Oh, the sadness of it. A friend of mine who has spent time in India told me that my Indian food is the best she's eaten in Toronto. I have never been to India and am relatively untutored in the cooking of the subcontinent. Which tells us that the bar here must be pathetically low. How many greasy curry houses does it take for Toronto to turn people off Indian food? And how sad that the magnificent food of India is so poorly represented in Toronto, and so wrongly ill-thought-of.
Save for Amaya and its offshoots and the Indian Rice Factory, we've not been much blessed with high-quality Indian food.
Enter Aravind, hidden in Greektown, an unassuming little joint with amateurish service and nothing to speak of, décor-wise - and the wonderful food of southern India's Kerala state. Owner Aravind Kozhikott picked up some high-end food philosophy working behind the bar for Marc Thuet. Hence his focus on local ingredients - Lake Huron pickerel, Ontario rainbow trout, local winter veg in salads.
Aravind's dad Raj came out of retirement to helm the kitchen, which is Keralan all the way. Plantain chips and lentil crisps whet the appetite, along with warm cumin-infused water - as weird as it sounds, but strangely pleasant.
Aravind serves ravishing dosas - fermented coconut rice-flour crepes filled with three different deft curries: turmeric-tinged masala of potato and onions, squash, and lentil with eggplant. Hot, oniony tomato chutney takes the dosas great places. Other apps also speak to Kerala's long sea coast. Mussels come bathed in delicate red coconut curry with young ginger in tiny juliennes and small green chilis, with more of those ethereal fermented rice-flour pancakes.
Winter salad is classic hyphenated Canadiana: thin shavings of beet, carrot, parsnip and cucumber with chaat (tiny crisps of fried dough) in the lemony dressing. The only appetizer misstep is the sad mealy mushiness of crab cakes with tamarind sauce.
It's unfortunate that Raj puts such fine effort into the famed Ontario rainbow trout. No matter how hard you rub fish with chili and turmeric or how carefully you steam it in banana leaf, farmed rainbow trout has a musty flavour. I eschew it. Much better (and also local) is perfectly cooked wild Lake Huron pickerel in ginger-spiked coconut curry. Dungeness-crab biryani is sweet from crab, savoury from saffron - hardly the bland biryani of cheap curry houses. Which Aravind is not.
The menu's other mistake is saag paneer, normally a great item. It is usually simply cooked-down spinach puree with fresh cheese. This rendition adds kale and broccoli, which is a bad call, because when you cook Brassica vegetables (a family that includes cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and broccoli) for a long time, your kitchen smells like a rooming house during the Depression and the veg taste old. As does its slightly overcooked fresh cheese. Sticking to spinach and reducing cooking time is safer. But we love the side of sautéed young delicate okra, beet cubes with fresh coconut and spicy pickle.
Raj uses his oven to great effect with both the usual - flaky paratha bread - and the unusual - uttapam, which is fermented rice-flour bread topped with toasted onion and garlic. When you ferment dough or rise it with yeast, the expanding air bubbles from fermentation fluff it up, creating lightness otherwise unachievable. This is bread as cloud.
Kozhikott Senior is a baker. His carrot-cake roll is a misnamed delight. Unlike North American carrot cake, which is cooked, this fabulous confection is cardamom-spiced pureed carrot, barely cooked and rolled around house-made sweetened ricotta and crumbled pistachio nuts. Also divine are three tiny saucers of "pudding." Simple mango puree, vermicelli noodles in coconut milk with raisins and slivered almonds. And surprisingly charming lentils stewed with brown sugar.
We're a little surprised when the bill arrives: It's $100 a couple with beer, before tip. But hey, it comes with a geography lesson: On the blackboard are facts about the state of Kerala: It's 30 degrees outside there, the population is 32 million and the literacy rate is 97 per cent. It all makes sense - good cooking is an art requiring leisure and some financial resources, as is literacy. It's little wonder that a land of readers and writers is also a land of grand cuisine, something that's definitely on the books at Aravind.