I bumped into cookbook author and Canadian culinary ambassador Margaret Dickenson the other day, and though there was much to talk about she cut to the chase: “Anne, have you been to Datsun?” I admitted I had not yet managed that feat (like its big brother restaurant next door, El Camino, Datsun is new, cool and hopping, and it takes no reservations.)
That did it. If Margaret Dickenson can’t get a burger out of her mind, I needed to suck it up and get in the queue.
The secret was going early. We practically waltzed in at 5:45. That is to say, we managed to snag two stools at the open kitchen counter. Front row seats to the mise en place and the action on the line.
Datsun is the brainchild of Matthew Carmichael and his long time partner in the kitchen, Jordan Holley. Perhaps El Camino (yes, Carmichael’s a car guy) was receiving far too much affection. It needed a little brother to spread the love, and, possibly, alleviate the line-ups. So Datsun rolled into town in October, and drove away with the Asian side of the menu, leaving El Camino to specialize in the Mexican street-food fare.
The success of Datsun I would suggest lies in its owner and where he comes from. Carmichael’s background is in fine dining. His eateries may be thoroughly modern, casual, and cool, but he’s old school about what matters most: delicious food and service — the kind that makes you feel cared for. The kids who work Datsun are kind, fun, knowledgeable and trained. And that’s rare for ‘this sort of place.’
It’s a basement room, framed in concrete and glass and filled in with blond wood. A bar with open shelves dominates the south wall, while an open kitchen is located on the north side. To warm the sparsely ornamented space, Datsun relies on people (no problemo) and its groovy lighting (including a long and fascinating chandelier installation).
We began with wings. As you must. They were excellent – sticky, meaty, fiery, perfect with a beer. And then steamed pork buns, the amber meat sweetly fragrant, with equal crisp and fat, meat and goo, tucked in a bouncy-soft bao with a black bean sauce scented with star anise and cinnamon, including thinly sliced scallions and lightly pickled cucumber. Two per order. We ordered one. And then we ordered another.
Margaret’s shrimp sliders came next. And yes, they were memorable, served with “tasty sauce” (a trumped up mayo, perhaps?), good, crisp bacon and iceberg lettuce. The pot stickers were the best I’ve had in the city. Possibly in any city. The Penang curry starred tender, slow-cooked beef and a potent red curry paste, with lime leaves and lime leaf zest, peanuts, star anise, Thai basil, coconut milk, and many many chiles.
One of my favourite dishes featured sautéed mushrooms – from Le Coprin I suspect – oyster, eryngii, shiitake, and velvet foot (like enoki) interrupted with crisp snow peas and microgreens, bathed in a mushroom broth spiked with soy, yuzu, fish sauce, lime juice and black vinegar.
There was a large smear of it furnished on the plate, but you add more wasabi at your peril. The puck of raw, hand-chopped tuna crowned with small knobs of cream cheese had plenty of ‘pow’ on its own. It was served with nori crisps, which weren’t bad; they just weren’t ‘crisp’.
Less pow, more gentle, but with well thought through textures — that was the lobster wrap. It was presented with rich nuggets of meat nestled in a bowl of iceberg lettuce, with a chiffonade of radish and a couple of laksa leaves. Nuoc cham (Vietnamese dipping sauce) came for dunking.
Deep fried ice cream for dessert, with sesame and candied ginger, set in a chocolate caramel sauce. Just one of these.
Datsun has really yummy food, a vibrant room and caring service. Full marks. Just like Margaret said.