Goa is India’s culinary hub, a haven for fun and camaraderie.
It was no surprise to learn that restaurant magnate Hemant Bhagwani had returned from New York to Toronto to open Bar Goa. This is his 61st restaurant, and his passion has not waned. If you love Indian cuisine, it is highly likely that you have experienced Bhagwani’s hospitality at his other locations in Toronto or elsewhere. Bhagwani is a trailblazer, and he has revolutionized Indian dining in Toronto. What distinguishes his restaurants? It’s very simple, “The key must always be good quality fresh ingredients,” he tells me. “That has to be the base of everything”.
Goa is a state on the southwestern coast of Indian, within the Konkan region, and has an interesting style of dining that offers dishes with unique flavour profiles. “If you’ve been to Goa, you know the unforgettable feeling the region evokes. The region was our initial inspiration, but the full Bar Goa experience blends tradition from many regions and is a true expression of modern Indian cuisine,” said Chef and Owner Hemant Bhagwani.
The pretty, porcelain tiled open kitchen, and black and white patterned floor are a dramatic introduction to the unusual. Bar Goa’s design takes inspiration from Goa’s Portuguese influence. The floor has been custom-designed, sleek white walls are accented with gold light fixtures, while recessed lighting accentuates the curves of hallways and the bar. There are two dining areas, one for private parties and a stunning bar.
The Tasting Menu is daunting: Ten street food dishes, mostly unfamiliar to me, with exotic Indian names. It is a story that unfolds with a spicy ride through the streets of Goa, and not a fork or knife in sight.
The scent of rosewater and tamarind come up to kiss my nose as I pick up delicate Berry Chaat Tarts with my fingers and take that first inquiring bite. Simply delish. Handmade Samosa Cones look like they might be filled with ice cream, but what we have are creamy mashed potatoes, crème fraiche, chives, topped with golden Regalis Imperial Caviar. If you can eat the whole thing (and I did,) there is the surprise of spicy chutney at the bottom. Hmm, I am thinking of holiday hors d’oeuvres to serve with sliders. And I am not too far from the original idea here: Chai & Cutlet is a small cup of wild mushroom “tea” with a perfectly matched smoky vegetarian burger, and is a natural follow up to the Samosa Cone. Well, this is fun. Paneer Bhurji Bao are thick oval pancakes, folded over to reveal shredded, crisp red cabbage on a redolent, spicy, sriracha cream.
I am feeling heady with spices coursing through my veins–and there is more to come. Meanwhile, I will enjoy a cocktail. Khora Paani is a mix of Mezcal, Yzaguirre red Vermouth, Cynar, Aperol and an aromatic dry-ice cloud of orange-thyme. The mixologist has certainly nailed it with this cocktail–it is a pleasing addition to the palate of flavours.
Crab Kismur Appam, a heaping portion of crab meat, fresh coconut and fried onions are centred on a pretty spongy pancake made with gluten free rice flour. I spread it out, rolled up the pancake, and appreciated the flavour and texture. All quite new to me. Now, a classic favourite of mine, Miso Tandoori Chicken: a skewer holding tender cubes of Chicken Tikka, seasoned with coconut curry and herb chutney.
I may not be an expert on Indian dishes, but I do know what good is, and this dish has been prepared by an expert. Prawn Balchao Toast of light Japanese milk bread is given a kick of spicy Goan paste and pickled radish. My favourite of the day is the Legendary Lamb Chop. Grilled with a crusty exterior, the flavour is further enhanced with dollops of Fenugreek and strawberry-chili chutney. And for added texture, it’s capped by a shower of crispy boondi (pearls).
Another flavour first for me is a light dessert of Saffron Jalebi and Rabdi. Crisply baked tubes of pastry dough have been soaked in saffron and syrup to create a perfect ending of a sweet and pungent effect on the palate.
Bravo Hemant, Bravo!
Bar Goa, 36 Toronto Street, 416-879-5510
Sara Waxman, OOnt, is an award-winning restaurant critic, best-selling cookbook author, food and travel journalist and has eaten her way through much of the free world for four decades, while writing about it in books, newspapers and magazines. She is the Editor in Chief of DINE and Destinations magazine.