Mrs Le shut down her self-titled Ottawa West restaurant for four months last year. When she reopened this past fall, she was down a deck. Gone was the green balcony that used to hang over the street. But it was no great loss. The street was Carling Avenue, and who in their right mind wanted that perch?
In place of the front deck is now a smart brick addition. At night it’s framed with neon lights, designed to alert those who whiz by of its presence. The fact it has parking in the back. Inside, the new space has wrap around windows and a trio of long booths. Dangling strings of snowflake lights, sharing space with hanging peppers, potted plants and table bouquets of ceramic peach trees – or are they apple? – complete the noble effort of blocking Carling Avenue, without interfering much with the natural light.
The curios and bric-a-brac add to the busy charm of the room – though I must say I don’t much miss the tiger print chairs. These have been reupholstered.
The other change about Mrs Le is the menu. It’s still long and confusing (what Vietnamese restaurant’s menu isn’t?) but it now includes two pages of Thai dishes. This begins to make some sense when we learn Vietnamese Mrs Le has a chef from Bangkok.
The casual wait-staff isn’t exactly pro-active in advising what to try, but if you encourage them with specific questions (how’s the fish curry tonight?) you may get somewhere. Otherwise, look around you. Everyone is parcelling up fragrant, grilled meats with vermicelli, peppers, bean sprouts and herbs in softened rice wraps, and you can’t go wrong with that order here. It’s good, filling, affordable food.
I’ve always found Mrs Le’s Vietnamese fare a cut above – particularly her beef noodle soup (pho) with its gloriously scented broth, strong of cloves and star anise – a sure-fire cure for any winter lurgy. But these latest visits I find myself meandering onto the Thai pages of the menu and liking it as well. Starting with the deep fried tofu-wrapped purses of minced pork and shrimp, with carrot, cilantro and scallion. These are warmly spiced, addictive treats, served with a house-made sauce green with cucumber.
There are stir-fry dishes, of course, and the couple I’ve tried have had those hot, spicy, sweet-and-sour flavours we seek, with fresh, crisp veg and yielding meats. But it’s those essential flavours amplified by the shifting textures of crisp, soft, wet and dry that I most love with Thai food and here’s where the fish dishes shine. Particularly good the red curry of tilapia, the fat, fresh-tasting fish in a well balanced, tastebud-tingling sauce. Excellent too the deep fried version (number T17) the fish remarkably juicy and moist within its crackling coat, in a sweet and gingery syrup dotted with dried red chillies, which give some pop at the end, to balance out the sugar. Yum.
I wasn’t as impressed with the pad Thai. The dish had a good tamarind-forward flavour, but the noodles were gummy, clinging together, without enough lubricant.
They have Mill Street on their beer list, along with the usual Asian imports, and though wines by the glass are limited to one choice, red or white, the full bottles are very kindly priced.
Much to like at the newly re-opened Mrs Le. You won’t miss the deck. Promise.