Spices 4 Temperance, at Yonge, 416-364-6276. Complete meals for $15 per person, including all taxes, tip and a sweet mango lassi. Average main $8. Open Monday to Friday 10:30 am to 7:30 pm, Saturday noon to 6 pm. Closed Sunday. Unlicensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
As I gather up my recycled plastic bags laden with North Indian takeout from the two-month-old Spices on Temperance, congenial owner Pervez Mashi has a special request of this first-time customer. "I need your feedback!"
"I'll be sure to let you know," I reply, chuckling to myself as I leave. Buddy, you have no idea.
Back in my courier days (daze, more like), Spices was Breadspreads, courier central in the core: cheap food, cheaper suds and, best of all, the owner ran tabs. And it didn't just attract skinny kids in spandex prattling on about busted bottom brackets, hot receptionists and stupid security guards. Occasionally, a drunk Bay Street suit or thirsty construction worker would wander in and join the fun.
After several management and name changes and the loss of its original hardcore clientele, over the years the former courier clubhouse became a restaurant - in name only. At the end, there wasn't any food and the beer fridge was help-yourself; it actually operated as a heavy-duty drug depot, more crack than soup 'n' crackers. The cops eventually caught on and closed the joint for good last year.
Enter Pervez Mashi and partner Sunita Mohan, who snared the centrally located property this spring and set out on a lengthy renovation. Those familiar with 'Spreads' lack of decor are in for a shock. Though obviously overhauled on a modest budget, the small space - 20 seats tops, and that's pushing it - couldn't be lovelier. Why, there are even flowers on the vinyl-covered tables, though they've wilted in the heat. Bollywood show tunes play discreetly. Out on the patio, skyscrapers tower overhead.
Since the kitchen is the size of a closet, Spices' menu is understandably limited. And because there's no tandoor oven, what it describes as naan is actually closer to store-bought pita. But why quibble when the rest is so delish?
A generous serving of chicken biryani arrives on a heap of plain basmati piled with cubed chicken in sweet tomato and onion cream aromatic from various spice pods and bark as well as unpitted apricots and plums that almost dislodge my bridge. Sauce-less, the same somewhat dry boneless breast doubles as chicken tikka (both $7.95). Served on a bed of spinach, the bird comes smeared with coriander raita and garnished with fiery sliced raw ginger and a solitary if-you-dare Thai bird chili.
Both get sided with a salad of diced tomato, cuke, green pepper and tart green apple that becomes terrific Spicy Fruit Salad with the addition of sliced strawberry, banana, mandarin orange and a dusting of crushed black pepper and garam masala. Secret ingredient: maple syrup. The sap shows up to sweeten the house's frothy mango lassi, too (both $3.48).
Spices' house-baked samosas are sensational. All served with coriander raita spiked with Frank's Red Hot, the vegetarian version ($1.25) is larger than most, nicely spiced and plump with potato and garden peas. Just as substantial, another features finely ground goat flecked with sweet red pepper and delivers a nutty knee to the taste buds, while paneer samosas are smaller deep-fried pillow-like packets of smooth mild ricotta-esque cheese (both $1.75).
The reason that Spices' admirable butter chicken tastes exactly like its equally assured take on Paneer Makhani - other than that one's meat, the other veg - is that the well-known buffet-table staple is known as Chicken Makhani back home. There's a silken tofu interpretation as well (all $7.95), finished like the others with raw ginger threads, whole raw almonds and ground fenugreek.
Spices asked for advice, so here's the only negative thing I have to say: the plain white rice that accompanies most of the mains has only a slightly higher nutritional value than the flimsy paper plates they're served on.
A few days later, I call and ask the couple if any of the old 'Spreads crowd has been back to check out the considerable changes.
"All sorts of people have been coming in asking for herb. It's shocking, really, the cross-section," Mashi laughs. "I tell them we're into Spices now."