- Dindigul Thalappakattu Biriyani
- 3850 Finch Avenue East, Toronto, Ontario
- Biryanis are $10.50.
- South Indian
- A few beers available, as well as soft drinks, outstanding masala chai and Bru-brand instant coffee.
- A small, friendly shop with counter service, and Tollywood costume dramas on the TV.
- Biryani: mutton for huge flavour and huge spice, chicken for slightly less. He’s also begun experimenting with fried fish and squid versions, which I haven’t tried. Get extra raita, which is crazy-delicious stuff.
- Additional Info
- Open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily; the batches are small, so be prepared to wait at times, especially for the mutton.
A Cheap Eats pick, where you can dine well for under $30, before alcohol, tax and tip.
An out-of-the-ordinary new biryani shop opened quietly last November in the rear of an office complex at Finch Avenue East and Kennedy Road, in Scarborough. Its marketing budget, if you can call it that, was just big enough for a stack of business cards and a yellow vinyl banner reading "Dindigul Thalappakattu Biriyani," which the little shop's management draped beneath the previous tenant's sign.
The restaurant didn't bother to serve the usual range of sweets, curries and "short eats" snacks that are a fixture of most South Indian and Sri Lankan restaurants around the GTA. Chef Anbu Panbarasan, who is a partner in the business, does just one thing, and he does it brilliantly: He makes biryani, the one-pot, special-occasions dish of layered, slow-cooked rice, spice and meat that is often called Indian cooking's highest achievement. Even today, he still gets would-be customers who come looking for samosas or roti and leave in a huff.
Nonetheless, within a month of opening, Mr. Panbarasan was fielding van-loads of food pilgrims from Brampton, Mississauga and Niagara Falls. By the time the food writer Suresh Doss brought me in February (his mother, who lives in Scarborough, had discovered it a few weeks earlier), the chef was making several batches daily and the weekend lineups often stretched well past the door.
The chef makes Dindigul-style biryani, which originated in a mountain village in Southeastern India's Tamil Nadu state. Nearly every region on the subcontinent has its own biryani variations and ingredients; close culinary relatives of the dish, which blends Persian Mughlai and Indian influences, are also popular throughout the Middle East and as far away as South Africa. But the Dindigul style is one of the most revered; it is typically far more moist and its flavours more exuberant than the average, closer in a way to great Spanish paella than to the wan, dry biryanis that are commonplace elsewhere around town.
Mr. Panbarasan's mutton biryani blends torrents of tart Indian yogurt, grass-fed mutton (its Tamil name translates roughly to "country sheep;" it's got a distinct and pleasant gaminess), whole spearmint and coriander sprigs, long green chillies and cashews. He adds scrolls of cinnamon and aromatic pandan leaves, which soften the meat, as well as a bogglingly complex spice mix that includes ginger, garlic, mace and cardamom pods. Crucially, the chef cooks all these together with the rice in the same giant pot, rather than adding the cooked meat at the end, as many other places do.
The flavours soak deep into the meat and the rice – he uses a short-grained, neutral-flavoured variety called seeraga samba, instead of the more common basmati; this is another Dindigul hallmark. They mellow and intermingle through low, covered cooking. The biryani emerges lustrous, moist, the flavour dark and round from the meat and warm spices, but thrumming too from the fresh herbs and ginger, the yogurt's tartness, the chillies' heat.
Mr. Panbarasan tops every serving with a boiled egg and a piece of tandoori chicken, which he makes from scratch, marinating it in spice and yogurt overnight, before trips through the tandoor and then a deep fryer. The raita here – the yogurt-based sauce that's commonly served with biryani – is so chunky with red onions, carrot, black pepper and green chiles that it's as much a salad as a condiment.
After the first bite, eating becomes an involuntary act, like blinking and breathing, because to stop eating seems inconceivable. The chicken biryani has fewer chillies in it, but is just as moist. Its flavour impact is just as much of a dropkick. When you look around the room at other first-timers, you see stunned faces, mostly. The soundtrack of the place is disbelieving chatter. That's all the more impressive when you realize a plate of the main event costs $10.50.
Mr. Panbarasan, who is 40, grew up in Tamil Nadu, in a town halfway between Dindigul and Chennai, the major coastal centre to the north. In his early 20s he left for Dubai, where he took a job as a cook and learned to make biryani. He came to Canada in July of 2014. He couldn't find another Dindigul biryani specialist around town.
I'm not convinced that the chef is going to be able to keep the name he's given his restaurant. The name is a reference to the Chennai-based restaurant company called Dindigul Thalappakatti Restaurant that started the Dindigul biryani craze. The company has more than a dozen locations around South India. The name is trademarked, and defended, fiercely.
No matter what the place is called, it is worth becoming one of the pilgrims. The shop sells beer along with the biryani (the liquor license is a holdover from its previous incarnation as Joe's Bistro), as well as the best masala chai tea I've had in the GTA. They also play Technicolor, Telugu-language costume dramas on the TV by the door, which makes it a pretty much perfect restaurant.
And even those few cranky customers who arrive in search of short eats are coming around. A man asked for samosas at lunchtime one weekday recently; Mr. Panbarasan's assistant, using the standard honorific for an older Tamil man, told him, "I'm sorry, uncle, but we sell biryani only."
The man made toward the exit, but as he was leaving, Mr. Panbarasan handed him a small plastic cup with a scoop of biryani. The man left. Everybody went back to stuffing their faces and watching the costume drama.
A minute later, the man walked back into the restaurant, grinning.
"Okay, I will have one," he said.