Meal Set Bistro
Neighbourhood: River Heights
Address: 612 Academy Rd
The history of food is a series of adaptations; while some concepts prompt the term “fusion food,” in a sense, all cuisine is a fusion of culture, place, and a chef’s personal creativity.
At Meal Set Bistro, the new entry into Academy Road’s dining scene that opened late last year, these elements converge in chef Ken Nguyen’s kitchen, and arrive at the table in the form of some of the most exciting food we’ve eaten this year.
Not all Asian-Canadian chefs want to work exclusively with Asian flavours, and when they do they don’t always want to do it in expected ways. Nguyen’s free spirited approach is common among second and third generation Canadian cooks, who draw inspiration from their parents’ countries of origin while shaping their own narrative. Find Korean spicy chili, cilantro sauce, chimichurri, ginger juice and fruit salsas layered into sushi and salad here.
The mod space with sushi bar vibes—vacated when Fusion Experience moved downtown—serves both as commissary for food delivery business Meal Set Go and as a 24-seat dining room. Charcoal painted walls, red accents and one statement art piece appoint the simple space.
The menu is a genre-bending culinary journey through modern Japanese fusion food, accented with nods to Nguyen’s Chinese and Vietnamese heritage. The compact selection is relatively easy to navigate, categorizing shareable dishes as tapas, sushi rolls, yakitori, baos, sushi donuts, sashimi and tempura.
A rotating list of seasonal features is equally tempting. Visually stunning mini “mamba” sliders start the edible art tour. A dramatic black bun made with activated charcoal carries a stack of Kobe beef patty, pancetta, quail egg, guacamole, onion ring and red cabbage laced with spicy aioli. Each bite delivers exciting textural contrast, from the super crunch of onion ring to the gooey yolk saucing the meat.
Seafood risotto is another winner. Shiitake and oyster mushrooms perfume a silky cream sauce while prawns, scallops and half a lobster tail offer subtle ocean brininess. The rich dish is topped with shaved Parmesan, pea shoots, black caviar and a few gold flakes – just in case any “seen it all” diners need a little extra schmoozing.
Iterations of spicy mango prawns (with a medley of veggies in a martini glass), tartare (stacked with veggies and micro greens parfait style in a jar) and imaginative sushi rolls (eye-popping with colourful fish and garnished playfully) reflect unbridled artistic flair.
Chef Ken’s funhouse of flavours is a testament to the arbitrariness of culinary classification. Defining Meal Set Bistro’s Asian fusion cuisine may be a fool’s task, but eating it is a pure delight.