MOTHER INDIA (1456 Queen West, at Lansdowne, 416-588-4364) Complete meals for $18 per person, including all taxes, tip and a banana lassi. Average main $10. Open Monday to Saturday 11:30 am to 10 pm. Closed Sunday. Unlicensed. Cash only. Access: steep ramp at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NN Rating: NNNNN
Suppose you're the owner of what's widely considered the finest roti resto around. Business is so good, you decide to open a second, much bigger outlet in Parkdale.
Would you call the new joint the same thing - perhaps adding a "2" to the name - and keep the crowd-pleasing grub the same? Or would you ditch the winning formula and try something slightly more upscale, maybe even bring in a big-name chef to help the launch?
If you're Avtar Singh of Gandhi (see Recently Reviewed, page 34), you take the second route. The long-time restaurateur, whose family connections tie him to the equally popular New York Subway and Babur, has just opened Mother India, a self-described "fine Indian cuisine" establishment. Why, no less an authority than www.martiniboys.com have labelled her "a newly renovated jewel." And isn't that notorious spicemeister Greg Couillard and his trademark bandana in the kitchen of what used to be the Northway greasy spoon?
Sounds fantastic, doesn't it? Sadly, Mother India is experiencing some serious birthing pains, flaws so major that if not corrected quickly, she could be closed by Christmas.
Located a block away from Gandhi's fiercest competitors, Bacchus and Ali's, Mother India, incredibly enough, doesn't do roti, Singh's reasoning being that there are too many roti shops around. But, then, Toronto has hundreds of not very good north Indian eateries, too.
Let's start with the decor. Singh has ripped out any of the old luncheonette's questionable charm and replaced it with a look that has the warmth of a University line subway station, all beige ceramic tile and bare off-white walls lit by a pair of cheesy chandeliers. Rows of fugly tables and ill-upholstered chairs line the length of the spotlessly clean room. A few tchotchkes from nearby Dollarama add the only visual interest, details easily ignored were Mother's menu up to scratch.
Given that Gandhi's butter chicken roti put that dismally appointed dive on local foodies' culinary map, you would think that Mother's rendition ($13.95) - served minus the wrap but sided with either plain basmati rice or serviceable naan - would be just as tasty. You'd be wrong. The chicken korma ($14.95) suffers as well, the spicing off and the dish, like nearly everything we try, swimming in artery-clogging ghee.
We can't fault the house's vegetarian biryani rice ($8.95), nicely spiced basmati mixed with fronds of besan-battered cauliflower, frozen peas and firm garbanzos. But the saag paneer ($9.95), another Gandhi fave, has a weird metallic aftertaste here and the consistency of baby food. Mother's plump veggie samosas ($2.95 for two) suffer a similar fate, their potato filling over-processed and overpowering compared to the toothsomely texture and gently spiced version available at Gandhi.
Another lunch, we start with pakoras ($4.95) that, though flavourful enough, appear to have deconstructed in the deep fryer. Listed on Mother's short card as lassie, the yogurt-based drink comes four ways: plain, mango, banana or strawberry ($3.95). To that list, we'll add overpriced, undersized and watery.
The daily thali ($8.95/$7.95 vegetarian) disappoints to boot, a mess of plain rice, greasy curries garnished with day-old chopped coriander and cardboard naan served on a thin stainless tray. Even the cheap cutlery doesn't cut it. And what the fuck is Couillard doing here?
"Avtar and I go way back," says the between-gigs chef, who stresses that he has nothing to do with the menu. "I'm just helping out for a few weeks till they get on their feet."
What's the quick fix? Paint the room warm, inviting spice-palette colours after checking out chic Curry Twist in the Junction to see how to create Indo style on a budget. Cover the tables with inexpensive brown paper. Dim the lights.
Follow the example of Biryani House's Debu Saha and Dhaba's P. K. Singh and banish non-health-conscious ghee from everything. Quickly get in one of the competent Gandhi crew to duplicate the signature dishes. And that includes roti.
As of July 1, Gandhi has raised its prices unilaterally by a buck.
That means its legendary butter chicken roti now goes for $11.49! Singh must need the cash - he seems to be pouring it down the drain at Mother India.