Sunday, February 17, 2008

Dhaba, Indian "Excellence"

Dhaba is an Indian restaurant on the entertainment strip on King Street West in Toronto. It's just west of the Royal Alexandra theatre, on the other side of the street, and next to the strangely named "Aroma: The Myriad of Exotic Spices" (which made some of us think that the owners must have confused 'myriad' with 'pyramid').

Anyway, sticking to the subject: Dhaba is an upstairs room, made over (in that great TV show "Restaurant Makeover") by Susur Lee and Brenda Bent. Gopal, Jenny, and I went there on a cold Saturday night, and were well (if somewhat eccentrically) treated by the waitstaff.

The average Canadian consumer thinks that spicing is just throwing a bunch of cayenne around: they swear that they cannot taste anything through the heat. So they look for heat plus the titillating effect of cold fizzy beer on an over-stimulated tongue.
But when you find an Indian chef who can handle spices, your gustatory life changes. (Kiran Desai had a wonderful piece in the New York Times Sunday magazine, Feb 9th 2008, about her family's cook and his shammi kabab -- her recipe is a revelation, and I will say something about it in a future post.) On the Resto Makeover show, Susur works with PK, the chef at Dhaba, and raves about PK's knowledge of spices. "Plating" was the only thing that S could teach PK, it seemed. So we were looking forward to brilliant flavours. Unfortunately, it turned out that the best thing one can say about PK is that he goes well with beer.

We started with papad. Now, those who know Indian cooking will have views about North Indian vs. South Indian versions of this snack. Gopal tells me that his father thinks that this is a no-brainer: South Indian appalams (= papads) are light and don't challenge either your mouth or your tongue. North Indian papads are crisp but weighty in the mouth, studded with whole cumin and cracked black pepper, and in Dhaba's case at least, leaden in the stomach.

Then a veggie samosa and chaat. Now for those who know, chaat is a simple street snack. It's meant to be a sharp crispy mouth-teaser redolent of cumin, served with a chutney, preferably with tamarind, for a sweet and sour finish. At Dhaba, it is heavy, the spicing is muddled and muddy, it's mixed with avocado (!!) and there is a little crispness but not much.

As for the samosa, well -- the samosa came to India from the Levant, where, if you ask me, it represents carelessness. In India, meat samosas surpass their Levantine ancestors by a large margin. In its veggie form, however, it has a thick doughy crust, though it is sometimes enlivened by the flavours of the potatoes and peas found inside. It is accompanied by a sweet chutney -- how else is one to manage the kind of dough that ought only to be used to seal pots for a dhum? At Dhaba, the dough has the thickness of cardboard packing, and the flavours are completely confused. If you find it hard to imagine what solid pea soup is like, try the veggie samosa at this restaurant.

Finally, the mains. What can one say? By this time, we were expecting the worst and got it. The xacutti (a spicy Goan dish) had no discernible cinnamon and the cream of the sauce, derived from coconut, was far too sweet, and with too little of the aromatic spices. The veggie mains seemed to have been created by throwing things around; the naan was overcooked; the saffron rice was flavourless.
Do they buy saffron, cardamom, and cinnamon at Walmart?

Either this place has forgotten its cooking since the Makeover with Susur, or you shouldn't trust Susur on Indian cooking. Bottom line: walk on the other side of the street.

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