Nikki Bayley is drooling over the saag aloo balti at Sula Indian Restaurant.
I had not heard of balti before meeting Ms. Bayley, the new Vancouver editor of Eater, a mega New York-based food blog that launches next month in Canada.
“This tastes exactly like my first week of university,” exclaims Ms. Bayley, an irrepressible ball of energy who grew up in the British Midlands, where this curious curry is sometimes said to have originated.
I cannot say I share Ms. Bayley’s enthusiasm for our mild bowl of finely chopped spinach and chunky potatoes. I’m not sure I even understand it.
Balti does not have a standard recipe. In the U.K., where the Birmingham Balti Association has applied for EU-protected food name status, the local specialty comes in a variety of familiar flavours (tikka masala, rogan josh, korma, etc.) with endless ingredient options (chicken, lamb or whatever else you like).
The difference between balti and a traditional curry, as far as I can decipher (and there are many conflicting opinions) is that rather than being slowly stewed, balti is cooked to order over high heat in a thin, metal wok-like pan in which it is also served.
Although widely popular in England, balti is almost impossible to find in Vancouver. Except at Sula, where it is not on the menu, but is now available by special request thanks to Ms. Bayley.
When the freelance writer moved here last year, she sent out a plaintive cry on Twitter. The owners of Sula took up her balti challenge. After several taste trials, they achieved the perfect balance of creaminess and warm glow of heat that she so fondly recalled from home.
I have been listening to her wax rhapsodic about her favourite comfort food ever since. (We met once and became fast friends texting each other last spring when we were both laid up – she had a foot injury, I was recovering from appendicitis – and shared a mutual obsession with home food delivery.) So when it came time to celebrate her new job, we naturally went to Sula for dinner.
I barely recognize the restaurant, former home of a strange sushi-cum-nightclub named Lime, through the blazing glare of overhead lights. To me, Sula is not attractive. Compared with the jewel-box decor at Vij’s or the Maurya’s high-ceilinged splendour, Sula’s purple walls and floral murals feel hideously hippy-dippy. And the bathrooms are unpleasantly dirty.
Ms. Bayley, on the other hand, thinks Sula is “very cool and modern.” Her favourite Indian restaurants back home, she explains, are covered in flock wallpaper and serenaded by piped-in Ravi Shankar. “This is bang-on trendy.”
I agree that Sula is trying to be modern, with its gluten-free menu options, young servers and innovative bar list. I like the fact that it offers cocktails and an Indian house wine. Although Ms. Bayley is impressed with the viognier’s peachy bouquet, she would not dream of drinking anything other than a salty lassi with balti, which has always been her go-to hangover cure. Again, we bring very different associations to the table.
Sula, in my mind, seems a tad overstretched. Although we are seated right away, we are not able to order because the menus are all on other tables. Even Ms. Bayley thinks this is odd.
When we are finally able to order appetizers, I choose papri chaat, a lightly fried wafer strewn with potatoes, chickpeas, yogurt and cilantro chutney. She dives into a massive platter of onion bhajia, onion rings deep-fried in a grainy chickpea batter. She adores them. They taste like home. I think they’re greasy and disgusting.
We wait at least half an hour for our balti. We also have lamb pasanda, a more traditional, darkly spiced tomato, onion and cilantro curry, which we scoop up with wonderfully fluffy garlic naan. Sula offers an interesting array of stuffed naan. And chicken tandoori, which is not very tender. It is actually quite tough.
Again, we wait an awfully long time for the bill. Ms. Bayley does not mind, having had her balti fix. Me? I’m less forgiving.
But then I return a few days later and order some of my favourite curries. The butter chicken is just as it should be – creamy and smooth with a subtle kiss of fenugreek. Goan prawns are a bit too sweet and flaky with coconut, but nicely taut and not overcooked. The lamb vindaloo makes me break out in a sweat, as I like it.
On this occasion, the service is swift and I leave the restaurant feeling contented.
Which just goes to show that we all bring certain biases to the table. As a restaurant critic, I try to be as objective as I can. But we all succumb to personal memories and experiences when assessing a restaurant or anything else in life.
“That’s the great thing about food,” Ms. Bayley opines. “If you can’t be unreasonable in every way and say I like it because I like it, then what’s the point?”
I’m extremely excited about the local Eater launch. I have long been a fan of the blog’s irreverent take on dining and drinking. The Vancouver edition is bound to shake up our restaurant scene with new perspectives and perhaps even tread on a few toes. Ms. Bayley and I will not always agree. Who cares? The more voices at this kitchen party the merrier.