The Nameless Restaurant: Sample Chapter
The Nameless Restaurant is a cozy cooking fantasy perfect for fans of Travis Baldree's Legends & Lattes and Junpei Inuzuka's Restaurant to Another World.
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There is a restaurant in Toronto. It’s on a side street in the depths of Kensington Market, on the borders between old Chinatown and the market itself. Far from the towering skyscrapers of downtown and away from the cheap and easy eats frequented by the students of the University of Toronto.
Its entrance is announced only by a simple, unadorned wooden door, varnished to a beautiful shine but without paint, hidden beside dumpsters and a fire escape. There is no sign, no indication of what lies behind the door.
To find it, you have to know where to look, or you have to stumble upon it by pure luck. Reviews of the restaurant magically disappear, removed from internet directories and newspapers alike. Directions grow garbled, words twisted and lost to the fogs of time and faulty memories.
If you do manage to find the restaurant, the décor is dated and worn. Homey, if one were to be generous. The service is atrocious, the proprietor a grouch. The regulars are worse, silent, brooding, and unfriendly to newcomers. There is no set menu, alternating with the whim and whimsy of the owner. The selection of wine and beer is sparse or non-existent at times, and the prices for everything outrageous.
There is a restaurant in Toronto that is magically hidden, whose service is horrible, and whose food is divine.
This is the story of the Nameless Restaurant.
Chapter 1 - Golden Fried Rice
Midday light streamed in from the half-submerged windows facing the alleyway, adding to the soft illumination of incandescent light bulbs hanging from yellow chandeliers. The occasional metal pillar supporting the ceiling and the floor broke up the open floor plan of the restaurant, old wooden tables and threadbare, barely upholstered chairs. A dozen tables all told, some set against faded walls of grey concrete, the walls featuring a series of old black-and-white pictures of cities of a bygone age.
From the kitchen to the left of the entrance door, down from the staircase that took a right turn immediately upon entrance, the sound of someone chopping vegetables rang out rhythmically. White fluorescent light, harsh compared to the softer yellow of the dining room, shone from within, casting a long shadow of the cook. A bar with a half-dozen bar stools was set in front of the kitchen, a large open window showcasing the workings of the kitchen.
The smell of fresh-cut vegetables, boiling pots of stock, and a light floral scent of cleaning agent surrounded the man whose fingers danced across the chopping board, his knife wielded with practiced efficiency. Onions, garlic, celery, tomatoes, lettuce—all was chopped and prepped and set aside in rectangular metal containers for later use.
The peaceful scene was interrupted by the sudden thud of a body against the entrance doorway. A muffled grunt and yelp, as the door failed to give way or the knob to turn.
“Damn physical bodies.” The feminine voice was loud and affronted as the doorknob rattled again. “Let me just…” A slight pause, a buzz, and a yelp. “Aaargh! Who wards their damn door with a sixteenth level Archmage spell of forbiddance?”
A couple more thuds, as though someone was kicking the solid wooden door. The knife stopped moving, the cook’s head rose as the knife was set gently against the chopping board. Full lips thinned for a moment, a hand reaching up to snatch the chef’s cap off the head. The cook stalked out of the kitchen to the door, making a tiny gesture with his hand as he did so.
Lights grew brighter; a series of quiet clicks and humming rose up before ending. Another kick, the doorknob turned and the figure on the other side tumbled through the open doorway to stumble into the staircase railing.
The woman that tumbled in was raven-haired, with a prominent, aquiline nose and tanned skin. Her dark eyes flashed as she straightened up, rubbing the side of her ribs where she had knocked them. Behind her came a young Chinese man, looking somewhat amused at the woman’s antics.
“Lily, the sign says ‘closed’,” the man said, exasperated. “You can’t just go breaking in. If you’re hungry, we could grab something down the street.”
“No!” A pause, as the aforementioned Lily looked around and spotted the cook. She pointed an accusatory finger at him. “Ah hah! I found you, Mo Meng! Do you know how hard it was to find you?”
“Exactly! This, this entire place is ridiculous.” Lily spun around, gesturing about her. As she spun, light streamed from her hands, glowing sigils, characters and words appearing all across the wall. She pointed as she spoke. “There. Assyrian Numerology. Incan Blood Chant. Oh, they above. Is that a Malayalam Tribal Oration combined with a Japanese Poem Song?”
Now the young man was silent, his eyes greedily drinking in the glowing lights. On the other hand, Mo Meng looked less than impressed, moving his fingers a little again. The door behind the young man closed, blocking off the glowing sigils from the public outside.
“Exactly how much trouble did you get into?” Lily said. “Did you really need all this?”
“Obviously not,” Mo Meng replied. “I needed more, if you found me.”
Lily paused, staring at the tiny middle-aged Asian man, and then snapped her fingers. The glowing sigils, words and characters disappeared, leaving the room suddenly darker than ever.
“Whatever.” She walked over to the counter, dragged out a bar stool and plopped her butt on it. “Feed me.” Turning around, she beckoned to her companion. “Come down, Henry. I already turned off all the fatal wards.”
Henry stared at the woman. His jaw worked for a few moments, and he looked between her and Mo Meng before he chose to come over and take a seat beside her. “You… you dragged me across the globe. Thrice. Through a raging viral magical pandemic, risking life and limb. All in search of this amazing, powerful archmage to ask him… to ask him to….”
“To cook for me!” Lily nodded. “Of course! Do you know how long I’ve dreamed of his food?”
Mo Meng glided across the floor, taking a place across from Lily on the other side of the bar. He eyed her and Henry for a second before he turned aside and fished out a teapot and a pair of teacups. Wandering over to a small electric heater, he put a clay pot on it and filled it with water from a glass bottle he found under the bar.
He said nothing, proceeding through the rest of the ritual. He rinsed the cups and teapot with the boiled water, pouring just a little of the hot water into the ceramic teapot to warm it further. Then, he moved to the small metal tin he had pulled from a desk, using wooden tongs to pick out a half-dozen delicate leaves. He dropped them into the pot after emptying it, before adding further hot water – now cooled from its boiling point – to the teapot.
Silence stretched, both Lily and Henry staring at the man’s silent movements. Each action was like a well-choreographed dance, blending efficiency and a touch of flair, the minor extension of a hand, the flick of a wrist as he dropped the tea leaves. It was hypnotizing, and in the stilling of the movement as they waited for the tea to steep, their breathing too lengthened and then settled.
Then, gently, he poured the tea into a strainer and another pot, the ceramic holding pot already warmed and washed. Carefully, across the two cups, he portioned the tea before setting the cups before the pair.
The smell of the tea leaves – delicate, fresh, grassy with the hint of the highland farms they had been plucked from, chosen from the freshest buds at the top of the trees and early in the spring – permeated the air.
Picking up the cup ever so gently, Henry sipped on the tea. His eyes closed, as the light and fresh taste of the tea leaves, the slight sweet and nutty flavor, permeated his tongue. The warmth of the cup and the size of it required him to sip only, but he realized only later that he had closed his eyes to truly savor the sensation.
By the time he had opened his eyes, Lily was done with her first cup, pouring herself a second from the ceramic holding pot.
“Good tea,” Lily praised. “But that’s not a good enough distraction. Cook for me!”
“And if I refuse?” Mo Meng said. “This is my restaurant. I cook when I want to, I serve who I wish.” Shadows darkened all around the restaurant and Henry found himself shivering as Mo Meng – and what a name that was, Henry could not help but think. ‘Nameless’. A true non-name for sure – glared at Lily.
“Then I’ll keep coming back. Every night.” She raised a finger. “For one whole century. Every. Night.”
Mo Meng shut his eyes and exhaled, loudly. Then, almost plaintively, as the shadows receded, he said. “I’m not even open, you know.”
“It’s fine. Whatever you have lying around will do,” Lily replied, brightening immediately.
“You’re going to be the death of me.” He picked up the hot water kettle, dropping it on the table and gesturing to the teapot. “You remember how?” At Lily’s nod, he continued. “The tea is best on the second steeping. Throw it out after the third.”
Then, having said his piece, he returned to his kitchen, leaving a bemused youngster and his companion seated outside.
Mo Meng surveyed the interior of his kitchen, the half-completed prep work that he had been forced to abandon, the ingredients that were laid out before him. He frowned, considering his options given what was on hand, and then the pair outside. Choosing a dish was not just a matter of what he had on hand, but also what suited his customers.
Though he somehow doubted that Lily intended to pay.
He dismissed concerns about payment, even as he strolled over to his fridge. Considering all that he had available, and what he intended to do for tonight, his best option was not to touch his current stores, but the stores he had intended for himself.
A little rooting around the big metal refrigerator yielded the metal container filled with day-old rice. He extracted the entire thing, picking up a small spoon and testing the rice before nodding to himself. It was not perfect – letting it warm a little before he began the cooking process would have been best—but it would do.
A flick of his hand put a spell on it, to bring its temperature up faster. Not too much, of course, because then the rice would burn before it was cooked, but too cold and he would have to leave the ingredients to dry out while warming it all.
Cooking, like life, was a balancing act. Prior preparation ensured the best result, but magic made for a suitable shortcut.
Next, the other ingredients. The wok he used was placed on the burners and left to heat, as the gas-fired burner turned on with a click of the electric starter. The wok itself was an old piece of equipment, cast iron with a pair of small rectangular handles on either side for gripping. Both the inside and outside were blackened from years of use, tempered over countless flames, the ingredients of hundreds of dishes soaking into it.
He grabbed at the other ingredients quickly, pulling their metal containers over, including the bountiful supply of eggs that had been set aside earlier.
Each egg was large and round, their light brown coating perfect. He cracked open four in rapid succession into a simple porcelain mixing bowl, a quick dash of salt added before he began the process of beating the eggs till the mixture had a silky, golden texture to it. He stopped when that happened, not wanting to overbeat the egg.
A glance at the wok showed that it had begun to heat to the appropriate warmth, so he added a squirt of sunflower oil. He dribbled it around the edges, swirling the wok about to ensure it was properly coated, and then went back to beating the egg to ensure a proper consistency.
Then, garlic into the pan. He listened to the hiss and sizzle as it hit the pan, stirring the garlic a little as he waited for it to simmer and crisp. When it was finished, he used the chuan, the long-handled metal spatula, to extract the garlic, setting it aside in a slotted bowl so that any excess oil would drip off. Then the onions were added. Those he waited to turn translucent – not long at all, not with the temperature involved.
While he waited, the beaten eggs were added to the warmed rice. He mixed the entire thing together swiftly, knowing that if he waited too long, the rice would grow soggy. As it was, a few quick and practiced motions broke up the rice, each grain splitting away from the other. It took multiple washes of the rice on the day before and proper control of water to ensure that each rice grain was individually separated, rather than clumping together.
Once the egg was in, further wet ingredients were added. A dash of high-grade soya sauce from a small batch creator in the Fejian province. Light on salt, heavy on the umami. Then he tipped the bottle of Shaoxing rice wine over the dish, sesame oil to add its powerful fragrance, and white pepper.
Mixed together, the entire combination was added to the translucent onions. Immediately upon hitting the hot wok, the smell of burning alcohol and the slight sweetness of the wine rose up, along with the intense smell of the sesame oil.
One hand held the bowl, the other scooped and dumped rice, stir-frying the rice in the wok. Occasionally, he would dip downwards to touch the edge of the wok to flip or stir the rice or adjust the flame heat, ensuring good wok hei.
This part was now all skill, for the goal was to mix rice and egg together in such a way that each grain was covered by the golden mixture as well as cooked so that no single grain was dried out or the rice clumped together from the wet ingredients.
His hand turned, shifting the dish over and over again, the flames under the wok burning hot, throwing additional shadows from beneath as it heated the dark, cast-iron wok.
The smell of the cooking rice rose up, tickling his nostrils. A quick eyeball of the meal and he turned off the burners with a flick of his free hand, pulling a pair of shallow, curved plates toward him. He grabbed the long-handled wok ladle from its place hanging to the side of the cooking station and swiftly ladled the mixture onto the plates. He dropped the compact half spheres onto the center and cleared out every single grain of rice from the wok.
Leaving the cooking implement to cool, he extracted a couple of sprigs of cilantro to place on top of the golden rice, along with a sprinkling of chopped slices of crispy garlic. Then he wiped down the dishes before bringing the plates to the dining room.
The entire process took less than five minutes.
“Gods, that smells good,” Henry Tsien said, his mouth watering as he sniffed at the air like a dog. He listened to the clang of the spatula as it struck the wok, a small smile crossing his face. “What do you think he’s cooking us?”
“Something cheap. And easy,” Lily said, confidently.
“That’s…. not nice.”
“He’s not nice,” Lily replied, still with a smile on her lips. “But it’ll still be good.”
“You seem very confident in him,” Henry said, then cocked his head to the side. “Also, how, exactly, do you know him or even were certain he was alive? I mean, you were trapped for decades and he doesn’t look a day over forty.”
“Looks can be deceiving, haven’t I told you before?” Lily said.
“I checked for glamours. There are none,” Henry replied immediately. “Though that seems to be about the only kind of magic that isn’t present. There’s more kinds of magic in here than I can name.” He turned from his consideration of his upcoming meal to survey the walls again, a slight gleam in his eyes as he cast a spell to give him sight over the magic that Lily had revealed earlier. He knew she had done it for his sake. She didn’t need to make it visible to make her point, or see it.
After all, the jinn was magic itself. Quite literally, in a way.
Before the woman could answer, Mo Meng exited the kitchen, wandering through the open doors with both plates in hand. He placed the golden rice topped with the fresh, lustrous cilantro and the golden-brown garlic chips before the pair, fishing beneath the counter before extracting two sets of rolled-up utensils for the pair of them.
Immediately, Henry’s mouth began watering even more heavily. He spun the barstool around so that he was fully focused on the meal, leaning forwards to breathe in deep the enticing smells. The hint of cilantro, the strong fried garlic and the smell of the egg-covered rice made him gulp.
“Fried rice?” Lily said, only sounding mildly disappointed. “There’s not even prawns, or anything in it!”
“It’s not just fried rice,” Henry said, unwrapping the utensils and taking the spoon in his hand. He gently pushed against the rice, the spoon sliding between the grains without hesitation, the rice parting like water before a dipping hand. “It’s golden fried rice.”
“It’s rice. Fried. What’s the difference?” Lily said, wrinkling her nose.
If Henry had not known her better, he would have called her a brat. As it was, he did. And so, he said it loud. “Stop teasing him. And say thank you.” Then, echoing his action with words, he smiled at Mo Meng. “This smells great.”
“Food is meant to be admired, yes. But also, eaten.” Having made his point, Mo Meng turned away and wandered back into the kitchen to continue with his preparations.
“A man of few words,” Henry muttered. Then, shrugging, he lifted the spoonful he had made and placed it in his mouth.
The moan he next made was not gracious at all. It echoed through the room, as the delicious flavors combined in his mouth. Each grain was perfectly cooked, the egg-covered rice perfectly separating in his mouth as he chewed on it, the tart taste of the Shaoxing wine combining with the fragrant sesame oil, all of it dissolving in his mouth as the added umami and saltiness of the soya sauce tipped the dish over. He chewed, swallowed and was reaching for another spoonful before he realized it.
This time, a spoonful of rice and the garlic chip went into his mouth together. He bit down, the crunch of the chip a pointed contrast to the soft and savory rice, the slight spiciness of the chip combining with the white pepper in a further explosion of taste.
Another groan, but this time, he realized; it had been echoed.
Looking over, he saw that Lily had half consumed her meal, her head bent down and her mouth wide open as she shoveled the dish into her mouth.
“Not complaining anymore, are you?” Henry said, after swallowing.
The raven-haired woman just glared at him, before chewing and gulping down her latest mouthful. Then, still looking at Henry, she stabbed her dish and picked out another mouthful of the golden rice, raising it to her mouth and taking a bite.
He smirked, before turning his attention to his own dish. He would not put it past Lily to steal his food, though her gluttony had never been a factor before. Sure, she had a healthy appetite – which, when you considered the fact that she was a purely magical being was both fascinating and annoying – but she had never been gluttonous.
Not till now, at least.
Sooner than he had expected, Henry found his dish empty before him. Every single speck of rice was gone, picked over by himself. The same could be said for Lily’s bowl. Placing the utensils on the shallow plate, he pushed it away from him and stared at the open window into the kitchen where the rhythmic noises of a knife at work continued to emanate.
“Thank you for the meal,” Henry called out to the man who worked religiously, ignoring them both.
Then turning to Lily, he lowered his voice. “So what now?”
To his surprise, Lily was on her feet, her mouth wiped and a smile on her face. “Now? We go. We’ll be back for dinner.”
She pitched the last sentence loud enough that Mo Meng, within the kitchen, was forced to hear it. He looked up at her through the open counter, and just offered a simple nod before he returned to his work. Henry frowned, gesturing at the empty bowls.
“Uhh, how much do we owe you?” he said.
“Don’t be silly. We don’t have to pay. That was a meal for a friend,” Lily said.
“It’s fine.” Then, as though feeling a little guilty, she added. “We’ll pay for dinner later. And don’t be in such a rush to pay him, anyway.”
“Why?” Henry said, suddenly guarded. After all, payment – receiving or taking it – could be dangerous in the supernatural world. Especially when dealing with the strange, like the fae. Though few of the old fae were around with their idiosyncratic views. Still, Lily was a trouble magnet.
“Because he’s a real cheat. His dishes are really expensive.” So saying, Lily proceeded to flounce out of the restaurant, leaving Henry to stare after her.
He looked back to Mo Meng and saw the man make a small gesture, shooing him out. Defeated, Henry hurried after his master and friend, hoping she hadn’t just disappeared on him.
Still, even if she did, he was certain he’d find her again tonight. Somehow, he knew she was not going to miss dinner tonight.