When Hemant Bhagwani changes a menu, we all notice, because other Toronto Indian restaurants quickly follow suit. Bhagwani is a trailblazer, and he has revolutionized Indian dining in Toronto. Beginning with his Amaya restaurants, then his renowned sauces, chutneys and naan breads, more recently his naanini (tikka masala panini), and now with the opening of Indian Street Food Co., Bhagwani has celebrated and innovated the delicious panoply of flavours and dishes that make up Indian cuisine, perhaps the most interesting and complex cuisine in the world. Rather than Canadianize Indian food, he simply uses better quality ingredients.
Bhagwani has his finger on the pulse, but “skates to where the puck is going”, so to speak. Recognizing the trend towards street food that is appearing in a variety of cuisines across Toronto, as well as the rise in farmer’s markets and food trucks, he has opened a restaurant to resemble a night market in Delhi. Brilliant. “I saw, standing in front of the New Delhi railway station, what street vendors were doing,” he tells me. “And I asked myself, how can I bring some of that food and atmosphere into a restaurant in Toronto?” Talking with him, I feel like it’s a summer night under patio lights at a roadside diner with a beer.
Like we’re on the set of an Indian street scene, we sit by rough-hewn wooden paneling, while market carts line the centre of the room where waiters pass with trays of vibrant coloured dishes steaming in their wake. Soft Indian folk music lends sweet melodies to the harmony of aromatic spices wafting from the kitchen. Perusing the menu, I’m intrigued by every single item. Each one has wow factor. Bhagwani seems to have delved deeper into his roots and pulled out an imaginative twist on everything. It may well be the most interesting menu in Toronto right now.
In keeping with the playful concept that nothing should be ‘the same old same old’, I sample an Indian version of a mojito with star fruit and a blend of six spices. Presentation is key. My cocktail is set inside an oil lamp with a hole for the bendy straw. Don’t miss the Delhi 6, a classic whiskey sour reinvented with aromatic rose hips. These cocktails are smooth and ambrosial, and pair with every dish.
The Main Event
This is a fun menu. I begin with eggplant fries and a creamy mustard yoghurt dip. Silky eggplant is crisped with a light fry and mildly spiced for some flare. Inspired by Bhagwani’s mother, but made for the kid in me. “Just a taste”, I say, but I can’t stop eating them. Paired with beer this is the perfect snack. I’ve never heard of Indian ceviche, but this tender chilled red snapper behl cooked by the juice of green mango, refreshed with cucumber, and enhanced by date chutney is a novelty chock full of flavour. Green, red and yellow peppers, and a sprinkling of green onion add fresh vibrancy and contrasting textures that I scoop up with pleasure. The chicken tikka is also given a makeover. “I learned this from a guy in Thieves Market in old Delhi,” shares Bhagwani. I love the mystery of that image, but more so the zip of the tikka spicing on tender morsels of chicken wrapped in a croissant-textured thin paratas (flat bread). This, too, could be my new favourite snack. Lamb curry is an homage to Bhagwani’s father and inspired by a roadside eatery on a highway in Kashmir. The lamb is enrobed in seductively sweet spices and partnered with lightly toasted chunks of Pullman bread that maintain their crunch while soaking up all that good rich flavour. Crisp lemon noodles provide a welcome nuance and contrast.
The menu reads like a travel journal through India. This is old traditional Indian food that one would hope to find on return home. Sampling back and forth between dishes, flavours and textures, I love the taste of this trip. One last dish emerges from the kitchen behind the glass-beaded curtain. “This is a well balanced meal that my Mom would make,” shares Bhagwani. “This is how we eat at home,” he tells me as he presents a platter of cool raita (yoghurt), butter chicken, slow-cooked beef short ribs, sag paneer, grilled okra in a curry that his Mom would make every Sunday, dahl lentil, naan bread and rice. The colour palette is a preview for the range of flavours within it. Butter chicken is the best in Toronto. Khoya cheese provides density and texture to an otherwise decadently flavoured sauce that begs to be paired with torn pieces of warm fresh naan. Too many excotic flavours for just one trip, I must move on to dessert. Bhagwani has an affinity for liquid nitrogen. It makes everything more fun. Tamarind sorbet prepared tableside is true dinner theatre. Anything can happen on the street.
The Last Word
It seems many Indian restaurants don’t know what to do differently, while Bhagwani really has the confidence to experiment. Never resting on his laurels, his restless imagination continues to innovate concepts of Indian cuisine to our delight. Street-inspired playful dishes with bold flavours. The west coast may have Vij, but we’ll keep Bhagwani.
~Indian Street Food Co., 1701 Bayview Ave., 416-322-3270~
Adam Waxman is an award winning travel journalist focusing on food, wine and well being. As well as an actor in film, television and formerly, the Stratford Festival, he is the Associate Publisher and Executive Editor of DINE and Destinations magazine.