Years ago, in a more affluent time, I used to enjoy putting the restaurant menu to one side and saying to the head waiter or chef â€œIâ€™m feeling (insert adjective) tonight, and the only thing I donâ€™t like to eat is anything with a slimy texture, so, what can you suggest?â€
It wasnâ€™t a case of being pretentious or even stupidly rich, it was more about a wish to mix with, and give my custom to, passionate, eco-friendly artists. If a chef was truly creative and unbound by outdated rules, I discovered, such a request to discard the menu and rely on their skill and passion was always greeted with an excited smile and bright eyes. This is what they came to work for, they insisted, the opportunity to create, for somebody who took the time to let them know they appreciate it.
Those meals and meetings were always memorable and, dare I say it, loving occasions. It was incredibly rewarding to mix with truly fervent and decent people. The best chefs were always buying organic and local long before it became trendy; they really cared about the environment and the world, why wouldnâ€™t they, it wasnâ€™t even a question of money, only that the food tastes better using those sorts of ingredients!
But that was years ago. Iâ€™m sure our best chefs are still willing to show their skill in this way but you know how the general climate in the west is right now â€“ with all that vile lust for profit, expansion and market share taking centre stage in restaurants as well as most other places there seems so little space for real beauty in the mainstream, sadly…
And entering the Dhaba tonight here in the theatre district of Toronto I had no cause at all to think about those old days. Surrounded by bright lights and the bustling modern world I was expecting a regular Indian meal cooked to North American tastes (which is, very much less spicy and experimental than weâ€™re used to in south England).
The name sounded like an interesting choice for such a fancy area of the city. Iâ€™ve spent a few months in India and got to know the word ‘dhaba’ well. It refers to the sort of roadside restaurant that sits next to petrol stations in the north west; as a tourist youâ€™d visit it if you were breaking up a long bus journey, and youâ€™d eat your meal sitting next to truck and taxi drivers in very basic surroundings. They have a reputation for serving food that tastes homely but in my brief 3 monthsâ€™ worth of experience all I ever got from my visits to them was the sort of sickness that kept you chained to the toilet for days afterwards. Ok, my bad luck, I wasnâ€™t going to hold that against a restaurant here in Toronto, thousands of miles away from the Punjabâ€¦
The front of the restaurant (overlooking King St West) was quite busy so we settled down towards the rear beside the bar.Â Weâ€™d hardly had time to take our coats off before the head chef walked out of the kitchen, offered his hand to me and said, â€œHi, Iâ€™m PK, glad to have you visit us!â€
We spoke a little about the history of the restaurant (started out in this location about 12 years ago), where he sources his food from (chickpeas from India but the fresh stuff comes from the local farmers market) and about my own experiences of Indian food in India and England. Then PK said â€œSo what can we get you tonight, what do you feel like?â€
Even then I didnâ€™t realise what was going on, so I asked if I could see the menu to get an idea of what style and range of food was on offer. Was it traditional Indian or British or North American style? Or fusion, contemporary, and if so, from what angle? â€œYou can,â€ replied PK, â€œbut, you could also just let me know what you do and donâ€™t like, and how youâ€™re feeling tonightâ€¦â€
Ok, then I understood. PK was an artist, the sort of chef I havenâ€™t had the pleasure of meeting for many years. And luckily for us, he was in the mood to create. â€œWell, I try to be vegetarian,” I said, “but I’m not militant, and I donâ€™t favour slimy textures, medium heat spice please, and Iâ€™m feeling pretty relaxedâ€¦â€ â€œAnd I love butter chicken,â€ added Lamia, â€œbut also coconut, and although Iâ€™m from Dhaka, I donâ€™t like anything too spicyâ€¦â€
â€œI know just the dish for you,â€ PK addressed Lamia, â€œit comes from the south of India, chicken and eggplant in a coconut base, but I can add a type of butter chicken style sauce to tailor to your taste, and as for you David,” he turned to me, â€œchickpeas in spinach with rapini mushrooms, and weâ€™ll start it all off with a plate of colourâ€¦â€
Weâ€™ll talk about the food soon, but thereâ€™s two last things to add. The first is that what you see here is what you’ll get if you visit Dhaba, we took the photos as the food arrived at our table without any special lights or other trickery. The second is that as every dish arrived PK would pass by and explain a little about spices used, or the history of the dish. It truly made us feel welcome, like guests in a home and also as if we were in the company of one of our eraâ€™s great artists. Thatâ€™s quite a statement, I know, but Iâ€™ve worked around the fringes of the western art world for years and can say with confidence that whilst most contemporary art we label as art is just a con trick created purely for money men (yet so often portray as insight carved from savagery, trendy confusion or individualism retained against the odds), what PK does is the result of pure, honest passion and hard won experience. He processes the world before him, he interprets it with his chosen materials and then he delivers his opinion within a sensory carnival of colour, spice, texture and taste.
For drinks we started with a masala martini.
Itâ€™s flavoured with 5 spice mix – or panch paran as Lamia says they call it in Bangladesh â€“ and decorated with cinnamon stick, mint and lime. It was quite the most delightful cocktail Iâ€™ve ever had, although Lamia wasnâ€™t a fan, she said it tasted like she spilt her mumâ€™s curry into her alcohol. The cinnamon stick dissolved and added to the aromoa as the minutes went on, perhaps not as much as it could have though as I drank it up pretty quick.
Then we ate a micro green salad with apple, tomato and cumin infused chickpeas topped with onion bhaji.
Lamia considered the bhaji phenomenal. Made, it seems, with besan flour and gently spiced for flavour rather than heat. The chickpeas were firm and sprinkled around the salad as decoration and as a conduit for the cumin flavour. The delicately sliced, fragrant apple blended excellently texture wise and opposed those of the salad leaves that were bitter.
For the next drink we tried the mango martini with a vodka base.
Lamia has a fondness for mangoes, her mother ate them all the way through her pregnancy apparently and itâ€™s got into Lamiaâ€™s blood, so she thought it a little strange to drink this as mango is such an elemental flavour in her life that to taste it mixed with such a foreign flavour like alcohol took her back a little. But overall she thought it a pleasant drink, and that the mango tasted extra fresh, which considering the season was impressive (in other Toronto eateries weâ€™ve tasted the mango and it wasnâ€™t too impressive). And what colour this drink has with the raspberry, mint and the cinnamon stick, it makes the eyes smile.
As another small entree Lamia was presented with rack of lamb cooked in a tandoor, medium style, with a king prawn on top of the lamb.
Lamia generally doesnâ€™t eat lamb in Toronto because she prefers it cooked in an eastern way â€“ that is, so that there isnâ€™t a lingering strong smell or taste. Itâ€™s generally more of a texture ingredient than a taste ingredient in the Bengali cooking sheâ€™s used to. So she was unsure what to expect when PK said he was bringing this dish out. â€œAt my first bite, which was a cautious one,â€ Lamia says, â€œI was happy to realise that there was no western smell with this lamb and it was very true to the eastern way of cooking. When something is cooked in a tandoor you expect to see a few crispy burnt bits, this is the sign of a good tandoor, so I also was happy to see this crispy bit present. The lamb was marinated for 24 hours previously so that the spices were intense. It wasnâ€™t mild, nor was it phaal hot either but more like, well, what I like, which shows how much PK had listened to me. It was soft, the knife went through it easily, and it tasted very decadent for Indian food. Iâ€™ve also never ordered prawns at a restaurant before, the shell was cut so it was easy to get the meat away from it. The prawnâ€™s garlic flavour could have been stronger, but then again I had said I donâ€™t like my food too spicy, so I can hardly complain about that. It wasnâ€™t rubbery, just tender. The side garnishes were nice, strips of mango and a showing of flavourings in liquid form made for yet another treat of a colourful dish.â€
I had a soy paneer with prawn and salad.
PK said heâ€™d try me on this as Iâ€™d mentioned that I enjoy paneer cheese (I ate it most nights in India as a tasty, safe alternative to meat). The soy, presented as a block, could best be described as delicate of texture and flavour. Not as hard as regular paneer but still able to hold itself together when cut with knife and raised on the tip of the fork. Iâ€™d say that itâ€™s a perfect choice if you donâ€™t like hot/spicy food, or if youâ€™re having a multi-course meal and want a break from the heat for a while. The prawn – which had been marinated in garlic – added a hint of seasoning; it looked magnificent.
â€œWho can resist hot bread!â€ said PK as he set down a stuffed spinach and garlic paratha, made freshly in the restaurants own tandoor (PK works with two tandoor ovens, one just for meat, the other exclusively for veggie dishes and bread).Â Lamia grew up eating traditional eastern cooking so this bread threw her off guard a bit. â€œItâ€™s nice but so different from what mum makes on special occasions on the stove top! Herâ€™s is usually more flaky, and chewy; itâ€™s going to take me a little getting used to!â€Â I thought it heavenly â€“ the olive oil drizzled over the lightly browned top set the hot spinach and garlic off wonderfully. I can understand why it appealed to me rather than Lamia â€“ this seemed more like a contemporary Anglo-Indian take on a traditional dish and that’s the sort of cooking I’m used to.
Then we were brought samosa with chickpea and mango chutney.
This was perhaps the most spectacular looking of the dishes, with a zigzag of green (mint), yellow (mango) and brown (tamarind) running through the plate like the lightening bolt across Ziggy Stardustsâ€™ face (or in Lamiaâ€™s case, she said it reminded her of the Padma River, the spoon of chickpeas being a boat â€“ hey, weâ€™d had a couple of martinis by then). The samosa, we both agreed, was top class. The pastry wasnâ€™t too doughy or flaky, it was so tasty neither of us even stopped to ask what was inside it, although later we discovered it was vegetarian. We didnâ€™t agree on the chickpea, however. Lamia though the sauce rather watery, the flavour too tame and the chickpea themselves too hard, although when she tipped it out of the spoon into the salad she said that made it a lot nicer (presentation does matter!). I, however, thought the chickpeas perfect as they were, cooked well but not mushy and sprinkled with coconut pieces to add crunch and an elusive hint of southern Indian flavour. There wasnâ€™t a single trace of oil left on the plate after weâ€™d eaten it clean. This was actually a feature of every dish that we ate at the Dhaba; there was never any residue of oil left on the plate or in the dish afterwards.
Now for drinks, I had the Kingfisher beer. I could have gone local with a Toronto Â beer but felt in the mood to immerse myself in the Dhaba experience, and since Kingfisher is Indiaâ€™s top selling beer it seemed appropriate. Itâ€™s made to compliment Indian food, to combat the heavy spice. Â Itâ€™s not got much of a strong taste itself so went excellently with my main meal, which were rather spicy.
Lamia didnâ€™t want beer so had the mango lassi. This was her favourite drink of the night. â€œItâ€™s classic style, thick yet not so thick it became a shake, and whilst itâ€™s not super cold itâ€™s not room temperature either, just cool enough to bring that classic mango flavour out. Iâ€™d Â drink this all night if I could, and I will do next time I visit the Dhaba.â€
For main I had the chickpea and spinach with rapini mushrooms.
Iâ€™m starting to become repetitious here; I apologize. What can I do? Every dish was superbly cooked and presented, what more is there to say? For a dish to be successful, for me, you need to taste all the ingredients, they need to compliment each other and the textures need to act as foils to each other, introducing a pleasant mix of hard, soft and a range of feelings in between. This dish achieved that specification easily. I didnâ€™t even stop to offer Lamia any, which I usually do, I was so consumed with enjoyment.
Lamia didnâ€™t mind, she was busy with her coconut butter chicken with eggplant, garnished with grapes, lettuce and a sprig of rosemary.
â€œI like that it tastes so homemade and healthy,â€ Lamia said, â€œso much butter chicken, which is a staple dish at Indian weddings, tastes delicious but also like it contains a million calories hidden underneath a layer of oil. This wasnâ€™t like that at all. Again the coconut was added towards the end so as not to overcook it, it tastes like it could be a butternut squash sauce even rather than a sauce cooked in butter. The chicken is all fileted and tender and there are plenty of pieces although not to excess â€“ probably about 6 or 7 pieces of chicken. The eggplant also has retained itâ€™s texture, itâ€™s not the slimey, barely held together version one often finds in curried dishes or indeed Greek cuisine, but chunks that had a texture midway between the chicken and the sauce. The grapes seemed random but then again, perhaps Iâ€™m not as western as I appear!â€
We both had the spiced rice with cashews.
â€œThe rice is perfectly cooked, not too soft or hard or watery, which seems simple but itâ€™s so often something that restaurants get wrong. And thatâ€™s not a subjective view â€“ Iâ€™ve been eating rice every day of my life since I was put on solids so I know! The cashews go nicely with it; this dish could almost be from Zanzibar or perhaps a contemporary Caribbean restaurant.â€
On the side PK put a wholewheat paratha and mango chutney. I appreciated this more than Lamia. For her, parathaâ€™s are for breakfast, not dinner. For me, brought up on Anglo/Indian food, it was a different story as Iâ€™m sure it was for Chef PK growing up in the Punjab. I loved it, perhaps a little bowl of yoghurt next to the chutney might have made it perfect, but then again, maybe thatâ€™s just me being too traditional. I used it to scoop up the chickpeas dish; it held together (wasnâ€™t flaky) and was delicious.
Weâ€™d asked if we should order dessert and PK had avoided answering that. We let it go, heâ€™d got all the answers so far so we trusted him. He appeared smiling, carrying 2 plates, after our main plates had been cleared.
â€œRoshmalai, with berries that have been marinated in mango for 24 hours,â€ he said, and I saw Lamiaâ€™s eyes tear up. PK had judged her perfectly.
â€œI feel like a kid on Eid (or Christmas) morning,â€ she said, wiping her tears after PK had returned to the kitchen.â€Roshmalai is a traditional Bengali dish, and one of my favourite sweets that Iâ€™ve loved ever since I was a kid in Dhaka. This one is perfect, like itâ€™s come from my favourite aunties kitchen or one of those friendly hole in the wall local restaurants you buy from on your way home from school. Itâ€™s a perfect mixture of soft, milky and sweet, heaven! You know, at first my instinct was to be excited but then I thought oh my god heâ€™s probably not going to do it right. Iâ€™m ecstatic though, itâ€™s one of the best roshmalaiâ€™s Iâ€™ve ever had.â€
So, there you have it, if youâ€™re going to Dhaba, Iâ€™d really advise you to have this dessert. Itâ€™s an authentic dish but paired with these very contemporary ingredients such as the berries, pistachio and mint into something very unique whilst retaining itâ€™s traditional feel.
â€œIâ€™m very moved by this dish,â€Lamia went on (she wouldnâ€™t stop talking about it), â€œmy heart is beating so fast, and that never happens except for when my mum cooks. This dish has brought me to tears, Iâ€™m so proud that this dish came from my homeland, and that Chef PK does such an incredible job of creating it here in Toronto. The portion size is perfect, small, for sure, but then again, such a perfect dish should leave you wanting more.”
Iâ€™ve been rambling on for far too long, sorry. I havenâ€™t said a word about the staff (friendly, courteous and well-informed, always ready with a suggestion if PK wasn’t around) or the atmosphere (candlelit, relaxed).
We did peer into the kitchen at one point and saw that PK had a decent, gentle relationship with his chefs, and this shows in the food they produce. He says that his chefs are from different regions of India and he encourages them to put their own spin on dishes according to the spices they have grown up using, so the menu develops as the chefs experiment.
To sum up, Dhaba is a restaurant to visit if youâ€™re looking for a unique, contemporary take on an ancient, noble cuisine handled by an artist who is every bit as passionate and genuinely friendly as he is knowledgeable. And if you long for the days when you could order without consulting the menu without appearing like an overbearing, Victorian relic and more like the intelligent, caring consumer you really are then Iâ€™ve a feeling youâ€™ll love it.
For discover more about the Dhaba please visitÂ http://www.dhaba.ca/