FOMO is a real thing. Especially when you’re waiting at the bus stop in -6 degrees, pulling your tuque lower over your forehead to brace yourself against the next gust of wind. Or retrieving lunch in the PATH to avoid bundling up in 10 layers to hit the street. Thankfully, Miss Thing’s is the perfect antidote to the mid-February Canadian winter blues. Head Barman, Robin Wynne, evokes images of being on vacation in the Caribbean and drinking out of coconuts. “Why not just bring it to Canada and have those memories fresh and make you feel happy and warm because you remember that from when you were on vacation?” Wynne asks. It’s a provoking question, likely why Miss Thing’s is at its busiest during our harsh winter months (though, it’s admittedly busy year-round). From Wynne’s cocktails playfully contained in pineapples, coconuts and speciality cups that include seahorse-themed ceramics to Head Chef Jasper Wu’s “Modern Polynesian, Pan-Asian cuisine,” Miss Thing’s is definitely the thing. On a recent sit-down with Wu and Wynne, the barman summed the experience up perfectly: “the music, the tropical disco, the vibe, the food, the drinks all come together to create an experience.”
The interplay between food and drink is something the creative duo have considered carefully. During their monthly rum dinners, they work together to pair the alcohol and food perfectly. “I pick out caramel or vanilla in the rum and I think about cake or crème anglaise,” says Wu. “We have to work together,” Wynne adds. “If he’s using yuzu in something that’s like super tart, do I have something that’s not so tart just to balance those flavors? Or do I continue on with the tartness?” But marrying food and drink isn’t just a Wu-Wynne Clan exercise; it involves the entire team. Servers too must have tried and be able to recommend pairings. Wynne recommends the Fuzzy Wawa and the pineapple fried rice. The drink has coconut and the rice has pineapple; together they form the flavour palate of a piña colada.
The Miss Thing’s menu changes every season, with core dishes remaining. Chef Wu’s team of four – including himself – incorporates tradition into their dishes. The Chef explains that he begins designing a dish by researching classic flavour combinations associated with a particular ingredient. “I think chefs are more DJs than composers,” he says. “Very few of us have actually composed, note by note, a song. It’s always an existing song, an existing dish like pasta Bolognese, paella. These are things already out there and it’s the chef that plays with it.” For example, a mushroom pancake dish influenced by a traditional braised beef pancake from China’s Xi’an region capitalized instead on mushroom season and benefited from a garnish of black garlic crema sauce. This is how Chef Wu describes his mixing style: “it’s always based on something that already exists and I interpret it with local ingredients or something that I personally like.”
Wu calls Chef Susur Lee, under whom he previously worked at Bent, a “jazz musician who likes to improvise” more than Wu does in the Miss Thing’s kitchen. The Bent kitchen environment was “still focused but a lot more chaotic” than his. Wu grew up in Hong Kong tasting many different cuisines. “I ate sushi when I was 10. I don’t understand this kid’s menu culture,” he says. If you ask him his favourite meal, he’ll praise his mother’s home cooking. Every New Year, Mrs. Wu makes a feast with steamed fish, braised pork belly, deep fried squab and lettuce wraps with dried oysters and daikon. “I’ve got to get that recipe from her,” Wu adds.
Robin Wynne’s mixology style seems to be quite different from Wu’s creative process. Wynne draws influence from travelling and experiencing “different drink cultures.” One of his favourite ways of getting local inspiration is to walk through Chinatown and return to the bar with various random ingredients, then test them out. “It’s almost like a science experiment,” says Wynne. “Sometimes you hit a home run and sometimes you strike out. Luckily, having worked with a lot of ingredients before, I understand the general direction in which to go.” Fun Chinatown finds include yellow preserved olives with the texture of orange rind and which have a “weird salty sweetness” as well as dried hawthorne berries.
Neither Wynne nor Wu is a classically trained chef; they both learned to cook in restaurant jobs. Wu began with a love of dining out which ultimately drove him into pastry at the kitchen at ki on Bay and Wellington. Wynne worked for Prime Restaurants and went from kitchen to management to bartending. Both advocate for the importance of learning on the job over traditional training. “Chefs that go out front will make the best bartenders because they’ve already got that blueprint in their mind of what flavours work well,” says Wynne on his transition to mixology. Much of his job is “guest experience” driven and involves multitasking cocktail making and engaging with guests. Not surprisingly, this involves lots of chats about Tinder, Bumble and dating in general. “The cocktail is secondary to the guest experience,” he insists. “Is it actually true that people come in and download their problems onto you?” I ask. “100 percent. It’s easier to talk to a complete stranger than someone they know and your friends are always gonna tell you ‘he was an idiot.’” Wynne is always happy to offer an unbiased opinion.
At home, Wynne’s bar is as well stocked as a restaurant’s. He shows me a picture of rows of bottles. “Some people collect stamps,” Wynne jokes, explaining that his collection includes some 100 bottles. He also rents a wine storage unit. Though he appreciates and enjoys alcohol, Wynne is very conscious of the problems associated with overindulging. His first instinct “isn’t to get home and pour three fingers of scotch or whiskey or whatever or to open a bottle” and many of his bottles are gifts from friends or come from alcohol companies looking for help developing products. “I think I still have three bottles of Southern Comfort that were all confidential tester bottles for stuff they’re coming out with which are now out. There’s a black pepper, a lime and I think there’s a spicy Tabasco one too.” One of the gifts is whiskey with a scorpion and cobra in the bottle brought back from Vietnam. “When do you drink that – I don’t know, when the world’s ending,” says Wynne who jokes he is saving it for the zombie apocalypse.
Wu’s fridge isn’t quite as well maintained. “My fridge is filled with Chinese takeout,” he laughs. Though the chef cooks on days off, he buys only what he needs. The inside of his fridge is currently home to a half litre of cream he bought two months ago. “It’s cheese by now.” The pantry, meanwhile, always has several kinds of vinegar including Chinese black vinegar, which Chef uses to finish soups and sauces. “You always want to add a tiny – even a drop – of acid,” he says. He also stocks lentils and couscous so he can come home at the end of a long day, sauté sausage or chicken with some vegetables and throw them in with a pot of lentils. “This is all done within, like, five minutes. I go shower, I come out and everything’s done,” says Wu.
If you’re looking for me this winter, you’ll find me hibernating down south – or as near as I can get – drinking out of a coconut with a big sunhat and diva sunglasses at Miss Thing’s.