811 Queen Street West
If I say “let’s go for Indian food,” to any of my friends, their first thought is going to be buffet, where we all fill our plates over and over again with passable but not especially memorable food. Sure, there are some upscale Indian restaurants in Toronto, but even there, the focus is on traditional, with the compartmentalized plates reminiscent of a cafeteria. Like so many ethnic cuisines that are now part of the culture of our city, we have this idea that Indian food must be traditional. But India as a culture has embraced the 21st century, and there’s no reason why Indian food can’t be modernized as well.
Enter Alka and Poonam Dhir, whose month-old Queen Street restaurant Indus Junction serves up beautiful Indian food, laced with authentic flavours and techniques, but with a modern twist. It is the junction where east meets west, old meets new, and the traditionally male-dominated industry gets a feminine touch that is as breath-taking as a jewelled sari.
Combining Alka’s background in marketing and Poonam’s work at the Caphalon Culinary Centre, the sisters were already running a successful gourmet baked samosa business, creating thousands of the delicious treats every week for various clients. Opening a restaurant seemed like the next reasonable step.
Working in Alka’s home kitchen to create a menu, the pair spent weeks trying different recipes and variations before they came up with a blend of modernized Indian dishes paired with some other items that were not particularly Indian in style and flavour but which complimented the other dishes well.
Alka explains some of the modernizing twists to the menu, “We serve a tandoor lamb chop with and apple chutney – I think people love the flavour combination here and lamb done on the tandoor tastes perfect. We do a dosa which is a lentil and rice flour pancake, traditionally it comes stuffed with potatoes but we thought about stuffing them with salmon, shrimp and scallops, and another version comes stuffed with sweet potato and pomegranate.”
To bring their vision to fruition, the Dhirs found chef Sanjiv Malhotra who has extensive experience at 5-star hotels in Mumbai, India, as part of the Oberoi Group which owns a variety of luxury hotels and cruise ships.
“From the first day we met Chef Malhotra we knew he was a good fit for us. We got along well and he knew exactly what we wanted to do,” says Alka. “Poonam and I designed the menu and we wanted someone to execute it. Chef Malhotra knows Indian food so well that he knew where our menu would work and what would not work. We knew that we wanted to serve really good Indian food in a modern way – he brings the awesome tasting Indian food – and we push him on the plating and presentation of it.”
The plating and presentation is most definitely where Indus Junction turns a sharp corner from what is normally expected, with square plates and bowls, and small tastes of different foods as opposed to the massive portions we’re familiar with. But lest diners feel they’re not getting their money’s worth, it should be noted that portion sizes are comparable to a non-buffet type meal and on every occasion I’ve been there, the meals have sated me perfectly with none of that “Indian food belly” so typical of over-eating at a buffet.
On a recent visit, Indus Junction was offering a three-course prix fixe menu for a very reasonable $25 – $30. An amuse bouche of rice crackers topped with onion, cucumber, yogurt and tamarind was like Diwali in the mouth – bright, crisp and exciting. The appetizer was a tikka trio of either cod or fresh paneer done in three different spice profiles. Mains were a choice of tandoori lambchops; a chicken breast stuffed with spinach, sort of Mumbai meets Chicken Cordon Bleu; sweet and sour aubergine topped with peanuts; or cauliflower and paneer. All mains come with dhal makhani, a mellow yet flavourful brown lentil stew; basmati rice; and naan straight from the tandoor, spiced with nigella seeds and redolent with butter. The dessert was a choice between a luscious brownie topped with ice cream or creamy rice pudding topped with praline, pronounced by the rice pudding lover in our house to be quite possibly “the best rice pudding ever!”
Lunch and brunch are also available with the same intriguing mix of east meets west in the form of banana pancakes with masala potatoes, chicken or chickpea curry and lentil dumplings.
For beverages, there is the standard mango lassi, but also a selection of Indian soda pop, chai or masala coffee, Kingfisher beer and Indian wine – offering both a Sauvignon Blanc and a rosé from Sula vineyards in Nashik, India, both of which are smooth and non-acidic and are an excellent compliment to the cuisine.
The narrow room, formerly home to JS BonBons’ Queen West shop, is painted a warm saffron shade with a painting and a mural on each wall that evokes the traditional mendhi hand-painting. The tin ceiling has been left intact and painted a reflective copper colour which accents the fantastical LED light fixtures. White tables and caramel chairs and benches provide clean lines and relaxing welcoming spaces in which the food can take centre stage. It is a comfortable marriage of something old and something new, offering an elegant, hospitable, feminine presence without being either too girlie or too cold – yet another modern twist on traditional customs.
Even the music is unexpected, as it is neither the traditional stylings we are accustomed to or the housier beats of Bollywood soundtracks so prevalent in places that want to seem hip. We’re listening to what appear to be an Indian take on acid jazz and like everything about Indus Junction, it’s a refreshing variation on the expected.
Open daily, Indus Junction is a bright new jewel in Toronto’s dining scene. Featuring fresh, exciting and elegant cuisine with traditional flavours and a modern presentation, they’re set to rejuvenate the old-school boys club of Indian restaurants while becoming a destination on the Queen West strip, where there has always been a fine appreciation of tradition crossed with modernity. It may take some time to tear Torontonians away from the heaping buffet plates we’re so accustomed to, but I think once we all learn to appreciate Indian cuisine as modern cuisine, we’ll remember that the elegant Indus Junction was where it all began.