BIRYANI HOUSE (6 Roy's Square, 416-927-9340) Known as an ultra-cheap lunch spot featuring first-rate veggie grub, this hole in the wall has morphed into an almost classy boite dishing up the best Indian food south of the 401. While inexpensive noontime noshes prevail, the menu shifts after dark to some of the most spice-creative mains in town. And it's still dead cheap! Complete dinners for $15 per person, including all taxes and tip. Open Monday to Saturday 11 am to 9:30 pm. Closed Sunday and holidays. Unlicensed. Smoke-free. Access: three steps at door, small washrooms in basement. Rating: NNNN anyone who hasn't visited bir- yani House recently is in for a major shock. Known for its inexpensive noontime noshes, after 5 pm the room now reinvents itself as the best Indian restaurant in Toronto south of the 401.Although it might look the same to those racing past on their way to the subway, this one-time hole in the wall has doubled in size and sports digs that border on posh.
The open kitchen remains, but walls are now chocolate brown and hung with wooden carvings. Mahogany chairs seat 30 at tables where there was once only a stand-up snack counter, And halogen lamps on curvy tracks bounce light off beaded curtains.
Looking up from the new four-page dinner menu, I've got a clear view of the incredible culinary action.
Keep in mind that Biryani House has been little more than an OK spot for cheap eats. I watch as chef-owner Debu Saha takes squeeze bottles -- one filled with mango puree, the other with a sweet tomato-jackfruit mix -- and squooshes zigzag lines onto a large white plate. Eyes roll whenever someone pulls this cliched trick on College, but here it's an eye-opener.
Then he takes a pappadam and forms it into a fluted bowl, just like Dario Tomaselli does for grilled calamari at chi-chi Oro.
Saha half-fills it with crunchy greens -- cool iceberg, purple cabbage and green pepper strips in a light lemon dressing -- and tops this with eight fabulous pakoras, fritters filled with spinach, zucchini and onion. As a finale, he garnishes the lot with a toss of red-pepper confetti and fresh coriander leaves.
Sure, architectural food is passe. But when a dish like this costs $3.29, who gives a flying, er, fig about fashion?
If you do, you'll know that foodies are hyping the return of the bistro and such dishes as braised lamb shanks, which will set you back $21 at Torch.
Following in style, chef Saha slow-cooks a 6-inch shank along with red pepper, broccoli florets, cubed carrots and garden peas in a marvellous aromatic gravy and serves it in the Handi casserole dish it stews in. The damage? $7.49.
Equally impressive is Sultaani Chaap ($7.99), three meaty lamb chops that have been marinated in ginger, mint and lemon juice, then grilled, flambéed in rum and garnished with sweet sultanas.
The vegetarian dishes come up trumps as well.
I'm expecting run-of-the-mill potatoes 'n' peas, but Kathal Alu Ki Bhaji ($4.99) -- like all the mains, served with a heap of basmati rice strewn with coriander leaves -- not only features the anticipated veggies.
It also comes loaded with kathal (jackfruit), a mild starch reminiscent of artichoke, all swimming in a delicious tomato gravy spiked with ginger and cardamom. Even boring old Daal Kabila ($4.99) gets overhauled with fiery green chilies and carrot accents.
A near-dessert, Phaldari Kofta ($4.99) finds three chickpea and paneer cheese "meatballs" swimming in a fruity sauce layered with caramelized onions and crowned with a maraschino cherry.
Paneer appears again in Birbali Paneer ($5.69), mint-chutney-stuffed cubes lashed in buttery tomato gravy, and Paneer Ka Tikka ($5.99), skewered and grilled kebabs with pineapple, onions and peppers. Boneless chicken breast gets wrapped around minced paneer, mint and peppery black cumin for the spectacular Murgh Khas Avadh ($7.99), a fabulous entree sauced with cream, yogurt, almonds, sultanas and saffron.
Due to space restrictions, this tiny spot has no room for a tandoor oven. Grilled Garlic Naan Makhni and Kashmiri Naan (both $1.75) are still pretty good but lack the smokiness a tandoor infuses. And for the full effect, don't wimp out: order everything spicy.
Chef Saha obviously learned some tricks during his stint in the kitchen at Indian Rice Factory. The French techniques he mastered in Bombay hotels are also evident in the originality of his menu. So, until north Etobicoke's Dhaba relocates to King West this spring, Biryani House outshines its downtown rivals. firstname.lastname@example.orgA staple in any Indian kitchen, protein-rich paneer -- often described as cottage cheese but actually closer to a very mild fresh mozzarella -- is sold at specialty shops like House of Spice (190 Augusta, 416-593-9724) or any East Indian grocery along Danforth or Gerrard near Coxwell. But if you're feeling adventurous, it's very easy to make it from scratch. Madhur Jaffrey's World Of The East Vegetarian Cooking (Knopf) includes a recipe for homemade paneer as well as one for matar paneer (peas with paneer) from which the following was adapted:Cook your own matar paneer
In a food processor, blend an onion and a 1-inch cube of ginger with 1/3 cup water. In a heavy pot over medium heat, heat 6 tablespoons of vegetable oil, fry one block of paneer until golden on all sides, remove and set aside. Add a whole dried red chili to the oil, turn immediately, then add the blended onion and ginger. Stirring constantly, fry for 10 minutes until the paste turns light brown. Add 1 tablespoon ground coriander, 1/4 teaspoon turmeric and three peeled and minced tomatoes. Still stirring, fry another 4 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste, 1/2 cup yogurt or buttermilk and 1/2 cup water. Make a paste of 2 teaspoons chickpea flour and a little water. Stir in, lower heat, cover and simmer 10 minutes, gradually adding more water if the mixture becomes too thick. Add paneer and 3 cups of peas (fresh or frozen), cover again and simmer another 10 minutes. Serve with rice.
A staple in any Indian kitchen, protein-rich paneer -- often described as cottage cheese but actually closer to a very mild fresh mozzarella -- is sold at specialty shops like House of Spice (190 Augusta, 416-593-9724) or any East Indian grocery along Danforth or Gerrard near Coxwell. But if you're feeling adventurous, it's very easy to make it from scratch. Madhur Jaffrey's World Of The East Vegetarian Cooking (Knopf) includes a recipe for homemade paneer as well as one for matar paneer (peas with paneer) from which the following was adapted: