Had an ok dinner at Amaya the other night. All in all, characterised by very professional and attentive service and "meh" food. The word of this review is "disappointment".
Started with the samosas and the pakora trio. Samosas were good, light flaky pastry and pleasant but underspiced filling (IMO). Pakora trio was drizzled in two different sauces. One was a coriander base, and the other was sweet...can't remember what it was called. I was disappointed that the sauce wasn't on the side, as in other Indian restaurants I have been to...that way I could have added more sauce to my taste, but that's just me.
Mains: We ordered the delicious sounding pepper duck (described as sliced duck breast cooked to medium) and the lamb shank. The lamb shank was sublime...fall off the bone, fork tender and braised to perfection in a curried sauce. Duck was an absolute disappointment, with tough, well-past well done duck breast and a candied, unpleasant sauce. Rice was good, as was the garlic naan, although not as authentic as I've had in the past.
Chai tea was, guess what, a disappointment, with the cup only half full. I actually did the double blink...what harm would it be to top up a cup. And no, they weren't leaving room for milk.
All in all, I wouldn't return. Shame. I really wanted to like this place...
A mild defence of Toronto Indian places.
We have such a great choice of places where two can get excellent food for $50 (or less) for two, that an upscale Indian place has a real challenge when it comes to serving sophisticated Indian dishes.
In London, the top Indian places are charging the equivalent of $100's Canadian.
When Amaya, Tabla, Jaaadu etc opened they indeed had dishes which they charged over $30 for - with ingredients to match - about 3 times what is 'expected' in Toronto. All of these have subsequently dropped prices, so that the high point rarely breaks $20 now (still double).
None of them are as 'ambitious' now as they were then. the food has indeed been 'dumbed-down'.
One day we might get the 'great' Indian place we crave. But look through this board and see how many posts refer to the 'all-you-can-eat' buffet places vs the 'fine-dining' places. We need a critical mass of patrons prepared to pay for quality.
We may disagree on which place is the best, but IMO all of the ambitious places are less ambitious (and less expensive) than they were in their earlier phases. It takes time (highly correlated with money) to prepare dishes with sophisticated and layered spicing. If nobody's buying it, why fight the customer.
My guess is that Butter Chicken is the most popular dish in the majority of Indian restaurants in Toronto. I'm not trying to knock that dish in particular, but if everybody is buying hamburger, why bother to sell top-grade steak?
Here's my question - what are the expectations of diners for "affluent" or "upscale" Indian cuisine? Would it be substituting in game meats with Indian spices, or some form of Indian fusion? Or are we talking about resourcing the freshest and best ingredients combined with preparation techniques (e.g. using organic, free range chickens, organic/heirloom vegetables, or dry roasting, grinding and finding the right combination of spices to make the "perfect" garam masala vs. ready made at the store).
Btw butter chicken is most definitely the most popular dish to the point of annoyance for me.
I'm not sure what others expect.
But my 'gut feel' is that somehow one has to step outside the more common dishes. In Toronto, that almost happened with Xacutti, where Indian spicing was successfully transplanted into more conventional cuisine (for a while). And some of those dishes also survive in the current 'Eleven' - but, of course, that's in no way Indian.
The obvious example in Canada is Vancouver's Vij. It is well-promoted as the finest "Indian" in Canada. But, for me, it didn't seem "Indian" at all. Yes, some Indian spices - but not Indian cooking. In particular the 'Lamb Lollipops' (lamb chops/ribs with the bone attached and the lower fat trimmed off, leaving a 'stick' of bone) were very disappointing. Overcooked lamb with unsubtle spicing. I had much better lamb at Tabla - except this dish was expensive (around $28 IIRC) and it has now disappeared from their menu as they have reduced their menu prices.
Looking to other cuisines that may have made the jump into 'fine dining'. For Thai, Bangkok Garden was a valiant attempt - but backed by an almost endless supply of money, so this was more of a vanity project.
For Portuguese, Chiado has certainly redefined that cuisine. Fresh fish flown in. An obsession with the finest Portuguese wines (and heavy markups) - where the money is made. And 'french-style' service with a charismatic host/owner.
To be frank, I don't think I would invest in an upscale Indian restaurant. It will take someone who hits the right formula at the right time and promotes the hell out of it.
Amaya has the promotion down pat. At least that gets the bums in the seats, but the kitchen and servers have to get the people to return. And I haven't been back there.
Jaaadu was ambitious and had excellent food - but just too expensive. And now the dishes that attracted me have gone from their menu.
Tabla I still go back to - but even there my favourite dishes are disappearing - I don't blame them, it's a business and the more people that order Butter Chicken, the more that style will dominate. Even their Naanini (a valiant attempt to step outside the traditional) has disappeared from the menu (although they will still make it for me on request).
Incidentally another restaurant with ambitions also died quickly. Also called Tabla it was in the space now occupied by 1055 (Yonge st). Definitly an 'Indian-fusion' attempt, I loved it - went 3 times in its approximately 3 month life. But that location is probably haunted. Has any other space had as many incarnations? Ironically, the best Indian dish I've ever had (including India, London and New York) was at the current 1055 (it's not on the menu - too expensive). A 'double-cooked' Dungeness Crab. The crab was cooked 'normally' then the meat extracted; mixed with fresh Indian spices and who-knows-what; then placed back in the shell for serving. I begged the owner to put it on the regular menu, but he said it just wouldn't sell at the price that needed to be charged - it was too labour intensive and any wastage was financially crippling so couldn't be pre-prepared in the 'hope' it would sell. He only does it for groups who have a prix-fixe type menu.
So, I continue to live in hope. Too expensive to fly to India. But maybe somebody with more courage than I will successsfully manage to create a 'world-class' Indian place here that people will support.
While I really really gave some thought to the above posts I must admit to how many of the CHs who write on the Toronto Board want and would SUPPORT (on a REGULAR & FREQUENT basis) the 'high end cost associated with dining in a place that fulfilled all of these very high expectations. Could a Restauranteur 'survive' or am I understating how many Indian Food Lovers are out there to pay the necessary cost(s) associated with such a place?
Yes, I truly love going out for a fine (not necessarily Indian Dinner or other Cuisine) but, say, to Scaramouche or others of its ilk, could I or would I (or others for that matter) go enough to keep them in business? Something to think about eh?
I almost always order the Vindaloo. It's the spiciest dish on their menu, but the heat comes in layers as the different spices seem to kick in at different speeds. It also seems more acidic than most others. Possibly from a heavier hand with tamarind, although I thought I also detected some lime flavours in it. My favourite version of this dish ever.
The naanini is sort of a panini made with Naan bread, with a layer of minced lamb as the 'filling'.
They also do a very good Mulligatawny soup.
Avoid the Onion Bhajia though.
Coincidentally, stumbled across a review of the 'other' Tabla. the one that only lasted 3 months. Here's an extract:
"An appetizer of salmon cooked in tandoori spices with young greens and key lime yogurt and tamarind cumin jus. Or garlic and eggplant terrine with ancho tomato fondue and frisée. How about pan-seared shrimp with fenugreek in a popadum bowl with green mango chutney, or lamb and yogurt broth with curry leaf, mustard and pumpkin seed oil? You can follow with saffron and ginger-spiced swordfish, jalapeño-crusted prawns and spiced chicken in coconut curry broth, or quails with saffron-fennel crust with orange curry sauce. Or there is Kashmir-style braised lamb shank with apple and nut pilaf, with fennel, ginger and mace jus. One cannot help but like the sound of lobster and scallop and tandoori king prawn with spring vegetables and cilantro chutney. And sweet-potato crusted spiced halibut with kokum and guava jus intrigues. "
NOTE THIS HAS NO CONNECTION WITH THE CURRENT TABLA.
But I think it serves to emphasize my point that Toronto isn't (more accurately wasn't) ready for 'innovative' Indian cuisine.
On a side note, 1055 Yonge has long been a cursed location for restaurants. After Cibo departed in the late 80's, the successors have been inconsistent and turned over frequently. The current occupant, 1055, is run by a chef who was trained at North 44, who is finally having some success. There is usually one creative curry on the menu, which for the most part caters to Rosedale tastes, which is worth investigating if you go.
I managed to revisit Tabla.
Lamb Vindaloo - The SO noted heavy use of tamarind again, I did not feel it was as strong this time although it is definitely present and the source of the introductory sweetness when the curry first hits your tongue. I also noted the distinct flavour of cloves and ginger. The curry is definitely spicy which is true to its authenticity, however I am used to a more acidic version (i.e. heavy on the vinegar) – not that it’s better that way. I will admit the curry was much more appealing this time around. The lamb was cooked perfectly.
Matter Paneer - one word - Excellent. Texture of the Paneer was prepared perfectly - a la "goldilocks" not too soft and not to hard. The tomato based curry complemented the paneer perfectly and was a nice balance to the spicy vindaloo.
Chicken Roganjosh - The chicken was too dry for my liking. I don't like the use of white meat in curries and the curry itself was not very tasty.
Keema Naan (Naan stuffed with minced lamb) was lovely. I would not recommend eating this with curries as the flavour of the lamb will probably not be an ideal complement. However it's a great snack and perfect for take out or a "doggy bag" for breakfast the next morning.
Coconut Shrimp - Too much coconut and too dry. The shrimp are served “butterflied” which IMO gives the shellfish too much surface area for coconut to coat the shrimp. I think the dish would be served as whole shrimp.
Service was fine, they were attentive when needed but not omnipresent to prevent any privacy. They did make a small mistake, serving the wrong naan, but we didn’t bother complaining. The owners also make their rounds (not sure to every table) and I was able to have a brief discussion with them. They seem to be very down to earth and have a passion about their food preparation.
Their price point is approximately 20-30% higher than most Indian restaurants, but I would go back for specific dishes. I want to try their biryani next time.