A Cheap Eats pick, where you can dine well for under $30, before alcohol, tax and tip
If you've driven a car downtown in the past 10 months you might have driven past King Place. The new Pakistani spot, with its windows ringed in neon lights and its cheery, lilting countermen, anchors the plaza on the southwest corner of Sherbourne Street and Dundas Street East, at an intersection that otherwise screams, "KEEP ON DRIVING!"
The last time I ate there, a bedraggled woman in bare legs and a very short skirt trundled up and down Sherbourne in wobbly heels, until she jumped into the cab of a passing pickup truck. Another time, a stocky man on the sidewalk shouted into his telephone, "If he doesn't shut up I'll get the Romanians to shut him up for good." (I'm sure it was only about municipal politics.)
If you are at all squeamish about these things, King Place is a drive-up restaurant. You drive up, you park, you eat, you drive away.
I've eaten at King Place four times in the past few weeks. I've eaten there that much because after each visit I couldn't believe the food at a little-known Pakistani spot on the intersection of Sherbourne and Dundas – a spot where they use a bank of four microwaves to reheat the food to order, I might add – could possibly be so good.
After the fourth visit, I finally gave in. It is that good. It is outstanding, in fact. King Place serves the most richly nuanced, precisely flavoured and gloriously delicious Pakistani food in town.
Pakistan's cuisine is a lot like Northern Indian cooking: there are creamy-textured chana masalas made from long-stewed chickpeas and complex, hand-ground spice pastes, as well as smoky tandoor chicken and fragrant, buttery naan breads and delicate pakora curries perfumed with cumin, fenugreek and turmeric.
It is meatier than most Indian cooking, with beef as a prized ingredient. It is far oilier, also, which rounds out and reverberates the flavours. During a week in Pakistan a few years ago I saw a total of about three dishes that didn't come under a slack tide of ghee.
And so Pakistani cooking can come off as too heavy, too flabby-tasting, particularly at old-guard city haunts such as Gerrard Street's (not at all bad) Lahore Tikka House, and (also not bad, but not great) King Palace, the incumbent city fast-casual Pakistani spot, up on Church Street north of Bloor. (Note the difference in that name: it's King Palace. King Place and King Palace are not affiliated. More about that in a bit.)
At King Place, you get the oil still, but there's laser focus to the flavours, as well as brightness from sours and bitters to leaven all the meat and ghee-drenched depth.
The beef nihari is a good dish to start with. It's a stew built on tremulous hunks of beef shank that collapse into moist, tender fibres as you prod them. The curry around the meat tastes like dark caramelized onions, warm spices, green chiles and butter, but then there are slices of rind-on lemon, garlic and long slender batons of fresh ginger, so that the whole of it thrums with sour-bitter-savory-spicy tension. It's an electrifying dish, seasoned by an expert palate.
The pakora curry is just as interesting, the spinach and chickpea dumplings simmered in tangy yogurt gravy. The gravy is tart, but also sweetened by deep caramelized onions and flushed with whole green curry leaves and dried chiles. The flavours are vivid. They're the opposite of flabby.
Even the chana masala, a staple dish of chickpeas in vegetable curry, stands way out. At King Palace, the chana masala tastes like an apology, watery and hollow.
But here the dish is astonishing, the texture rich and creamy and the jumble of flavours masterfully placed.
King Place's chef and owner moved here from Pakistan in 2003. Though his name is Mehood Meer, he goes by "Mr. Butt." ("You ask any cab driver, all people call me Mr. Butt," he said. "It is funny name.")
Mr. Butt was a partner at the popular King Palace from it inception in 2003 until 2012, he said. (Until 2007, it was located beside the 101gas.com – now a condo – at Richmond and Sherbourne; King Palace is now at 820 Church Street, near where Church gives way to Davenport Road.)
Mr. Butt seems to have had a hard time letting go. King Place's design and décor, from the signage outside to the neon lights around the windows and the artwork on the walls, is a top-to-bottom rip-off of the design and décor at King Palace. Even the photo in King Place's takeout menu, which shows nine of the restaurant's most popular dishes, is identical to the photo in King Palace's menu: it was by all appearances cut and pasted.
"He copied everything!" a counterman at King Palace said this week.
At least Mr. Butt knew better than to copy King Palace's food.
His haleem is a case in point. Haleem, a silky purée made from mixed lentils, grains and beef, is a staple food around Central and South Asia, as well as in the Middle East. There are countless variations throughout the Muslim world. Done well, it is one of the most comforting dishes imaginable, everything you ever wanted in a stew, puréed to a glossy green goo. (Okay, it's almost everything you ever wanted in a stew.)
At King Palace, the haleem tastes like sautéed ground beef and a shake or two from the spice container. At King Place, the stuff is mellow, punchy and intensely savoury. It's exquisite cold-weather food, topped with fresh ginger, coriander and a warming floe of fiery red oil – breathtaking when scooped up with the kitchen's fluffy naan.
You should get the haleem, and the okra, too, which comes soft and round and gentle-tasting, a revelation if you've never had it this way.
Get some chicken pulao if they have it (it's rice cooked in stock, with chicken thighs; it's far better than the biryani, which was dry and weak when I had it), skip the mutter paneer (a rare botch-job; the cheese was hard from exposure when I tried it and the peas were greying).
Definitely have a seekh kabab or two, as well as the whole, stewed quails and a daal.
A lot of the customers eat in. The little room is often filled with young South Asian families watching cricket on the big screen television, with tourists from the nearby budget hotels, with hungry cabbies, and with locals from Cabbagetown and Corktown who've caught on to King Place's charms. The place also does a very healthy takeout trade.
One evening recently, a young Caucasian man in sweatpants and an expensive pea coat came in and asked if the food is spicy. (It is, in many cases, though the staff will happily steer you to the gentler dishes.) The counterman offered him one sample and then another sample. They were both too spicy for his taste.
So he turned instead to a classic, one you might consider a cop-out if you didn't know how beautifully they do it here.
"I'll have the butter chicken," the man in the pea coat said.