It was a cold and rainy day. I hate when weekends start like that as we started off the day wondering where to go for brunch. We usually head out for dim sum but I had been craving something I had earlier in the week.
I had met my friends Mary and Jill at the Windup Bird Cafe on College Street earlier that week. It was a perfect location as she came from the west of the city , Jill was downtown and I was coming from uptown. I had heard something special about this cafe and was curious. A little bird had told me that Sang Kim, co-owner of this little gem was involved with Blowfish, a well-known modern Japanese restaurant that held us as a captive audience when we lived downtown. He is someone that is worth getting to know. More on him later.
Windup Bird Cafe got it’s name after the famous Haruki Murakami novel “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” about a unassuming unemployed man, Toru Ikada, and his lost cat. He involves psychic sisters who visit him in his dreams as well as in reality. Possibly hallucinations and it becomes harder for him to differentiate what’s real and what’s not. It’s a story that Murakami admits that when writing, he didn’t have a plot and just allowed the story to reveal itself on it’s own. Leaving destiny to do it’s job, I’m sure.
Mary had explained that it you could get your Eggs Benny fix here but she also knew that Asian foods are always in my comfort zone. She mentioned that Windup Cafe also recently introduced Stonebowls to the fall menu and it’s something that I may be interested. That first visit had my drooling, and still does, at the thought of the perfect rice stone bowl.
What is it? Call it a BimBimBrunch, if you will. The Korean/Japanese style rice bowl I had ordered was layered in the goodness of organic brown rice, asian pulled pork, fresh vegetables with a perfectly poached egg on top. I’m salivating at just the thought of it right now. The stone bowl itself keeps the meal warm the entire time it takes to eat it. I could seriously eat this EVERY.DAY.
I had it on top of my mind and suggested to my family that we venture out for weekend brunch. Serious cravings for that bowl. They had agreed. I did the happy dance.
Sang remembered me from my first visit a few days earlier. His warm smile made me feel like this is home. “Our fresh juice of the day is strawberry and cactus pear.” Right, I remembered that the cafe offers a different fresh juice each day. The other day was blueberry, kale and herbs. Delicious.
Since there were four of us, I knew I could steal a few bites from the other dishes. I seriously needed that Hot Stone Bowl fix again. I think it’s become that “go-to” meal for me — ever get that feeling? When you’ve enjoyed a dish so much that you will forever associate it with that restaurant and just can’t seem to tear yourself away from having that each and every time? I’m that kind of person.
We had lingered on the cafe’s co-owner and head chef Chef Yumiko Kobayashi’s menu options trying to decide on between all the comfort foods. Her approach when creating the menu is to source locally and seasonally as much as possible. We had also ordered the Pulled Pork (2 orders) as well as the Beef Bulgogi Stone bowls. But we went off the asian track and ordered Chicken Waffles. BUT let’s make this clear…probably the best Chicken Waffles I’ve touch my lips to. We’re use to the buttermilk fried chicken but at Windup Cafe, the chicken is Tokyo karaage style. A healthier option. Absolutely yum.
We made note of the RAW menu that’s offered in the evening as well. Sang tells us it’s truly worth coming back for. It’s a precise menu feature something extraordinary like Red Snapper Ceviche made with yuzu citrus and pineapple salsa.
Sang is a seriously interesting human being and you’ll want to get to know him. He’s not only passionate about food, he’s also a big supporter of what he calls “food literacy” that is, educating families and kids about what we’re eating, where it comes from, and how it gets on our plates. He’s also made it a personal mission to educate the public that good quality food is attainable. Fast food doesn’t have to be compromised, it CAN mean good food. In fact, if you look at his restaurant menu you’d be surprised at how he can offer such high quality and tasty dishes at the price points that he does. For the price of a “combo” at a well-known fast food chain you can get an incredibly delicious and healthy meal here. Why? Having grown up one of the toughest and poorest neighbourhoods in the city, Sang has can speak from experience about being raised eating processed and GMO foods. His family didn’t really think anything more than cheap and convenient — we just got fed and that was good enough. He’s mentioned in previous media interviews about when he was a teen his friends were stealing sneakers while he was stealing food. He was caught once and was told to go work in a restaurant if he wanted food. So he did. That experience was the foundation of his restaurant career. What really stuck in his mind from his early restaurant years was seeing families interacted and shared a meal together. That left a lasting impression as this wasn’t part of his upbringing. Today, he admits to Sundays being one of his favourite days in his restaurant — just watching families dining together and that special bond.
Now that he’s a dad, he wanted to help families learn about what they eat, something he wished he had when he was younger. Windup Bird Cafe offers the “kid-chen confidential” classes for kids where his own 10 year old daughter, Kiki, actively participates.They also offer “Sushi Making For The Soul” workshops that are sold out well in advance. He’s also a big community supporter offering space for very popular evening literacy and arts events that draws in a pretty impressive roster of talent. He himself is an award-winning fiction writer and is involved in many great events in the city.
You should most definitely check it out…and you’ll probably see me in the corner hanging out with my stone bowl along side a literary genius.
Oh…and by the way, Sang also did a little something called a TedTalk . Watch here: TedXYouthToronto.ca
Windup Bird Cafe is located at 382 College Street. Toronto. Open for lunch and dinner daily. Visit windupbird.ca for more details on the current menu and upcoming events.