Saronn Pov has been building her culinary career on identity. With a love of local food and seasonal ingredients, and an appreciation of the Cambodian flavours her mother raised her on, at Saronn's Kitchen, Pov was inspired by the connectivity of food and culture.
Six months ago, Pov opened Studio East Food + Drink with partner Ray Bear, who serves as executive chef. Bear made his name over a decade ago when he was at Gio, but has never really managed to forge a tangible identity in subsequent kitchens: he was talented, but inconsistent, his identity as a chef shifting perhaps a little too easily, seemingly driven more by trends than intention. Pov's confident point of view just might be the thing that finally brings Bear's talent back into focus.
Studio East's decor has a comfortable, well-worn arts-and-crafts vibe, with bright, kitschy paintings and cutesy word art and drawings of ramen and oysters on chalkboard walls. Old church pews dotted with scrappy cushions make up a wall of seats with industrial stacking metal chairs on the other sides of the small tables. A communal bar table runs through the middle of the room, tall wooden stools lining either side. A bar and open kitchen are in the restaurant's other half.
The restaurant is half-empty when I meet two friends for Saturday brunch, and it only gets emptier in the hour or so we're there. I'm surprised: It's a nice space with a focused, interesting menu. I figured it wouldn't just be crowded, but that there would be a wait.
We order coffees ($3.5) and a cappuccino ($4.5). Studio East uses Nova Coffee for its drip and Illy for its espresso drinks. I hate the cappuccino, which has a low-fat froth that sits unmovable atop the liquid—I prefer low-key, velvety foam that sinks into a plush cappuccino. I understand the appeal of Illy pod coffee for consistency, but I personally find them consistently bad. The server kindly takes the drink back and removes it from the bill. I change tack and get the Studio mimosa ($8) instead, a sparkling wine with a touch of cranberry and flowery lychee.
Only two hours into the day's service, the restaurant is already out of steamed buns. We get two orders of bao buns ($14). If you are familiar with dabao—the huge, fluffy steamed buns common in Chinese bakeries, almost overstuffed with a hard-boiled egg and minced pork—these are a sort of semi-deconstructed version of those perfect spheres. Studio East's bao has a Chinese BBQ minced pork tucked inside, with the egg instead draped across the top, runny yolks drizzled with sweet house-made hoisin. One of the two plates is missing cilantro when it arrives.
The Cambodian chicken congee bowl ($12) is also missing an ingredient when it arrives: the chicken. A savoury rice porridge, loose and slightly soupy, the mild creaminess is a blank slate on which the toppings mark their flavour. Pov boils whole chickens and uses the broth for the base of the congee. There is supposed to be shredded chicken on top, and I admit I didn't even think about that until I was half-done. Airy cruller-style donuts, a nest of crunchy bean sprouts, some finely chopped green onion, some garlic chili sauce and a sunny egg plopped in the middle of the bowl were enough of a distraction.
The num pang ($13) baguette, a Cambodian equivalent of the banh mi, is packed with meat: fermented sausage wrapped with bacon, pork belly melting with a slight smokiness, chicken pate. It's huge, clumsy to eat and worth the dribbling down your shirt.
I do see a good foundation here: a combination of personality and talent that could be outstanding. With a little more attention to detail to really nail the consistency of those great flavours, I figure one of these Saturdays there will definitely be a wait.
Studio East Food + Drink
6021 Cunard Street
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