My parents both hated curry. My mother hated cats and my father hated beer. Is it any surprise that I only came to a love for curry, cats and beer (not necessarily in that order) long after leaving the parental home? None of these three affections came naturally to me, because we are so very much the creatures of our conditioning – when it comes to almost everything except in those few matters where we have taken great care to rebel against our upbringing.
Curry is my favourite of the three, but I have thus far been terribly disappointed at the demise of Cuisine of India, which was Toronto’s best curry and tandoori house since 1990. Not that the bar is so high. Most of the Indian restaurants I’ve tried serve greasy generic curries that taste like they’ve been sitting on the back of the stove since yesterday.
Cuisine of India closed thanks to the redevelopment of its block, and re-opened on Yonge at Davisville, but the owners have since given up the restaurant business entirely and are now only catering. Long-time C of I chef Jokh Rana has now migrated to The Copper Chimney, on Avenue Road just south of the 401.
His work at The Copper Chimney is less sharp and refined than it was at Cuisine of India (RIP) and has become more home-style – many rich, strong curry sauces of diverse flavours and still the suite of fabulous breads and the glorious meats roasted in the tandoor.
The only place Chef puts a foot wrong is with the appetizers. Sure, most Indian apps are deep-fried, but offering five deep-fried out of five apps? That’s just plain dumb. Perhaps they could take a page from Amaya’s book and change it up? The onion bhaji are soggy and uncrisp. Amritsari fish tastes charming thanks to a seasoning of turmeric, coriander and garam masala, and we like the creamed coriander-mint chutney, but the batter on the fish is far too thick and heavy. The garlic-vegetable balls have more pizzazz, thanks to deep, rich, garlicky cooked-down tomato sauce, but they too are afflicted with the deep-fryer stodge problem. Chili-lime wings are also texturally desolate – neither crisp nor crunchy – but they also benefit flavour-wise from the sour (lime), the sweet and a chili-garlic kick. And what’s with the mulligatawny soup? At Cuisine of India, it sang, it danced on the taste buds. Here, it’s gone all bland and boring.
One might be better off going directly to the tandoor here, for the cook manning the oven knows exactly when to pull things out, and how to marinate them with a punch. Tandoori chicken is redolent of yogurt and spices, and perfectly tender. The tandoor also bakes breads as grand as our favourites from Cuisine of India. Their onion kulcha might be the best Indian bread in town, soft-cooked onion inside soft layers of hot bread. Garlic naan is another contender: crisp, hot, studded with garlic cooked just enough to sweeten it.
Chef does great things with lentils, which is no mean feat. His daal tadka is yellow lentils cooked mushy and infused with deep strong flavour from onions and tomato spiked with young ginger. His veg rice pilau is buttery basmati studded with wonderful veg save for one error – frozen green beans. Bad call. Aloo gobi, a great dish for $10.95, is the usual potatoes and cauliflower but with more than the usual savour from a lot of ginger and garlic in the lightly creamed tomato sauce.
Even the expensive dishes are not expensive here: $14.95 buys mango prawns, large shrimps swimming in creamy, thick coconut sauce inflected with fenugreek for sparkle and topped with shredded green mango for textural entertainment and a puckery fruit finish. Chef’s special nalli lamb is also entertaining: Lamb shank cooked tender in rich, thick, brown sauce built on yogurt and onion, flavoured with cloves and ginger.
There is one dessert worth eating. Not everybody likes Indian desserts, which are infamous for their excess of sugar. Forget the gulab jamun. It’s a technically interesting dessert, but I don’t find it appetizing. Ras malai, on the other hand, is addictive. This dessert is sweetened paneer (fresh Indian cheese) sitting in a pool of either cream or boiled-down milk and spiced with cardamom and pistachios.
And it’s all available to take out! Save for the deep-fried apps, which you ought to avoid, everything the Chimney does travels well, and they take off 10 per cent for takeout orders. Not that I dislike the room, but it’s ordinary, a long narrow space that gets overheated when crowded (which is pretty much always on weekends). The burgundy tablecloths and Indian wall hangings are pleasantly predictable and the service is not as good as the food. My personal idea of a really great Saturday night would be to light every candle in the house, turn off all mobile-communication devices, and get takeout from The Copper Chimney, from tandoori to ras malai.