The exotic tastes of India travel well, and they've found a cozy home in the bustling, King Street entertainment district. With owner/chef P.K. at the helm, nothing is lost in translation.
Dhaba means a little roadside restaurant in India, and they are a common sight. But what bonds the hungry wayfarer in India with the foodie adventurer in Toronto? It is the search for good Indian food that speaks to the eye, the mouth and gives good value for money.
For the past five years, those who seek out the aromatic spices of Kashmere, Balti and Goa, have been climbing up one flight of stairs and placing their palates in PK's capable hands.
Sociable and energetic, PK came to the restaurant business through a love of cooking and hospitality, and while he is the heart and soul of Dhaba, the kitchen and two tandoori ovens are the real guts of the place. Lifting the lids from the clay, urn shaped ovens, he shows me the gray, wood charcoal coals of the "slow" oven, and the glowing red coals of the "hot" oven. "Let's make some Na an," he says, referring to the mythic bread of India. He takes a small roll of dough, flattens it out with his hands, adds a few pinches of fenugreek, melted butter and a sprinkling of sesame seeds. He molds it on a towel wrapped form, then slaps it against the inside wall of the "slow" oven. Thirty seconds later, we have crisp, brown and puffy Na an.
PK shows me the long steel skewers on which he threads the shrimp, fish and chicken he has marinating in the fridge, and plunges them into the "hot" oven. I've begun to think that he must have asbestos hands. But I can't stand the searing heat and I'm out of the kitchen and back to our table. The dining room is long and has been divided by décor such as flowing white curtains at the rear, cozy tables for two around the middle, and at the front, larger tables that overlook the bustle of traffic and commerce on King.
We begin our adventurous passage through Indian cuisine with tandoori prawns, butterflied and marinated with crushed garlic, carom seeds and saffron, served sizzling red and black from the charcoal oven. We mix dollops of Indian cilantro and yogurt as a condiment for the prawns and get unexpected explosions of flavor. No Indian meal would be complete without pakoras, the small ,crunchy, deep fried pancakes. Here, they come with chickpea vermicelli with house-made sundried mango and pomegranate dressing.
Unlikely flavors in continental cuisine fly all over the place and land harmoniously. A favorite is the two bone rack of lamb charred in the tandoori oven and served with refreshing salad of fresh fennel and daikon with cumin dressing.
We're sated and sipping the last of a bottle of Gewurtztraminer when PK informs us that now, we've just finished the appetizers and there is more to come. Chicken tika, rubbed with pungent red spices is garnished with cooling slices of red apple; Tilapia is cooked in a sauce that sings of dill, saffron and fenugreek. We are thrilled with the vegetarian dish of porcini mushrooms, mustard greens, rapini and spinach, which blanket saffron basmati rice with cashews. A cap of pickled ginger and chives add to the complexity of the dish. Lentils have mysterious and lush flavors which elude explanation.
Service throughout has been efficient and friendly. Now, dinner plates cleared, the white paper that covered the table is whisked off to reveal a starched white tablecloth. A fitting surface for coffee and dessert.
Traditional Indian desserts are an acquired taste which has eluded me thus far. But my dining pals, one who is a third generation of Indian descent, is quick to say that "this is one of the best Indian meals I've had in Toronto." He relishes every bite of Gulabjam, rosewater scented balls of fried dough. Another guest, an Indian Canadian from Uttar Pardesh is happy with Mango Rasmalai, a kind of pudding with fruit. "It's not often," she says that I will enjoy Indian food outside of the home," and she appreciates the clean flavors and the moderate spicing.
I could consider strong Indian tea, but I have had enough exotica for one evening and coffee suits me just fine. Lining the stairway are photos and news clippings of PK's success so far. We add our kudos for a meal well done.