Toronto’s west end just got an injection of Indian, this time based on the vibrant eateries found on Indian highways. Libby Roach gives us the views and vibes of the Junction-based new spot.
Leela Indian Food Bar is the latest offering from Hemant Bhagwani, the Chef known for his creative takes on Indian cuisine, with sister restaurants Amaya, Indian Street Food Co. and The Fat Beet in Thornhill.
His latest venture, in the Junction pocket, swooped up the old Avec Panache space, on Dundas Street West. The tidy space boasts a lively open kitchen, taking its cue from the roadside grab-and-go truck stop eateries dotting Indian highways, known as dhabas. The bar flanks the busy kitchen encased in cheerful corrugated sheet metal painted in punchy vibrant colours. Banquettes run down the one wall, with cheeky open space shelving floats above, housing grocery store finds and snacks, similar to the roadside offerings you would find in India. The space is eclectic and a little bare bones, all adding an accurate edge to the dhaba concept.
Seating about thirty tops, Hemant likes to keep things fresh – each of his latest restaurants have pushed the envelope on Indian cuisine in Toronto. Leela is no different, yes there is Butter Chicken – here served with a brick of smoky charcoal as a centerpiece, and of course, there is naan to slurp it all up with, actually, six flavours from his naan menu, including a dessert option. But a closer look at the menu promises more inventive options.
Head Chef Sudhan Natarajan nestles in his Oxtail Vindaloo ($9.95) for those seeking something authentic or you can have it all with the Colonial Tasting Menu, from $35 per person, with upwards of ten tiny dishes served tableside on a banana leaf for a showstopping feast. As is with most tasting menus, each day is a little different; here Saag Paneer graces the table with Butter Chicken, Curry Lamb Vindaloo, Chana Masala, rice naan, and samosas. Gulab Jamun makes for a perfect bite for dessert.
Less belt-busting expenditures are offered by way of the Roasted Cauliflower Chaat ($7.95), which marries tender kale leaves with pomegranate seeds, puffed rice and sev – a crunchy deep fried noodle seasoned with turmeric and cayenne pepper. Droplets of chutney add sweetness to the dish, and the ranges of textures make it totally inhalable, every bite distinctive from the next.
A fluffy bowl of Barley and Millet Salad ($5.75) combines ancient grains with diced veg, pomegranate seeds, and mint leaves. Fragrant and light, it pairs perfectly with the Kashmiri Lamb Shank Desi Taco ($6.95). Curried lamb shanks are braised then pulled, resting on Hemant’s curious Desi Taco, a base combining gram (pulse) flour and methi (fenugreek), a sturdy shell that holds up nicely to the succulent lamb. A crown of grilled pineapple as a garnish acts as a sweet finish to a standout dish. Less advanced palates will seek solace in the Chicken Tikka Taco ($4.95) gussied up with daikon, mint leaves, and sev.
Drinks are inventive as well. Relying on Walter for a base for their Leela Caesar ($9.75), this spicy drink is a meal in a glass, crowned with a tandoori shrimp garnish. The Mwaba Mule ($9.75) blends star anise with mango and fiery gingerbeer.
The beer menu wisely goes local, with Muskoka Cream Ale, Steamwhistle and Amsterdam Blonde in bottles for $6.50 each. Indian food pairs well with wines and bubblies, here mostly from Argentina and old world, with Hidden Bench Chardonnay shining through from Niagara.
Bucking his Indian Street Food directive – tipping is allowed (and of course encouraged). One thing about Hemant is he likes to keep you guessing, and we can’t wait to see what he has up his sleeve next.
Will you be visiting Leela Indian Food Bar? Let Vv Magazine know in the comment section or tweet us at @Viewthevibe.