March 28, 2014
Dining Out

Windup Bird Takes Off

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Conscientious community café feeds body and soul . . . .

Most restaurants just want to feed you. A select few want to nourish you.

The Windup Bird Café is in the second group. This new community hub in my ’hood aims to feed the body and soul with a wholesome, inclusive menu and happenings for conscientious food lovers.

       Restaurateur promoting food literacy for kids. Credit: Maylynn Quan

The Bird first opened its doors while we were hibernating through the Great Winter of 2013/14. It formally launched this week, once spring had officially (but not actually) arrived.

Owner Sang Kim is a veteran of the hip Toronto restaurant scene. Kim yearned for “something more” and landed, with his dreams, at a cosy café at College and Borden Sts.

     Portrait of Sang Kim. Credit: Kerry Kim

At the Bird, omnivores and vegans can come together for good, clean, cross-cultural, local, seasonal fare. Kim says partner/chef Yumiko Kobayashi recognizes that feeding people is “a sacred act.” Menu choices range from French Pot au Feu to saucy, umami-imbued Avocado Tofu Gratin. Popular open sandwich boards, with Arctic char, chicken breast or vegetable loaf, come with soup and pickled vegetables. Several dishes are specifically gluten-free. The Bird does brunch (including a vegan Bennie), as well as lunch and dinner. Coming soon: a patio with a children’s community garden, and a kids’ menu designed by kids.

It is a restaurant first. But Kim, an immigrant who grew up poor and hungry, brings something more to the table. At the Bird, he stokes his passions for food security, children’s nutrition, social justice, environmental activism, and literature. By summer’s end, he plans to have 18 programs running at the café.

Kid-Chen Confidential, previewed at this week’s launch, features kids teaching kids about cooking. Kim’s 9-year-old daughter Kiki made tofu burgers with the guidance of Proteen Queen Leah Honiball. At 15, Honiball is already camera-ready, handles a knife with poise, and spreads the gospel of healthy eating. Kiki, meanwhile, is a gregarious food lover who gnawed unabashedly on lamb bones in each fist as she circulated after the demo.

       Kiki, left, and Leah Honiball in cooking demo. Credit: Susan Sampson

We also got a preview of Cook/Book. The format: An author is interviewed while he/she demos a favourite dish. The audience, meanwhile, enjoys a three-course meal built around that dish. At the launch, Joyce Wayne, author of the new Victorian novel The Cook’s Temptation, made mango cheesecake.

Ambitious plans, indeed. Is the conscientious community restaurant an idea whose time has come?

Experts guesstimate that Canadians get anywhere from 1 in 4 to 1 in 10 meals at restaurants and take-out spots. (Figures vary depending on the source of the research and the age of the respondents.) Meanwhile, home cooking often consists of pushing buttons on a microwave. Overeating has become a perverted form of entertainment in a restaurant world dominated by fast food joints with busy drive-thrus, and interchangeable chains doling out startling amounts of fat and sodium.

Amid all this madness, it is nice to find a neighbourhood café offering wholesome meals with a side order of food literacy.

What’s in a Name?

Stories about the café always point out that it is named after The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, by Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. Curiously, they never say what the novel is about. After nosing around online, I know why. The novel is too complex and convoluted to capture in a few sentences. So I, too, am throwing up my hands – until I read it myself.

Recipe from the Windup Bird Café: Ganmodoki.

       My homemade Ganmodoki (tofu patty). Credit: Susan Sampson