Karan Kalia moved to Toronto from New Delhi in 2002 and faced many of the usual adjustments. Where in India she'd been an account executive in an advertising firm, here she took a job as an office administrator. She and her husband, Sunil, moved to Mississauga first, and then into a condo downtown, where they huddled up on winter weekends, braced against the shuddering cold.
They had a group of friends here, other Indians they'd grown up with, who had moved one couple after another to Canada. They were comfort to each other. Karan cooked for them every other weekend. She made yellow dal with cumin; crisp, chopped okra with charred onions and ginger; a play on biryani; a proper butter chicken. The friends often told Karan she should open her own restaurant. She didn't want to run a restaurant kitchen. For a good 10 years, she blew the suggestion off.
Last year, Ms. Kalia took a lease on a small space in Mimico, in southwest Toronto, on Lakeshore Boulevard West. She didn't want to regret not trying, she said. It was a former Polish bar, in a neighbourhood that was exploding with new condos. It was not yet exploding with good eating. She decorated the place herself, and beautifully, with soft paisley wallpaper she sourced in Barcelona, with barn boards and Edison bulb lighting, and with ceramic rams' heads that glowered under gleaming golden horns. She called the place "Tich," after the informal Hindi word for cool.
It would be a modern Indian spot, with pop music instead of sitars, and a wine list people would want to order from. She stuck to her guns about the cooking: she wasn't doing it. Which was wise, it turns out.
It was wise because the two chefs Ms. Kalia hired, a curry chef from Calcutta and a tandoor guy from Mumbai, are two of the finest in the Greater Toronto Area – and to my mind the best by far if you don't count Scarborough and Brampton. Curry man Sujoy Saha cooks with rare deftness and complexity, his dishes packed not with the far too common thud of dry masala blends and ghee, but often with sours, bitters, warmth from green chilli and ginger, brightness from coriander, roundness and otherworldly fragrance from whole spices.
This isn't your standard, North Americanized Northern Indian, and it's a far cry from much of the "upmarket" and "modern" Indian that's increasingly common. Modern Indian too often means dull food with pretty garnishes. (I'm talking about Pukka, on Toronto's St. Clair Avenue West, though the place is just one of many offenders.) There's range and yes, spice, and freshness to what Tich does. Mr. Saha's Hyderabad-style baby eggplant, one of many standouts, comes simmered with coconut milk and roasted coconut, ginger, fresh curry leaves and star anise, lemon juice and roasted peanuts; it's cooked only enough so the flavours combine and the eggplant softens but doesn't collapse, so that it's recognizably a baby eggplant dish instead of gloopy stew.
The tandoor chef, Mandy Jawle, spent two years as executive sous chef at Junoon, a Michelin-starred spot in New York. (We can thank U.S. immigration for his presence in Toronto; he couldn't get resident status in the States, he said.)
His tandoor oven cooking, from the flaky, buttery-flavoured lachha parathas to grilled, gently pickled house paneer, to whole-cooked sea bream, is beyond compare in the city. I've never had better tandoori chicken than Jawle's: it's moist enough and tender enough that I had to remind myself what I was eating, and with smouldering spice and heat in the background and welcome bitterness from oven char.
But if you have to choose (by all means don't if you can help it), skip the tandoori chicken in favour of the hara mirch tikka: cubes of chicken thigh marinated for 12 hours with coriander and green chillies, grilled in the tandoor to a hard char and served with vivid green mint chutney.
It's as much a palate defibrillator as I've encountered in a year at least, one of my favourite bites of 2015. Nothing about that chicken – not the spice, not the aggressive coriander, and definitely not the bitterness from charring – would be right on their own, but taken in unison they're exquisite.
Mr. Jawle's lamb chops, done "popsicle" style, à la Vikram Vij, (but bless him for not calling them lamb popsicles) are spiced with restraint and grilled just to medium rare. They taste like lamb, which often isn't the case in a cuisine that favours big flavoured mutton; Tich's lamb chops are gently grassy, and as red and tender as a bitten lip, with the same soft seam of iodine. I loved them. There's also braised-to-quivering lamb shank if that's your speed, served in ginger and tomato gravy. The lamb shank biryani, too, is excellent, though you're still better heading to Dindigul Thalappakattu in Scarborough for that.
There is a sizeable vegetarian section to Tich's menu; we went mostly veg one night and swooned. The chopped okra, built on Ms. Kalia's home version, was crisp and mild, without any of the sliminess that puts people off. There was just– stewed tomato with it, as well as onions that had been seared to smoking, chopped coriander leaves and fresh ginger.
The dals are great, the yellow version light and fragrant, spiced with homemade garam masala, the dal Bukhara based on long-simmered black lentils, red kidney beans and a pleasant excess of cream. Ms. Kalia's role in the restaurant is out in front of the kitchen, inspecting all the dishes, as well as helping to shape the menu. She is obsessed with consistency and quality, and it shows.
The breads are terrific, and the desserts, like so much else here, are light and delicately textured, with none of the canon's diabolical prediabetic sweet. The rice pudding and the cottage cheese patties in sweetened cream are particularly fine.
I've been holding off on my single complaint about Tich because it sounds so personal and so minor – but it's also not at all. Tich employs the most awkward, intrusive server I've encountered in a city restaurant. He stands at the door and greets customers, far too eagerly, with his hand outstretched, introducing himself as he clasps their hands. "And what is your name?" he demands.
He then uses his customers' names, incessantly, as though it's not food and drink he's selling but life insurance. "Steven, Richard, Rachel, are you ready to order?" he'll ask. "Steven, Rachel, Richard, I'm very sorry to interrupt you."
He presses himself into conversations. "So what's your backstory," I heard him ask a young couple the first time he approached their table. They visibly recoiled.
Where this comes from, I have no idea. He's by all appearances a young, Kensington market hippie. He seems genuinely kind and keen on service. He's trying to do a good job. He's trying about 95 per cent too much.
One night, I sent a friend in for pick up. When she declined to talk in detail about how her day had been, he said, "Oh, you mean you don't want to have this awkward conversation?" No, man, she didn't. She wanted to pick up dinner.
These are the sorts of interactions that kill a restaurant. Ms. Kalia's worked too hard and done too much right for that.