Kissan (1411 Gerrard East, at Hiawatha, 416-466-9777) Complete dinners for $20 ($15 at lunch), including all taxes, tip and a lassi. Average main $9. Open daily for $8.99 lunch buffet 11 am to 4 pm, and for $10.99 dinner buffet 4 to 10 pm. Unlicensed. Delivery. Access: two steps at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN
Tipu Chowdhury is very lucky indeed. Defying industry odds, in less than three years the first-time restaurateur and former Dhaba server has opened not one, but two of Toronto's most popular Indian eateries - Sidhartha on Little India's resto strip, and a sibling in Condoland at King and Bathurst.
True, his expansion uptown to Eglinton didn't work out quite the way he planned - it's since morphed into Indian Garden - but that hasn't stopped Chowdhury.
This January, he launched a third, Kissan, just down the block from the original Sid'. But unlike his other pan-Indian eateries, Kissan's a vegetarian venue.
Makes sense. Gerrard used to be home to several, but after the duelling Durbars (Madras and Gujarat) closed several years ago, the modest Narula's, Udupi Palace and the diabolical Bombay Bhel were all that was left to cater to the herbivore set.
Now that the Bhel has been put out of its misery, although the non-veggie suburban chain it spawned still continues, Chowdhury has taken up the slack. In fact, Kissan is located in the same storefront that once housed BB.
But what a difference! Gone are the fast-food seating, the fluorescent lighting and indifferent staff perhaps they knew the end was near and decided to take it out on the customers. In their place, a brightly painted room is decked out with linen-covered tables topped with kraft paper and attended by friendly, formally attired servers.
For this neck of the woods, Kissan's downright swanky.
Chowdhury's smart to play to the veggie crowd, and inexpensive Indian buffets $8.99 lunch/$10.99 dinner are always a draw. While there's an a la carte menu that mixes rich northern curries with fiery southern dosa and poori, much of it finds its way into the buffet.
Which is where you'll observe my culinary crew early this Sunday lunch. Since the noon-hour spread's still being set up, the kitchen sends out a complimentary basket of crisp papadam and matri as well as a platter of fabulously fresh onion bhaja ($4.99 a la carte) paired with two sauces, one a tart tamarind, the other a delicious mint that wouldn't be out of place alongside a rack of lamb if you were a pig-headed meat-lover.
Soon we're piling our plates at the buffet, an impressive spread that today features eight veggie curries. They include buttery lentil dal makhani, al dente alloo gobi with potato and cauliflower, paneer in puréed spinach, and deep-fried kofta "meatballs" in creamy turmeric gravy.
Everything's pleasantly spiced, a tongue-tingling two out of five on the patented NOW heat-o-meter. Those looking for pyrotechnics need only take a bite of a very deep-fried and exceptionally salty chili before they'll be reaching for a stomach-soothing lassi ($2.99).
Other highlights: fluffy basmati littered with garden peas ($3.99), a second bread basket of terrific whole-wheat parantha ($2.49), as well as aloo naan ($2.99) topped with curried potato. For dessert, cardamom-syrup-soaked gulab jamon and creamy kheer (both $3.99), a near-tapioca, has our rice pudding expert going back for thirds.
To save us a trip another day, we also assemble a Super Bowl smorgasbord from Kissan's takeout flyer. An oversized pair of potato- 'n' pea-stuffed samosas ($4.99) make a great starter, but paneer pakoras ($6.99) are impossibly bland despite their sweet chutney side. Here's more cheese put to better use in paneer tikka ($9.99), a tandoori main of oven-charred cubes coupled with sweet bell pepper over a bed of shredded raw cabbage.
From the dosa card, we go for uthapam, a tasty 10-inch flapjack made from ground lentil and rice flour studded with tomato pulp, caramelized onion and mellow green chilies. It gets dunked into a smoky sambal soup thick with okra and chunked carrot, and garnished with somewhat sour macerated coconut and a tomato-pink take on ketchup rife with incendiary red chili flakes.
We're less than impressed with baingan bharta, a too-rich purée of mashed eggplant that pales next to Dhaba's exemplary rendition.
Traditionally a dish served for special occasions, Kissan's vegetable biryani (both $8.99) is no cause for celebration, a ghee-greasy rice pilaf festooned with supermarket frozen veg, like some Indo interpretation of Chinese fried rice.
We came to Kissan with dreams of health-conscious things like tandoori tofu and broccoli brown rice pulao. In their place, we get heavy sauces thick with artery-clogging dairy products. I'm no vegan, but I doubt that anyone, regardless of dietary regime, outside Switzerland wants to eat this much cheese.
There's no question that Chowdhury knows how to please carnivores. But if he wants to make inroads with veg-heads, he'll have to do more than just take the meat out of Sidhartha.