DHABA (309 King West, at John, 416-740-6622) Spice fiends will be dancing in the streets now that Toronto's best Indian eatery has relocated from the wilds of Etobicoke to King West's restaurant row. The decor may have gone upmarket, but the hosts are as charming and their fiery fare's as breathtaking as ever. Don't wimp out -- make sure to order everything the way the chef would make it for himself. Complete dinners for $30 per person ($17 at lunch), including all taxes, tip and a fresh lime soda. Daily all-you-can-eat $9.95 lunch buffet 11:45 am to 2:30 pm weekdays, Saturday-Sunday noon to 3 pm; and nightly dinner 5:30 to 10:30 pm. Unlicensed. Access: 19 steps at door, another two to washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNNNN
want to get the best out of Dhaba? Specify that you want your meal cooked the same way that the chef would do it for himself. Otherwise you'll miss out on Dhaba's incredible highs. To see what I mean, consider the experience of my two co-diners.My gastro pals happily polish off Dhaba's tandoori platter ($16.95) -- a sizzling cast-iron skillet piled high with chicken tikka and tandoori, ground-lamb sheesh kebab sausages and oven-blistered peppers.
Because they're so enthusiastic about this signature dish, owner-chef P.K. Singh Ahluwalia invites them behind the scenes of his deliriously delicious Indian eatery.
Pulling a long skewer from a charcoal-fired oven, he offers them a sample straight from the tandoor. After a taste, the expression on the first-timer's face says it all -- pure bliss.
"What we ate before gets 6 out of 10," gushes an excited One.
"But this is 11!" blurts the Other Spinal Tapishly.
Singh Ahluwalia explains that because he knew this is was their first visit, he held back on his normally full-on spicing. After trying the real thing, the Other Two are converts to the church of Dhaba.
None of this means that everything comes at tongue-numbing levels of heat. Instead, under Singh Ahluwalia's care, the array of aromatic flavours intensifies, producing a quality of Indian cooking not found anywhere else in Toronto. Couple that with Singh Ahluwalia's refusal to use ghee -- heavy, calorie-rich clarified butter -- and you get food that rates with the best of any cuisine.
While Dhaba's new larger digs are positively luxe compared to the old locale in Etobicoke -- cloth-covered tables, high-backed upholstered chairs and large windows that swing open to the street below -- the menu hasn't changed a bit.
Sure, prices are slightly higher. But then, you no longer have to spend an hour driving to the sticks to savour favourites like ambrosial Aloo Kadchi Maar Ke ($9.95) -- potatoes stuffed with raisins, pine nuts and paneer in an addictive tomato-onion cream sauce -- or fiery Bhurver Baingan eggplant ($8.95).
Ethereal naan comes several ways -- studded with roasted garlic or sprinkled with dried fenugreek leaves (both $3.95), plain ($1.95) or stuffed with ground lamb ($5.95). There are a few new items like tandoori tofu ($10.95) and tandoori lamb chops ($14.95) marinated in ginger, papaya and rum. Yum!
Singh Ahluwalia's partner Taruna still fronts the house dressed in an elegant, flowing sari. And the quirky Bollywood soundtracks on the CD player continue to amuse. About the only thing missing from the previous incarnation are Dhaba's business card fridge magnets. That, and a liquor licence due any day.
The temporary lack of lager (Kingfisher, $5.50) won't stop lunchtime lineups once word gets out about Dhaba's awesome daily $9.95 buffet.
Here's one all-you-can-eat spread that's not only edible but credible. It includes fabulous butter chicken, tender tandoori chicken, spicy shrimp and goat curries, lamb cubes slow-cooked in pureed spinach, miniature vegetarian samosas, smoky chana masala, lentil pakoras in veggie gravy and a unique penne dish -- Punjabi pasta? -- strewn with multicoloured bell peppers, Asian eggplant, coriander and mozzarella.
Throw in a salad bar featuring sweet cumin-scented cole slaw, plus ice cream, fresh fruit and Rabri Kheer rice pudding for dessert, and Dhaba makes a spectacular addition to King West's touristy restaurant row.