MR. MAHAARAJA (7 Balmuto, at Charles West, 416-963-9360) Compared to most Indian eateries, this friendly, before-a-movie spot borders on swanky -- deep purple banquettes, glittery gauze wall hangings. The mostly Kashmiri and Hyderabadi mains often miss, but endlessly looping Kenny G muzak kills any remaining appetite. Complete dinners for $30 per person ($12 at lunch), including all taxes, tip and a domestic beer. Open for lunch Monday to Saturday 11:45 am to 3 pm, and for dinner nightly 5 to 11 pm. Fully licensed. Access: three steps at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NN
mr. mahaaraja comes with a lot
of baggage. The 30-seat northern Indian eatery was once Bombay Bistro, a chic Indo-fusion experiment created by the Indian Rice Factory's Patel family. It lasted only a few short months.
Afterwards, the elegant modernistic room -- deep purple-brocaded banquettes separated by sheer, shimmering screens made from gauzy sari fabric -- kept its chic interior but became the first incarnation of Mr. Mahaaraja, a run-of-the-mill hole in the wall indistinguishable from countless other similar joints around town.
Enter new owner Rajeswara Veerella, a former sushi chef with 17 years of hotel experience in the Mideast. Veerella was part of Jamie Kennedy's prep team at JK ROM.
The serial minimalism of Philip Glass is playing over the sound system when I poke my head inside to I check out the intriguing menu. Back home, I ring the Literary Device, who adores Philip Glass and still to this day raves about Bombay Bistro, to tell her about the JK connection. Excited, we arrange to meet chez Mahaaraja for dinner later that day.
Mr. Mahaaraja starts well, the same Philip Glass tape giving way to classical sitar. The Device approves as she sips a deliciously sweet mango lassi ($2.95) through a bendy straw. I munch on addictive cumin-seed papadams served with a watery yogurt sauce speckled with coriander chutney and a second superior tamarind dip. So far, so good.
Things start flat-lining with four spinach-stuffed pakoras ($3.95) that arrive almost black on the outside but pasty on the inside. They've obviously been deep-fried in oil that's too hot and doesn't allow the fritter to cook all the way through. Same with onion bhagia ($2.25), a trio of doughy lumps. And onion kulcha ($2.95), a tandoor-baked flatbread, resembles pizza without the pizza.
While common on the subcontinent, pomfret rarely shows up on Toronto menus. Mr. Mahaaraja's attempt demonstrates why.
The buttery fish has been marinated in yogurt and ginger, then fired in the tandoor. The thin flesh arrives on a scalding skillet over a bed of barely cooked onion and pepper strips. It tastes great, but we soon lose our enthusiasm for the smoky fella after battling with his multitude of bones. At a pricey $19.95, it's not worth the effort.
Then, a slip in the music -- muzak king Kenny G -- coincides with another major letdown, Navrattan Curry. It's a strange combination of chewy Chinese mushrooms, frozen peas, crisp green beans, under-ripe tomato and mushy potato, cauliflower and broccoli. The same uninspiring sauce (we've specified "hot," but this gravy has all the firepower of a cap gun) shows up over lovely okra pods in bhendi masala (both $6.95). And while they're not as overdone as before, pakoras and bhagia remain doughy.
With Kenny G now dueting with the god-awful Michael Bolton, we pay the bill and leave with what remains of our sanity. After much coaxing on my part, the Device and I return a few days later.
We skip the starters and begin with the restaurant's namesake grill ($13.95), a tasty grouping of tandoori chicken breast, a pair of similarly cooked prawns and minced beef seekh kababs lashed with fenugreek leaves. Both baingan bharta ($6.95) -- tandoor-fired eggplant -- and super-creamy paneer makhani ($6.75) show the kitchen's promise.
Spicy chicken vindaloo ($7.95) delivers quite the kick but is as much potato as poultry. Fiery beef Rogan Josh ($9.25) comes in a Kashmiri version complete with yogurt laced with peppers, tomato and onion.
As Kenny G numbs us into a coma, we finish with nutty kulfi ($2.95) made from whole milk, cashews, almonds and pistachios. Tastes like peanut butter.
As for the $6.95 all-you-can-eat lunch buffet, you get exactly what you pay for: tough tandoori chicken necks and gristly thighs, frozen veggies in rice pullao and pakoras that still suck. And please, somebody kill Kenny G.