I came, I ate, I wallowed in a menu’s variety
by Aidan Morgan
I have a rant about Indian restaurants, one which most of my friends have heard at least a few times by now. Well, it’s not really a rant. It’s more of a mumbled dirge. Or a threnody. Picture John Denver humming a threnody to some bluebirds. That’s the form of my Indian restaurant rant.
The content of my rant goes something like this: India is a subcontinent comprising millions of people from wildly different regions, with distinct languages, cultures and cuisines. Yet nearly every Indian restaurant I’ve ever visited, from Montreal to Mannheim, tends to offer the same few dishes — it’s an endless line of butter chicken, vindaloo curries and channa masala spanning the globe.
(Oh, and chili chicken. You have to be made of even colder stone than Gowan to dislike chili chicken.)
There are historical reasons for this, many of them to do with restless Europeans who thought it would be keen to impose their administrative structures on Asian and African countries. The complex legacy of colonialism can be felt in the preponderance of Punjabi cuisine, with its emphasis on tandoor ovens, naan bread, butter chicken, dal makhani, biryani and more.
Fortunately, we don’t have to sit and rant any more. Harminder Singh, owner of Da India Curry House, has spun off a vegetarian restaurant largely dedicated to southern Indian cuisine. As an added benefit, Regina gets its first vegetarian supper place since the Heliotrope closed its doors (I’m not sure the Beetroot was open long enough for anyone to miss it).
But is the flavour and quality of the food worth the diversity and novelty? I suppose that’s why you’ve read this far. In which case I’ll tell you.
But not right away.
For my first visit, I went with friends who were more familiar with the cuisine than I am. In fact, they sent me a text that read “Do you want to go for dosas tonight?”
First off, that looks remarkably like I was asked to go for soda. Secondly, of course I did. Thirdly, I did not know what dosas were, but I assumed they bore only an anagrammatic resemblance to soda.
It turned out that a dosa (aside from being something you can go for) is a crepe made from rice and lentil flour. They come with a sort of vegetable soup (as Harminder Singh described it) called sambar, along with a sweet coconut chutney and a spicy tomato chutney on the side. I tried the masala dosa ($9.99), which came stuffed with spicy potatoes and onions, and one of my Knights of Appetite decided on the veggie masala dosa ($9.99), which resembled mine but with some chopped up vegetables thrown into the mix.
Two other Knights at the table ordered paper dosa ($7.99), a thin and crispy version of the dish which look spectacular on the plate. They weren’t great fans of the sambar or the chutneys (one of my friends comes from a dosa-friendly household, and the ones on offer weren’t to her taste), but the dosas themselves passed muster. I liked my masala dosa but found it a bit too filling for an appetizer, especially since I’d also split an order of veggie samosas ($4.99) with a friend earlier.
The “South Indian Corner” of the menu also offers idly and vada. Idly (or idli) are steamed rice and lentil patties. They were startlingly white and mild in flavour. Most of the taste, in fact, came from the same sambar and chutney combo that accompanied the dosas. Vada are rounds of deep-fried lentil flour ($3.99 for two) that look like a heavy-duty onion ring and taste, as all deep-fried things on earth do, unbelievably good.
We ordered a plate of plain idly ($5.99 for two), chili idly (also $5.99) and the idly-vada combo plate (it can be had for $6.99, and I only hesitate to recommend it because it comes with one vada, an act that should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law). The chilli idly turned out to be a very different dish from the plain: the idly is chopped up into chunks and coated in spices. Like a lot of the other dishes, it was a lot more filling than it looked.
But overeating never stopped a Knight of Appetite. Or even a Squire of Appetite. We headed out from the South Indian Corner and headed towards the Veggie Corner (the menu has four “corners,” with appetizers, breads and desserts to round it out). We had the palak paneer ($11.99), the aloo pepper fry ($11.99), the chilli paneer ($11.99) and the cashewnut pulao ($8.99).
Not surprisingly, paneer (Indian cottage cheese) appears prominently on an Indian vegetarian menu. The palak paneer, which can be found in most Indian restaurants and consists of spinach, onions, tomatoes and garlic, tasted good, but it seemed slightly sweet. I asked my friend whether that was a southern Indian thing, but she said no. We decided it was just the chef’s style.
The aloo pepper fry looked and tasted a bit like a spicy, Indian-inflected pan-fried potatoes with peppers and onions. The chilli paneer was exactly what I wanted from the dish: a sweet and spicy mix of paneer chunks and vegetables tasting precisely like a Chinese dish that had wandered into an Indian kitchen (which is exactly what it is — chilli chicken and chilli paneer are probably the most popular examples of Indian-Chinese cuisine. A few restaurants in the US specialize in it). The cashewnut pulao (basmati rice with cashews and spices) was delicious but a little greasier than I generally like.
The restaurant also serves several varieties of naan, which we didn’t try, because we couldn’t move after a while, and the effort of chewing would have probably put us to sleep. So no naan, both for our safety and the sake of decorum.
One more thing of note: Da India Vegetarian Curry House does not offer a buffet, in part because dishes like idly and dosa aren’t really suited for sitting under heat lamps. I found the food enjoyable and sometimes excellent, but it took me more than one visit to warm up to some of the flavours — particulary the sambar and chutneys, which are hard to avoid if you’re ordering from the most interesting parts of the menu. More experience with the cuisine would give me a better base of judgment, but in the meantime, I’ll be working my way through a small mountain of vada.
WHAT IS IT? Da India Vegetarian Curry House
WHAT IS IT FOR? Vegetarian lunches and suppers
YOU MUST TRY Idly, Vada, Paper Dosas
WHEN CAN I GET IN ON THIS CRAZY BUSINESS? 11:30 a.m. – 9:30 p.m., Tuesday to Saturday (closed from 2:00 – 4:30 p.m.); 4:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m., Sunday; closed Monday
WHY DID YOU COMPLAIN ABOUT THE LACK OF VARIETY IN INDIAN RESTAURANTS BUT NOW THAT YOU’VE GOT SOME VARIETY YOU’RE STILL COMPLAINING AND MOANING? Mostly so you’ll have something to write to Prairie Dog about.