JODHPORE CLUB (33 Baldwin, at Henry, 416-598-2502) Located in a Spartan space that once housed a hippie sandal shop, this small room gets packed on weekdays for its wallet-friendly $7 subcontinental lunch buffet. After dark, the kitchen turns up the heat on reasonably priced and assertively spiced northern and western Indian fare. Complete dinners for $30 per person ($12 at lunch, $17 at brunch), including all taxes, tip and a bottle of India-brewed beer. Open for weekday lunch buffet 11:30 am to 3 pm, for dinner Sunday to Thursday 3 to 10 pm and Friday and Saturday 3 to 11 pm, and for $10 prix fixe brunch noon to 3 pm weekends. Fully licensed. Access: two steps at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNN
the first thing i eyeball uponentering Jodhpore Club, a newish Indian eatery in Baldwin Village, is a mass of corkscrewed hair hiding behind a face-obscuring menu. Usually I'm the only one in restaurant-critic drag (apropos of the setting, I'm sporting Ralph Lauren's equestrian look, complete with knee-high boots, riding crop and pith helmet), but today it's also the Literary Device's turn to don a diner disguise.
"I feel like I'm cheating on my husband," the Device whispers conspiratorially as I join her at a corner table. "And I'm not even married!"
My gastro gal pal feels guilty since she regularly visits Dhaba, downtown's most acclaimed Indian dining room, for its great lunch buffet. But she's fallen head over heels for Jodhpore's buttery chicken korma, one of several super curries that make up the fantastic noontime spread that's set her back all of seven bucks.
Like Dhaba's charismatic chef, P.K. Singh Ahluwahlia, Jodhpore's Jay Vaidya practises a more sophisticated British type of Indian cooking -- and no, I don't mean a cheap Brit curry take-away after a night down the boozer.
Since most of the subcontinental grub available in Toronto is either southern vegetarian or northern Raj-style, it's always a treat to come across India's other regional cuisines.
First we check out the buffet that's ladled out from lidded copper pots. Tandoori chicken is moist and tangy from its marinade, even if it is mostly necks, thighs and legs.
Rogan Josh -- slow-stewed lamb on the bone -- is slightly overdone but features a delicious cinnamon-and-shallot gravy.
Split-yellow-lentil dahl sticks to the ribs, and puréed eggplant with green peas is worth a second trip.
A very average salad -- romaine, purple cabbage, pale winter tomato -- gets a too-assertive kick from a mustard-oil-and-fennel-seed vinaigrette, though it certainly beats out boring balsamic dressing any day.
For dessert, there's a warm pudding of golden seviyam vermicelli sweetened with milk and spiced with sour cardamom seeds.
By quarter past 12, all of Jodhpore's 30 seats are occupied by customers who know a good meal deal even if the digs are far from posh. The modest, fake-beam and stuccoed space used to be Ragnarok -- a sandal shop, man -- but any such associations you may be pondering dissolve once the wall of intoxicating smoke from the tandoor hits. The sitar drone on the CD player almost induces an acid flashback.
A few nights later, we split a main course as a starter. Vegetable paneer tikka ($7) finds two skewers straight from the fire threaded with large cubes of mild paneer cheese along with al dente cauliflower that's barely charred around the edges, blistered tomato and sweet green pepper sections.
Several large onion wedges are the only letdown -- they're too big to cook quickly and are still raw and heartburn-inducing.
Everything sits on a bed of greens doused with that same mustard-oil vinaigrette, but this time they've got the mix just right.
A pair of Harra kebabs ($4) -- think flattened falafel patties -- fail to knock us for a loop, while vegetable samosas ($3) intrigue due to their menu-promised potato, pea, sultana and pomegranate filling. If there's pomegranate in there, it's well hidden. Even so, the samosas are much better than expected, especially when dipped into sweet 'n' sour tamarind.
But here's the knockout punch: Pudhina lamb chops Kabuli-style ($12), five tasty oven-grilled chops slathered in yogurt-mint purée, followed by Hyderbadi Baingan ($6) -- splayed baby eggplant simmered in an ethereal tomato-onion-ginger reduction that's zapped with licorice-like fennel seed.
Though hyperbolically described as "the famed aromatic, long-grain rice from the spring-fed foothills of the Himalayas," Himalayan basmati ($3) turns out to be merely plain ol' basmati tossed with a few cumin seeds.
About the only dishes found in town from Goa, the former Portuguese colony on India's western coast, are vindaloos, the mouth-searing curries fired with red chili and tamarind. Jodhpore offers the expected beef version ($8) but goes a different route with Goan fish curry ($12) -- sole fillets steamed in banana leaves, then topped with a richly thick tamarind and coconut sauce. Sop it all up with paneer naan ($4), flatbread pizza stuffed with cheese.
Temporarily satisfied, the Device smokes a post-prandial jazz cigarette on the patio.
She admits she'll sneak in an occasional nooner with Jodhpore on the side, but her heart belongs to Dhaba.