five, he heads straight to the restaurant. “To me, this is the fun part of my day. I come here to relax. It sounds funny,” he says,  “but it’s true.”

Jason grew up in a big family and always had a fascination for food. His parents were born in China but moved to work as chefs in Laos, where Jason was born. “I was always curious about food. I love to cook and experiment,” he says. He took a hotel management course and worked in several restaurants before Sabai Sabai. “This has been a dream come true for me. I’m very happy and content.”

Nuit, who worked as a nurse in Thailand, said Toronto’s warm embrace of her culinary skills has been “very surprising to me and to my parents.” Her father was initially opposed to the idea, saying she was wasting her education by working in a kitchen. “My mom understood it and she really supported my decision. But now, [my father’s]  happy and surprised at how much people love Thai food and home cooking,” she says.  Nuit’s mother worked in the restaurant business, so cooking was a familiar zone. While working as a nurse, Nuit opened a curry shack to augment her earnings and help out her family. Her brother eventually took over the business when she moved to Toronto to join Jeff, who was born and raised in Canada.

Several publishers have approached Nuit with ideas for a book, but she has told them now is not the right time. “Life is still crazy busy. But I would love to have one,” she says, if only to preserve and share the authentic way of northern Thai cooking. Her fear is that “soon no one will be doing it and passing it on to the next generation.”

Right now, Nuit, Seng and Jason say they’re glad to be among the first to hopefully put the culinary wasteland that is Church and Dundas on Toronto’s foodie map. It has also been an exciting time to open Sabai Sabai and be part of the restaurant wave that has hit the city. “I think it’s really exciting for the city,” says Seng. “Toronto’s just a little bit underrated in the international scene…I’ve travelled around the world and we really make good and authentic Thai and Vietnamese food.”

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