Don't ever take four obnoxious teenagers to Jaipur Grille for dinner. Maybe not to any Indian restaurant. Maybe not to any restaurant at all. Ever.
It started in the foyer with loud protestations of: "I hate curry." Of course none of the four had thought to mention this when offered a free dinner on a Saturday night. And the teenagers were not the only curryphobes who whined about being schlepped to an Indian restaurant for an expense-account meal. For lunch the previous week, an otherwise sophisticated acquaintance blanched when we got to Jaipur Grille and worried she might have to eat afterward.
What is it with Toronto becs fins and Indian food? So many gourmands of otherwise catholic tastes are stuck in the dark ages, when Indian food meant acrid curries seasoned with that nasty supermarket powder, or overcooked curries with a scum of grease on top. Although Toronto has few high-quality Indian restaurants, one can hardly fault the curry at Cuisine of India or the Indian Rice Factory.
Now, along comes Jaipur Grille on Yonge Street, north of Davisville Avenue, site of my unfortunate dinner last week. ('Twas the company, not the food that was hapless.) Jaipur serves the opposite of Indian restaurant clichés: the most splendid curries and tandoori roasts. The food is light, ungreasy, subtle, each dish distinctly flavoured.
To start, they do complex lentil soup, thick and hot, with an undertone of sweetly toasted garlic. Although the deep-fried starters are my least favourite Indian items, Jaipur's pakoras are better than most -- peas and potatoes in crisp, flaky pastry. The vegetable samosas (eggplant, cauliflower and zucchini deep-fried in batter) have soaked up more oil and are hence less entertaining.
Some of the main courses are WOW food moments: Bhindi rajasthani are the cutest little fresh okras seasoned with dry mango powder (subtly sweet) and deep fried by a master who knows how to bring me to my knees. Chips ahoy! These crispy babies are served with a spicy fresh mint chutney that is both unnecessary and divine.
Also seductive is the lamb korma, another triumph of kitchen alchemy: Lamb is roasted till tender and served in a sauce the colour of cream of tomato soup, rich and sweet thanks to almonds and raisins, ultra creamy and yet not built on cream. Go figure. Inhale. Such is the mystery of the food of the subcontinent done properly.
We are also entranced by shrimp masala, big fat shrimps perfectly cooked in ultra-light tomato sauce spiked with fresh young ginger, peppers and onions. Chicken makhani is another sleight of hand, ultra rich and smooth, creamy without cream, a triumph of the tandoor.
From the tandoori oven come also the classics -- moist tandoori chicken and shrimps, and fine fresh flaky breads. My favourite among them is onion nan, served hot and fragrant.
Lamb kadahi gosht is tender lamb in subtle brown sauce fragrant with onions. Jaipur makes fine work of eggplant, adding fennel seeds, tomato and baby ginger to spice it up. Their daal is rich and dark, and rice pullao uses mushrooms, carrots and parsley to enliven it. My only quarrels are with bland chick pea curry and too hot aloo gobi (cauliflower and potatoes).
Meanwhile, the teenagers are revising their prejudices about curry. With only a few mutters of complaint about spices, they are devouring the dinner. Silken mango shakes don't hurt. They do not understand the desserts, which I adore.
Most Indian desserts are based on milk that is boiled down until it condenses into a custard-like mass. Guab jamun is house-made Indian cottage cheese that is then deep-fried and served in sugar syrup. Rasmallai is reduced milk frozen into ice and drenched in more boiled-down milk with slivered almonds and fresh emerald-coloured pistachios. Kulfi is another, creamier, reduced milk ice cream.
None of these, however, get the teenagers' attention. But when they bring out the Gelato Fresco mango and coconut tartufo, suddenly they're on this planet again. How easy it is to buy their love.
Jaipur Grille. 2066 Yonge St., Toronto. 416-322-5678. $80 for dinner for two with wine, tax and tip. Accessible to people in wheelchairs.