Thursday, February 11, 2010

Masala here & there.

I just love a good Indian meal. I don't even care when my winter coat smells like Punjab fare for 3 months after. I always find people who are turned off by Indian food and are quick to associate the cuisine only with curry (which is in fact one of my favourite spices), which it so is not. I have waited a while to write this blog, because I wanted to do a fresh and current test run of some of Montreal's “best” Indian spots, and I needed time to do the field research (...can't be eating the stuff every night).
A few years back after a string of disappointing meals in Montreal, I sort of gave up on Indian. Because as good as a delicious Indian meal can be - little is more disgusting than a bad one. Then this past September while in London, the Punjab flame was re-ignited by a meal at the unlikeliest of places.
As Eric and I sat in a cafe in London, trying to map out our eating over two days (which reservations to keep, which to forgo, how to maximize the quality without letting the Sterling Pound break the travel bank), we asked my cousin, a local, for a recommendation. We had heard of a bunch of trendy Indian spots (trendy and Indian! who knew?) that sounded good. I should explain that my cousin is blessed with a business expense account that’s allowed him to eat in virtually every upscale restaurant in London. And as an international business traveler, he's tried a variety of foreign food that would make Anthony Bourdain envious. Anyway, cuz said that if we wanted to truly experience the best Indian food in London - we had to make the trek to "Lahore House" on Umberston Street in White Chapel. It was a 30 pound taxi ride in each direction, but the meal would be dirt cheap and well worth the trip. (Also note he was off to Mumbai, real deal, in the morning on business). We were sold.
We decided to behave like we live there, save the thirty quid and hit the tube to White Chapel. This tube stop was way off at the end of the line, definitely on the outside edge of our tourist comfort zone. We stepped out of the station and into sketchville. It was dark; there were a few homeless people, fewer streetlights and no retail stores to speak of. Cars whipped by the 4 lane main road at highway speeds. Nothing around seemed to be open save for a few sparse depanneurs that looked like they'd be right at home in the seedier parts of my old neighborhood St-Henri. Strange characters looked at me like I was completely wacked out when I asked them if they knew where Lahore House or Umberston Street was. Finally, we ducked into the most suspect Pizza Hut I have ever seen, and I proceeded to ask all of the patrons if they knew where we were headed. One family actually told me they didn't know how to direct me there, but they knew it was far. Sounded like we were off to a great start.

We stepped back out onto the street and kept walking for 15 minutes until a taxi drove past, which we called for like Tom Hanks waving down a distant ship in Cast Away.
Turns out Umberston Street is the tiniest alleyway of a street – you’d have to live on it to locate it. Doesn’t always pay to be a hero and try to travel like a local - locals would have clearly had the brains to take a taxi the whole way to Lahore.
We arrived at the restaurant, and stepped into an epic lineup of Londoners. Indian families, students, young couples, groups of dudes, and businessmen rolling up in Range Rovers illegally parking with their hazards blinking. No worries about the lineup, this place worked fast and efficiently (hosts and head waiters wearing walkie talkies with headsets, need I say more?). The place was a big and very simple, melamine tables and banquet chairs, linoleum floors, fluorescent lighting... but it was clean and there was a good energy coming from the clientele, who all seemed to be happy to be there. The kitchen was fully exposed on two sides by big glass windows - no secrets here. Fourteen or so guys working with intensity - working four dishes over four flames at once, while turning back to check on a sauce, lowering the naan dough into the fire pit with a poker, moving with amazing precision and speed. We ended up sitting in front of that window and I spent most of the meal staring into the kitchen in excited wonderment. I spotted the guy who seemed in charge (everyone who walked in knew this guy on a first name basis). As he greeted us, I told him I was on my honeymoon - all the way from Canada, and needed his advice on the menu.

He came over to our table and actually sat down with us. He was in fact the owner, and he was awesome. We went through the menu in detail, and he was extremely patient and helpful as I pointed to all the tables around me asking what they were having. We discussed and he arbitrated, and the order was settled. I wasn’t really sure what exactly I had just agreed to eat, but I felt good about it.

Lahore House is a byob (in our case bring your own beer) and is actually a mix of northern Indian but primarily Pakistani food (hence the name Lahore). These two cuisines have a lot of crossover, and a lot of the food is what we see in Indian restaurants here in North America, so I call it indian, but it's really Pakistani, or to cover all the bases and make things really easy; Punjabi.
First the chicken and lamb kebab arrived at the table. Unbelievably tasty. The flavours exploded in my mouth - it was tikka style with a splash of citrus, but better than any other kebab I've tried. AMAZING.

Next up was naan bread, raita, rice, lamb sag (lamb stewed with spices, tomato, and spinach; sag means spinach), and a spicy chicken dish that the owner told us he would "arrange".

Both of these dishes blew my mind (and the chicken almost tore my taste buds out). My lips were red and irritated and I swear there are very few times in my life I have ever been so happy eating one single meal. The lamb was perfectly seasoned, the spinach still resembled spinach - it was fragrant and salty with a hint of sweet and perfect. The chicken dish was unreal. Oily (with just the right amount of oil), tomato based and so red hot spicy - but the kind of spice where you can still taste the complex layers of flavor, which is really what Indian cooking is all about for me.

Lahore house was one of my favourite meals of all time, and I would recommend anyone headed to London check out this spot - even if your time there is limited, and even if you are thinking you want reservations at one of London’s renowned restaurants like River Café or Moro (which we did, but hit Lahore instead).
When we got back from our trip, I was set on rediscovering Indian eating in Montreal. The first thing I did was buy a fresh Indian spice kit from Epices de Cru. Epices de Cru is a spice company started by Chef and travel enthusiast Philippe Devienne and his wife Ethne. He is a great, interesting guy who I used to take cooking classes from back when I was 13 and discovering my love for the kitchen. Phillip and his wife import all kinds of high quality and obscure spices in their freshest form from all over the world. They sell them out of their store La Depense at the Jean Talon Market (where you can also get fresh hot bhajis and with mango chutney in the summer - mmm mmm good!) and The Fromagerie at the Atwater Market carries the line too - The themed sets come in a beautiful box and make for great gifts.

I ended up making made my own Garam Masala (way different than store bought), and spent hours over the next few days putting together a couple of Indian meals. It was fun, but if you dare to cook Indian, be prepared to spend a lot of time and have everything in your house smell intense for a week.
As for the restaurant search, I scoured internet chat rooms dating back to 2005, making my "hit list" of places including some very close to home, some a little further, mostly dives, and a few on the "higher" price scale. I am going to continue on this Punjabi journey, and add to this post as I go. Do you have a favourite Indian spot I should hit? Please share your comments and suggestions below!
I took a few photos here and there, but the lighting and general ambiance of the places don’t produce very exciting photojournalism. So please believe me when I say its a go.
My faves so far:
Pushap 5195 Pare, Montreal. Cash only
Pushap has always been a consistently good and delicious spot for Indian. It is vegetarian, but as much as I love a good Chicken Jalfrezi, Pushaps dishes are one better than the next and more than makes up for the lack of meat on the menu. Don’t be deterred by the metal tableware (that may make you feel like you are eating on a prison tray): The metal tray with various compartments is called a “thali” and is simply the traditional way to eat Indian food, and how the people of India have been eating their food for centuries.
The food is amazing and not oily or greasy. We both started with samosas, they are flavourful and fresh. Eric’s meal: Some fiercely hot and green peas with paneer (which he loved, too bluntly hot for me), lentil curry, and a sweet eggplant and tomato dish that we both had and loved. I had my Pushap favourites: cauliflower and potato curry (so aromatic and even more tasty), the eggplant dish, and raita for us to share. You can also get naan to ways- fried or not fried (my head says go not fried, but my heart says fried). I used to stop here sometimes to pick up a box of their well-known and very scrumptious sweets to give as cool hostess gifts. They package them in a beautiful & colourful patterned box, and it's always been a great and different gift I love to bring along to any dinner party. Our meal was top quality. We walked out of there satisfied and stuffed. $17.50 for the two of us.

Mysore 4216 St Laurent, Montreal
This was the first stop on my journey to rediscover Indian in our fine city. Everything we tried was delicious. Delicious Tandoor chicken, The sag lamb was the favourite of the table and I liked the chicken Jalfrezi in particular, it was well seasoned and the chicken itself was very good quality. The onion bhajis arrived hot and crisp. It was on the higher price scale for Indian, but it gets my #1 vote for all around (not vegetarian) quality and taste. The only thing I didn’t LOVE was the raita, which is perfect if you want to take out, you can make your own with some plain yogurt, cucumber, and a box grater.
On St Laurent and Laurier, if you don't look carefully, you will miss this place. The doorway is so narrow it looks like you are going to be led upstairs to a larger space, but this place is in fact the size of a small narrow hallway. It gets rave reviews online from Montréal foodies, and was jamming when we got there (which I guess isn't too hard when the entire restaurant is made up of 7 tables). Anyways, it didn't live up to my high expectations. It was solid, nice and fiery. The food was all good, and I'd head back to try more. Points for two kinds of Indian beer on tap for a little extra authenticity - but I may have been happier if I hadn't felt all hyped up from "Montréal Indian restaurant" chat forums where fellow foodies seemed to be going bonkers over this place.
I haven’t been here is a very long time- over 5 years. But I really loved it when I did eat there. They still seem to be up and running, and if nothing drastic has changed in ownership- I suspect they should be churning out the same delicious food. They are open daily for lunch, but only certain days of the week for dinner. Again, a little more of a "dining" experience, not a hole-in-the-wall type of place, and the menu is quite limited so call or check it out online. They also offer cooking classes.
The just "okay"
Taj Mahal 5026 Sherbrooke West
On Sherbrooke and Claremont, this place is good when you are looking for a bite in the neighbourhood (if NDG or Westmount is your hood). Food was clean, the tikka was tasty enough and the prices were reasonable. Nothing blew my mind away but I'd eat here again and continue to explore the menu.
The Bad
Ganges 6079 Sherbrooke West, Montreal
Another reason not to trust what you read in chat forums. Every one rants and raves about Ganges on Sherbrooke in NDG. I ate there about a year ago and I can honestly say it was a reminder to me as to why I thought one could never find good Indian in Montreal. I will go back soon (just in case the 5 dishes we ordered were all miss-orders and the food really is good), but the place was disgusting and the food was greasy and tasted pre made and reheated. Bad news.
Places I’d like to hit soon: Bombay Choupati, Star of India, Indian Curry house.
To be continued & please share below! Jai ho!


  1. I always read your blog because a) I love you and b) I love food. Needless to say, I especially love indian food and I have also done my own personal quest for the best of indian in Montreal. I have found a couple favourites which have become our basic go-to's when we're feeling eastern. Bombay mahal is a little hole in the wall on Jean Talon east, hidden among many similar appearing indian restaurants. Its cheap, byob, delicious, always packed, and complete with jail-like metal trays. I have a feeling that it is quite similar to Pushap but its not vegetarian. Very good choice, and its conveniently located on the same block as a depanneur to pick up some much needed beer to wash down the spice. Another favourite, which is conveniently located just across the street from our place is Thali (St. Marc). Also, a hole in the wall (I really think that they do it best) where you order at the cash and take your tray to your seat yourself. The butter chicken is amazing - the best that I've had. The owner always has a friendly smile on his face, and you know that you're getting quality when Momma is cooking in the back. Mmmm...I think that I'm feeling some spice tonight.

  2. im always looking for good indian restos and im gonna head out and check these places out.. great blog!!

  3. Hands down best indian restaurant in Montreal is ATMA on st laurent!!! AWSOME!!!!!

  4. Hey!
    I had to comment because one of my passions in life is Indian food. I first fell in love with it in London at a restaurant called "The Punjab Restaurant" in Covent Garden. I loved it so much I tried everything on the menu (and it's a long one) within a week, I highly recommend it.
    As for Montreal, i've also been to Bombay Mahal and loved their channa samosa. It's a samosa covered with chickpeas in a delicious sweet, tangy and spicy sauce with fresh red onion and cilantro.
    I've been to Star of India on Ste.Catherine and Fort quite a few times, however it can be tricky. They have two dishes I LOVE, yet can be inconsistent at times. The first is chicken dansak, which comes with a thick sauce of pureed lentils and is to die for when they get it just right. The second is the chicken korma, although it is not like most traditional kormas , this one is sweeter and has a stronger coconut flavour.
    Now i'm seriously craving it lol
    Thanks for the blog:)

  5. Mmm Pushap and Maison Golden Cari are my favorites in Montreal! Great choices! Love this blog...keep posting!

  6. I love this blog and I love Danielle's taste in food and life. The Indian place on Sherbrooke (between Claremont and Grey) used to be awesome - with the best Tandoor chicken, nan bread (and awesome stuffed Paratha?) ever. But the owner sold and the new stuff is not at all the same. Same thing for another place we used to make a regular habit a also on Sherbrooke just west of Girourd. But it's long gone. Montreal used to have some awesome Indian food. I've been looking for their replacements and thank to these recent posts will try these places out. Thanks!

  7. Try the first/original Pushap in DDO next time you visit my parents. I've tried three different ones, and that one remains my favourite!

  8. You should try Chef Guru on St-Laurent/Duluth. It's a tiny hole in the wall, but they have amazing spinach paneer.