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Oct 11, 2008 12:30 PM

Best Indian

It's been an interesting few years in the city. Indian food has begun the transformation from being a bargain-budget ethnic cuisine in the city to to being one of the new higher end foods. While in the past the downtown and midtown only seemed able to support a few up-market places, the last few years have resulted in the opening of Kama Sutra, Tabla, Amaya, Chakra, Amaya Bread Bar, and most recently, Debu. The tandoors are on and the gloves are off, with conventional treatments falling by the wayside in favour of non-traditional ingredients and presentations.

Which of these is the best and why? I've heard many critics complaining that the new artistes should stick to the traditions. Is that valid, or is that like telling a modern French chef to stick to Bearnaise? I'm sure there will be no consensus, so break out the thesauri. Cheers.

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  1. Snarf,

    I have recently had a very good meal at Amaya Bread Bar, which reminds me that I should probably make a post and put up the photos. I found it to be a very pleasant experience and so far the best Indian food that I have had in Toronto. I still find it to be a notch below some I have had in Boston and of course, London, but it was still very satisfying and gets me by between visits to Europe. Sorry, I cannot comment on the other entries, though Debu's and Tabla are on my radar.


    6 Replies
    1. re: BokChoi

      I will be interested to hear your take on Tabla. I found it to be extremely disappointing. To elaborate a bit, I looked and tasted much like typical Indian buffet fare, arranged preciously on big square plates. We had a shrimp dish that was barely edible. The food was underspiced.

      I posted my findings and was trashed on these boards. But, I stick by my opinion and am curious if anyone at all shares it.

      Please do report back once you try it.

      1. re: Fwagra

        When Tabla opened, and Estufarian mentioned it on the board, we went immediately, and thought that this was the closest we had found in T.O. to compare for our dining experiences in India, with the exception of the biryani, which was a wet mess.
        We became regulars, at a pace of at least once a month.
        The smokey eggplant was perfect.
        The seasonings were freshly gound, and the sauces were quite unique to each dish.
        I don't know what happened, but the food was dumbed down over time, and the heat removed.
        Things often tasted re-heated, and the place became almost empty.
        The owners sat around the tables, and the spirit seemed to no longer be there.
        After an especially bad meal in late August, we just gave up on Tabla.

        1. re: erly

          Definitely agree, Tabla has gone downhill.
          When I went in July for dinner, my party and I were the only ones dining there for almost our entire meal.

        2. re: Fwagra

          Fwagra and erly,
          This information is quite disturbing! Perhaps I was reading some earlier reviews and comments and not some more recent ones. The place being empty does speak for itself, and now I may be afraid to give it a try. I wonder why they would allow themselves to slip to this point?

          Thanks for the reviews.

          1. re: BokChoi

            I've heard the complete opposite, that Tabla is still good, and the lunch buffet is even decent. It has never been 'busy' and I blame the location for that, but the food is apparently still great based on the responses ive heard from people going there based on my rec.

            Debu is really good, but its almost too complex, it needs to be toned down a notch because its the kind of food you can't really appreciate if you're not concentrating on the dozens of flavours

            Amaya continues to impress.

            1. re: Suresh

              I agree that Tabla is still good.

              Also, the times I've been have been busy. Most recently 3 weeks ago on a Saturday evening I had to wait for a table.

      2. I absolutely love Tabla for takeout. I really like that they offer a choice of meat with your choice of sauce. The portions are generous and I find that the prices are very reasonable when you take into account what you getting. I've tried most of the restaurants in town, and besides Banjara which ended up moving to a location to far for my comfort, I find it's the best. I see some of the comments about Tabla..I can't say I agree but people look for a different balance of spices when it comes to Indian.

        1. Best value is either Trimurtri downtown or Banjara on Bloor West. Good food comparable to an average restaurant in India, although their menus could be a bit more adventurous.

          Amaya is OK, but it's more fusion (duck? tandoori tenderloin?) and overpriced.

          1. I have probably been one of the most vocal ‘Hounds on this issue. Obviously I can’t check out every place weekly, but I do try most recommendations here at least once.
            First, I refuse to judge any place on its buffet or take-out. That’s because I’ve never (and I mean NEVER) had good experiences with either. If you want bulk food at good prices, please enjoy the buffet – but it doesn’t compare with the ‘real’ Indian food. In my experience, if you go ‘early’ to a buffet you get ‘mostly’ yesterday’s leftovers (if lucky you can get the occasional dish freshly prepared – but IMO that’s luck, but you can get a bit luckier by watching what is brought out then dashing for the new dish as it’s poured into the warm water warming pans). If you go late you get ‘tired, oversteamed’ dishes that could have been warming for a couple of hours. Neither interests me. As for take-out, it destroys most foods. The moisture from the hot dishes condenses and drips back leading to soggy vegetables and diluted sauces and breads that don’t deserve the name. If I do get takeout, my preference is to get it ‘cold’ then microwave it at home. Not perfect, but still better than ‘normal’ takeout (IMO).

            So back to ‘Best’. Essentially there are two approaches (others can add more – for example Sri Lankan and Southern Indian dishes, such as Dosa that rely on freshly prepared ‘wraps’ that don’t fit the normal category). The vast majority use pre-prepared sauces (often referred to as ‘mother’ sauces) which are modified by an addition of a spice (or something else e.g. tomato puree) just before serving to give a ‘named’ sauce. The occasional place essentially prepares each sauce from scratch – usually requiring long simmering – even better if the meat (or other main ingredient) is included for a significant time. This labour intensive approach typically leads to a more expensive dish, but the real difference is in the taste where layers of spice reveal themselves sequentially (rather than just being ‘hot’ or ‘mild’).
            Five (perhaps even 2) years ago, the latter approach was almost non-existent in Toronto (a notable exception being the Indian Spice Factory). More recently several places have tried to ‘raise the standard’ of Indian (OK, I know there are huge regional differences, but cut me some slack here). I think I have tried them all, including all those in Snarf’s original post – and a few more as well (e.g. Jaaadu, Indus Junction, the ‘original’ Tabla (at 1055 Yonge)). A couple were just ‘pretenders’ (higher prices because of upscale surroundings rather than more sophisticated cooking), but the genuine attempts seem to have all followed the same pattern. They start with EXCELLENT attempts to prepare great Indian food and discover that people (mostly) won’t pay the price (typically $25-35 per dish for the sophisticated dishes). That is because the existing choice, using mother sauces, typically costs under $50 for two (with a couple of beers) and the market for $100+ dinners is relatively small. It’s a difficult psychological leap. As running a restaurant requires sufficient $ turnover to pay the staff they turn to alternative approaches to generate traffic. Some ‘dumb down’ their food; some introduce buffets; some embrace take-out; and seemingly ALL drop their prices – and that leads to a drop in the ‘quality’ of food. What’s the point of having a $30 dish on the menu if nobody orders it? And also, serving staff are reduced (to save money) and service suffers (which we’ve all seen).
            Realistically Toronto doesn’t support this upscale effort (more’s the pity). If you want the ‘best’ you have to find a place that’s relatively early in this cycle – which typically means the latest hot-spot (which currently is Debu – my most recent visit, on a Saturday night, saw only 3 tables occupied all evening – so they must be considering the inevitable downgrade).
            So, right now, spend $120 at Debu (without wine) to see what’s possible. Unfortunately, although the spicing is still good, the protein content has already slipped. My guess (and it’s only a guess) is that because of slow turnover, the meat/chicken/fish/seafood is being kept ‘too chilled’ (possibly frozen, although I’m not sure about that), so it needs to be ‘cooked’ quickly when ordered. This results in overcooking so the seafood is tough and the chicken dried out – but the spicing does still occur in layers.
            My favourite for at least a year has been Tabla, where I’ve been many times. At first it would cost comfortably over $100 for superb food. I can’t recall the last time it cost that much – typically I’m now paying around $75 for two. The most sophisticated dishes have gone entirely, but they have retained the more sophisticated spicing (in particular, their Vindaloo is a revelation). But service there has also slipped – presumably cost-cutting. I asked them a few months ago what their best-selling dish was – Butter Chicken! Why would any restaurateur try to sell a sophisticated cuisine to a population that just doesn’t want it (no offence intended to those who order butter chicken – but it’s almost the ‘burger’ – or better KFC/Swiss Chalet – of Indian food).
            Amaya (and offshoots) have done a superb job of marketing. They know the reviewers and foodies in Toronto. The food is OK, but is more flash than substance. Sort of a good place to take somebody who doesn’t really know (or like) Indian food. If they put as much effort into service as they do to presentation, I’d rate them much higher. They seem to be following the Vij (Vancouver) model – ‘let’s call it Indian, but prepare dishes for a more western palate’. A lot of people like Vij. I also like him – he’s very personable, but his restaurant ‘uses Indian spices’ – it’s hardly an Indian restaurant.

            So time for the bottom line. Up to my last visit, Tabla was (and is) still my favourite (have tried both Bread Bar and Debu since that). The food at Indian Rice Factory is still very good – but the service has been really bad and I just don’t enjoy going there.
            I also frequent Trimurti – they are very reliable (and under $50 for two) and Rashnaa (around $20-$25 for two).
            If there are better values around for decent Indian food I’d love to hear about them. A couple of people have mentioned Banjara in this thread. My two visits there were not encouraging – maybe $40for two and not up to Trimurti quality (for me). I’d rather pay the extra $10. However, the South Indian place next door, Madras Masala is trying to do more upscale Southern Indian cooking. It shows promise, but I haven’t found the ‘best’ dishes (for me) just yet. But worth a try if one prefers a more upscale version of Rashnaa (which is certainly downscale).
            And so far I’ve been REALLY disappointed on Gerrard East (minor exception for Dosas). Most places have downtown (or higher) prices for lower quality. And I’ve tried most (maybe all) those mentioned in recent threads.

            9 Replies
            1. re: estufarian

              Thanks very much for the comprehensive review estufarian. I would agree that Bread Bar is very Westernized, but I still enjoyed the food (not as classical Indian food, but as a meal). I have not tried the other places you have mentioned, but they have been on my list for a while. Here's to hoping I can try them out before their quality slips (further)!

              1. re: estufarian

                Agree with most of the things you said.
                I don't think debu/amaya are even going for authenticity...and they are more london fusion indian, than Vancouver Vij imo.

                Estufarian, I'd love to take you on a tour at babu and get your opinion of their food. Some of it is mass produced, and is presented buffet style, but i'd still like to see what you have to say about the taste.

                1. re: Suresh

                  Are you talking about Babu (in Scarborough) - which I haven't tried, or Babur on Queen West which has a 'respectable' buffet (as buffets go) but IMO isn't as enjoyable as Trimurti a few doors down?

                    1. re: Suresh

                      All I can say is - wow. That food is Spicy. Great value though. Thanks for the rec, Suresh. Not sure if my taste buds could handle a second round though, due to the heat, but I was happy to have tried it.

                      1. re: BokChoi

                        The thing with babu is that...the food is as authentic as it can probably get (considering we are still using western ingredients to create dishes that are supposed to taste like they're made in south asia)...and outside of the spicy stuff there is a wealth of other things that are really good. But you have to have a tour guide of sorts to get you through it because the counters can be overwhelming.

                        For example, babu has some of the best fish and mutton patties in the city. They're small, soft pastry outside, and the filling is not soggy, not dry. The fish and mutton cutlets (round crab cake style) are also good.

                        The wattalappam (a jaggery and coconut milk dessert) is also one of the best in the city, and i can't leave without a few pieces.

                        the kothu string hoppers, you can ask for it not so spicy, and ask them to throw in some mutton curry, now this is a treat. just make sure you get it out of the container and on to a plate fairly quickly.

                        I can go on and on about the various dishes in this place that are not up front when you walk in. I'm probably repeating myself at this point, anyway...

                        1. re: Suresh

                          Sounds excellent - only problem is the half-hour to get it home - and 1 hour round trip. Nowhere near my usual haunts.
                          Do they keep the ingredients 'cold' then reheat for take-out? If so, I could potentially take it cold and reheat/microwave myself (which is the only way I've found to have 'acceptable' take-out that isn't completely soggy - texture is a high priority for me).

                          1. re: estufarian

                            most dishes are usually cold(er)....because they realize that people need to reheat at home

                            the only dishes that are NOT cold are the kothu dishes as they are prepared in front of you (they don't sit in the counter) so they're super fresh
                            - kothu rotty
                            - kothu string hoppers
                            - hoppers
                            - dosas

                            This stuff, you need to order it, and eat it ASAP. 30 minutes is fine, but the longer, the soggier it gets...
                            my invitation is open

                2. re: estufarian

                  After having tried most of these in the last couple of months, and Tabla again tonight, it's time for some feedback from my perspective.

                  Debu - The menu is ambitious, with appetizers offering three way versions of different ingredients, such as crab, eggplant and quail; mains including game animals and treatments most elaborate. Great focus on the appetizers; very cohesive dishes with fantastic flavours. The mains suffer slightly from crowding the plate with some unnecessary, and unfortunately unfindable flavours. But the core strength of the mains is sufficient to make this marring very marginal, the food is still excellent. To begin and between courses, various little amuses show up on chinese spoons which are delicious and beautifully executed. Since my visit, the menu appears to have changed, with price points dropping.

                  Tabla - Tried it tonight for likely the dozenth time in the last couple of years. I've always been a fan of the food, and have found the service to be generally consistent. Tonight I learned that a new owner has purchased Tabla, and that the place has been renamed 'tablaa' due to a concern by a similarly named establishment. I have had the korma and the chana masala on many occasions, and previously thought they were among the best in the city. That opinion hasn't changed. The tapas platter was mostly consistent, though the flavouring on the shrimp seemed less than inspiring, slightly different from past trips. The naan is still excellent. It looks like the kitchen is probably holdover, and some of the staff. For a relatively busy night, the service was a bit casual, but I think I can give them the benefit of the doubt, as we were having an animated conversation. In general, to have food this consistently good two months after an ownhership change is definitely a good sign.

                  Though, in terms of art, presentation and taste, I would have to give the nod to Debu.

                  Note, Debu does a dumbed down takeout/delivery menu that steers away from the ornate dishes on the regular menu. From a delivery point of view, they are on even par.

                3. I recently went to Earth Indian Restaurant on Yonge just north of Cummer for my daughter's birthday. We all really enjoyed our meal. I tried the lamb vindaloo ($12) and found the big chunks of meat to be fat and bone free, tender but not falling apart. The sauce was just spicy enough (just a little sweat raised) and the naan was delicious and perfect for sopping up any extra sauce.
                  I tasted most of the other dishes we ordered and found them mild but full of layers of flavours. Has anyone else been to Earth? I could just be an unsophisticated Indian food lover, but from this one experience I'd go back for more.

                  6 Replies
                  1. re: torontovore

                    Thanks for the info., First time I heard of this place. Is it new? Wonder how the food compares to Cuisine of India close by? Will definitely give it a try!

                    1. re: torontovore

                      As I said above - I try most recommended places and found myself at Yonge & Finch recently, so dropped by Earth Indian.
                      Overall, not bad - the best I've had in North York (so far). Normally I can try more dishes, but this time was by myself, so any ratings are still tentative.
                      I actually had difficulty finding any appetizer I wanted. However, finally settled on the Papri Chaat, which was well constructed with good flavours and textures. A good start (but I still prefer Onion Bhajia - which isn't offered).
                      Only ordered one main - the Lamb Vindaloo - which has been superb at Tabla, so I had a good basis for comparison. And it was pretty good. Not quite as complex as the one at Tabla, but definitely some layering of flavours. I would have preferred that the lamb had been marinated in the sauce for longer (rather than being added after I ordered) so that the flavours had melded - it tasted like lamb (very mild) with a vindaloo sauce. but a very good sauce and the lamb was mostly meaty and of good quality.
                      The Pulao rice was very good aromatically, but a little overcooked to give a too-soft texture (not a severe criticism as many people like it that way - but it reminded me of Uncle Ben's texturally). The only real disappointment was the Naan - much tougher than I expected and also lacking in flavour - my guess, not enough (possibly no) salt.
                      Overall pretty good - better than 75% of places I've tried so would certainly drop by again to try something else. My only potential issue (don't know if it is certain - but would be after a subsequent visit) is that I had a reaction later that I associate with MSG. I'm not allergic - but consistently wake up (after MSG) about 8 hours later with an unquenchable thirst. And that situation occurred the same night.

                      1. re: torontovore

                        I found Earth perfectly medicore. There are too many better places to consider returning.

                        1. re: evansl

                          Would you mind letting us know which places you're referring to?

                          1. re: kwong

                            Earth Indian is on Yonge, south of Cummer.

                            Cuisine of India is on Yonge, a few blocks south of Finch, on the west side.

                            Tablaa is on Yonge, a few blocks south of Lawrence, on the east side.

                            1. re: Snarf

                              I was trying to get evansl to respond. Just wanted to know what places HE recommends.

                              Tabla is great. Definitely the favorite among my family and friends. Tabla is always the Indian restaurant I recommend.

                              I'm surprised Earth is worse than Cuisine of India. I've never tried Earth, but I have tried Cuisine of India and it's not exactly the best.