At his empire's height a few years back, the chef Hemant Bhagwani ran Amaya The Indian Room, a lauded fine-dining spot on Bayview Avenue, the more casual Amaya Bread Bar on Yonge Street, and 14 Amaya Express takeout counters around Toronto and Mississauga. He licensed his name to a U.S. company that runs restaurants in Toronto's Pearson Airport, sold his butter chicken recipe to the Jack Astor's chain, struck a deal with Aramark to serve Amaya-inspired dishes in corporate cafeterias, and hawked a line of Amaya-branded sauces, spice mixes and breads in grocery stores from coast to coast.
Mr. Bhagwani, whose father, in New Delhi, ran a chain of sweets shops, has always been as much a serial entrepreneur as a chef; his first stop after graduating hotel school in Switzerland as a young man was Australia's University of New South Wales, where he completed an MBA. At peak Amaya fever, in the summer of 2011, Mr. Bhagwani planned to push his company to all-pervasiveness. His goal, he told the food writer David Sax, in a memorable profile: to open 100 Amaya Express locations within five years.
But rather than expanding, the Amaya brand foundered, and his business partner, the front-of-house pro Derek Valleau, departed. Mr. Bhagwani was bored with the cookie-cutter approach, he now says. Whatever the issue, the feeling of boredom was mutual. Many of his once-loyal customers moved on. Though six Amaya Express outlets remain – Mr. Bhagwani is the majority shareholder in the brand but doesn't operate the restaurants – he sold the Bread Bar to another operator, who ran it into the ground. As for Amaya The Indian Room, its last days were marked by an unmistakable Groupon reek.
Indian Street Food Co., which opened last fall in the old Indian Room space, is Mr. Bhagwani's comeback attempt, and with it, the chef has turned from the refined but rich, cream and ghee-drenched Northern Indian and Punjabi cooking he made his name with, to a lighter, sharper, more regionally varied fare. His inspiration here is the street snacks, coffee house staples and railway station foods of India: the bhel puris, speakeasy sandwiches, thali spreads and banana-leaf-steamed fish dishes that he ate as a kid.
The new room reflects that of-the-people heritage. Its walls bear hand-painted rules lists of the sort you find across the subcontinent: No leering, No running away, No sleeping in the washroom, No feet on table. It's refreshingly pop-Indian instead of silks-and-sitars regal. The cheque at the end of each meal arrives, a little oddly perhaps, with the battered remains of a pre-Partition-era typewriter. It's the real India, whatever that is, but tidied up just enough for rich, white midtown tastes.
The cooking is, for the most part, very good. Any visitor's first stop on the enormous menu (there are more than 50 items) should be the section devoted to chaats, the popular street snacks that combine fried legumes and puffed grains with chopped vegetables, herbs and spice, a little bit like a box of Chex Mix crashed into an Indian produce aisle. Mr. Bhagwani's "chaat on wheels" is among the best of them: It's a tart, sour, creamy, savoury and crunchy jumble of wheat crisps, puffed rice, toasted lemon-flavoured chickpea noodles, crumbled spinach fritters and lentil dumplings, tomatoes, onion and cucumber, exploding pomegranate seeds and dark-fried chickpeas. It comes moistened with a river of yogurt, and the one-two slap of tamarind and mango-mint chutneys.
There are good, if standard, pappadums, snackable deep-fried string hoppers, a serviceable, just ever-so-slightly subcontinental seafood ceviche (the most Indian thing about it: the menu calls it "chilled seafood bhel"), and – a can't-miss – vegetable fries made not with the expected sweet potatoes or cassava, but with strips of eggplant that crunch under superlight pakora batter before giving way to the custard flesh. (The inspiration for that one came from Yotam Ottolenghi, Mr. Bhagwani said.)
You'll also find plenty of oddities here, at least by local standards. The gosht dabalroti, a play on a lamb and bread stew that originates with Pakistan and India's ethnic Sindhi population, layers richly spiced lamb curry over cubes of ghee-toasted Pullman bread; it's terrific stuff.
He serves memorably tasty Hakka-Indian chili beef, a ginger, clove and fish sauce-kissed stir fry that you can find outside Kerala's toddy shops. It's reminiscent of Chinese beef and broccoli, but weaponized with red and green chillies instead of the usual brassica stems.
The chicken tikka is less exotic, if very good, though like many of the kitchen's grilled dishes, it doesn't have quite the depth of flavour or the char of the very best tandoor places. (The restaurant's tandoor is fuelled by gas, not charcoal.) The tandoori lamb chops, a ubiquitous standard at modern Indian spots, are done medium rare and served on flaky fried paratha breads. They're excellent.
The rices are standouts. The chorizo rice, from Portuguese-influenced Goa, in India's southwest, is uncommonly fragrant and fluffy, and comes slick with the sausage's smoked paprika and pork fat, and also with a delicious flood of ghee.
That banana leaf fish, too – it's a whole snapper, wrapped up with chillies, spices, and then steamed and sauced with coconut milk – is excellent. And the restaurant's kothu roti, a beloved Tamil chop-and-sear of roti, vegetables, spice and gravy, is also a go-to, if only because of its still inexplicable rarity in the sorts of places where diners pay with black carbon fibre credit cards. It's tasty enough, studded with whole spices and curry leaves, properly in-your-face with salt and chillies, served with a touch of elegance (or, depending on your view of such things: with a touch of preciousness) in a copper bowl. Yet as I ate that kothu roti one night I had to struggle to suspend my disbelief.
While Mr. Bhagwani was once a tastemaker in the city, particularly with The Indian Room and Bread Bar's early days, today he's playing catch-up from behind. While the chef says he's inspired by India's street foods, I can't help but think he's even more inspired by other realities closer to home.
Light, punchy, spice-charged international food isn't the risk it once was with deep-pocketed diners; it's quickly becoming a selling point. Little Sister, the stellar Dutch-Indonesian spot just two long blocks west, on Yonge Street, has proven that in spades, as has the superlative Tich restaurant in Mimico, where the cooking is on every single level superior to here. And in those years when Mr. Bhagwani was empire-building on the back of his butter chicken – that single, give-the-people-what-they-want dish at one point accounted for 60 per cent of Amaya Express's sales – chaats, tamarind, the sour, footy pong of asafoetida spice, and even kothu roti began to enter the city's dining mainstream.
None of this is an indictment of Indian Street Food Co.; it's a fine place to eat with an interesting menu. The place is crowded even on Tuesday nights, as it should be.
And very much to Mr. Bhagwani's credit, the restaurant is among the first in Canada to do away with tipping. Staff in the restaurant's front and back of house share in a full 22 per cent of net revenue, half of which comes from an administrative fee on every cheque, and half of which is taken off the top of sales. I asked a server point-blank how it works out. It's just as good as the old tipping model, the server said.
It's just that unlike Tich or Little Sister or Nana, the Thai street food spot downtown, or the best of the biryani wallahs in Scarborough, or even the everyday kothu roti spots around the city's edges, Mr. Bhagwani's latest isn't a place you need to rush to – not if you don't live nearby. Maybe that's a good thing. It's nice to think that Toronto's dining scene has reached such a level of variety and maturity that you don't need to freak out every time a new spot declines to underestimate its diners' tastes.
Yet I have one other reservation about the place that may sound trifling in an era when every restaurateur wants an empire, but still, it matters. Mr. Bhagwani looks to be back to his supercharged expansion ways. He opened a similar concept, called Sindhi Indian Street Food, in Mississauga last summer. And these days the chef spends his mornings at The Fat Beet, a 52-seat Israeli-Indian-Middleterranean-inspired spot in Thornhill that his brother-in-law owns.
Maybe it'll all work, but as Mr. Bhagwani should well know, that pace of expansion rarely leads to greatness – not from the diners' perspective at least.