Charles Demers: How falling in love with a restaurant can be a dangerous thing

And why it’s still worth the trouble

June 3, 2016

By Charles Demers

Just a single cookie was enough to transport Marcel Proust back to his childhood. And if my two-year-old ever wants to relive her final days in utero, she need only pop into the Jambo Grill. Of course, Proust was retrieving the sense memories of a childhood in Belle Époque France—slightly more romantic ground than Kingsway and Joyce. But this particular address has been producing the city’s finest Indo-African fare for years now.

I first happened across it as an undergrad, when the spot was something closer to a snack counter called Good Morning Panwalla. The transformation to a mid-range dining room called Jambo began during my hiatus as a customer—a hiatus owing largely to my having married a very brilliant and beautiful woman whose only real flaw was an almost total aversion to spicy foods. But in one of the physiological mysteries (and miracles) of pregnancy, my wife shed her G-rated seasoning palate once she was with child, and we—well, I—took full advantage. By the time the baby was two weeks overdue, we were actively seeking out spicy treats as a labour-inducing aid of urban legend. In the end, it took synthetic oxytocin, rather than pakoras, to evict our daughter from her amniotic suite, but we’d done our our very damnedest at Jambo to get things started.

Well, Jambo and one other beloved restaurant: Café Kathmandu, where we dined at least weekly on Nepalese delicacies prepared just a few blocks from our home, in a restaurant owned and operated by an old friend and political comrade. One of my favourite photos of my pregnant beloved was taken against the bright yellow wall next to our table at Café Kathmandu. After joining us all on the outside, our daughter, too, became a regular, crawling around on the floor and making the place her own, including on the night we booked it for her grandfather’s 60th birthday.

But there is no Proustian mnemonic shortcut available to her in this regard, because Café Kathmandu is no longer with us, having closed its doors at the end of February. Two years old is pretty young to already have a domaine perdu, but my daughter is already learning one of the sad lessons of city life: today’s favourite restaurant is tomorrow’s wistful memory. No more Cannery; no more Brave Bull’s. My kid will never even get to try, let alone forget, Rime, the Commercial Drive Turkish-fusion spot where her dad learned how to do stand-up comedy, and whose head chef and cook catered her parents’ wedding at cost as a gift.

The only comfort to be taken is the knowledge that we can gorge on those still with us; that the disappearance of old favourites is almost always matched by the emergence of new ones; and that we’ll forever have our memories of what came before. Though it’s been transformed, there are still a few small, subtle spots on the walls at Jambo that say “Good Morning Panwalla.”

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