It's all too easy to walk past the unassuming little space at the corner of College St. and Borden St. if you don't pay attention. You'd totally miss out on a great thing, though, because that little space is now home to the Wind Up Bird Cafe, veteran restauranteur, author and playwright Sang Kim's latest venture.
Kim, along with partners Yumiko Kobayashi and Claudio Gaudio, succeeded in transforming the long, narrow storefront that previously housed a series of entirely forgettable (and occasionally sketchy) businesses into a bright and airy restaurant. Quotes by the likes of Pablo Neruda and Haruki Murakami are written on the large windows at the front of the restaurant, while flocks of origami birds, original artworks, and framed pictures of Sang's children's book adorn the cheerful yellow walls. (Fans of Murakami will also recognize the homage to his novel, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.)
In the kitchen, chef Kobayashi and her team have created a seasonally-inspired menu that evolves regularly, based on the availability of ingredients and the change in the seasons, designed to bring vegans and omnivores to the table together.
The influences are equal parts classical French and modern Japanese: seafood ceviche seasoned with citrusy ponzu sauce; vegan avocado and tofu "gratin" smothered in a creamy tofu-miso sauce and garnished with crisp-fried shallot; pot-au-feu with pork sausage, lotus root and daikon; crispy pan-fried tofu cakes dotted with carrot; and perfect medium-rare lamb chops perched atop a tart apple and watercress salad. Classic French pastries in the glass case up front are perfect for ending a meal, or to accompany a mid-afternoon espresso.
Kobayashi says it has a few favourites that will likely stay on year-round, like its signature avocado-tofu gratin.
Pastries and sauces are all prepared in-house, while bread comes in from Blackbird Bakery and meats and eggs are sourced from Sanagan's Butcher Shop in nearby Kensington Market. As for the vegetables, there's an as-much-as-possible approach to using locally-grown produce, though Kobayashi admits that it's not an easy task in the winter months.
The food and the vibe alone are more than enough reason to visit Wind Up Bird Cafe, but Kim has bigger plans for the space. The cafe does double-duty as a community space, hosting a series of regular monthly programs revolving around food, social activism, and arts and literature. "It's about creating a cultural imprint that's larger than this tiny space," explains Kim.
One of the first programs to launch is Cook/Book, which will bring in local authors to demonstrate their favourite recipe while chatting with Kim about their views on food, after which a special three-course menu built around that dish will be served to the attendees. Another regular event, The Shuffle, will bring in groups of students from the University of Toronto's Faculty of Music to play set pieces or improvised music.
Kim and Kobayashi are also passionate about education and food literacy for youth, and have designed several children's programs for the community. The first of these is Kid-Chen Confidential, a monthly peer-led cooking class, where young people can teach their peers about food in a safe, supportive environment.
Plans are also underway to plant a children's community garden in its patio space, which will supply the restaurant with fresh herbs and vegetable over the growing season.
Next time you find yourself in the neighbourhood, keep your eyes peeled as you're walking past the corner, and drop in, whether it's just for a quick coffee and a pastry, or for a more substantial evening of food and literature.