SIDHARTHA (1450 Gerrard East, at Craven, 416-465-4095) Complete meals for $20 per person ($15 at lunch), including all taxes, tip and a $4 domestic beer. Average main: $8. Open daily for lunch noon to 3 pm and for dinner 4 to 10 pm. Licensed. Access: barrier-free, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Cheap. Sidhartha's Tipu Chowdhury knows that's the only reason anyone comes to the Indian restaurants near Coxwell on Gerrard: the all-you-can-eat buffet. He's also aware that the budget-minded aren't bothered by these low-rent eateries' decor, or lack thereof, as long as they can stuff themselves for under 10 bucks. But with eight-month-old pan-Indian Sidhartha, Chowdhury hopes to change that preconception.
Compared to its Little India competition, Sidhartha borders on swank. Not freakishly sterile like Udupi Palace or decked out in touristy Subcontinent kitsch like the rest, the room has an airy, almost sophisticated atmosphere. Sunlight glistens off goblets set on kraft-paper-topped tables dressed in white linen. Walls are warm Provençal yellow offset with cherrywood wainscotting and a deep-purple ceiling. Over the sound system at a discreet volume, a player piano drones in an echo chamber.
Halogen spots pick out the seven-day buffet ($7.99 lunch/$8.99 dinner) set up at the room's rear under translucent green fibreglass roofing. At first glance, the spread doesn't appear that different from the one offered when the space was Beemah, the unfortunate resto that was the first victim of the city's health department sting a few years back. I grab a large white Melmac plate, scoop up a spoonful of nearly everything and head back to my seat for some serious analysis.
Every buffet features butter chicken, and Sidhartha's no exception. It's not exceptional, mostly on-the-bone backs and thighs in a mild tomato cream that recall's Campbell's soup. More chunked chicken swims in a second, mildly spiced gravy that again requires a lot of deft finger work to remove the bones.
Regulation curried potato 'n' garden peas and turmeric-yellowed cabbage and onions could have been produced by any kitchen in the area, while doughy koftas quickly grow soggy after soaking up the surrounding sauces. But okra fingers tossed with raw Spanish onion and ripe tomato are firm favourites.
There's also a salad and sweet section, and several condiments - vinegary coriander, tart tamarind, syrupy jam-like chutney - for added flavours. Noticeably absent: tandoori chicken, a dish that even joints without tandoor ovens consider mandatory.
Let's say I'm a tad underwhelmed, although, yes, the room is lovely and surprisingly full for a Monday noon, considering there aren't any schools or offices full of potential clientele nearby.
My assessment changes when a plate of straight-from-the-fire naan (free with the buffet/$1.50 à la carte) arrives to sop up the leftovers. Brushed with oil and blistered from the heat, this beautiful bread makes me forgive everything that's gone before.
I'm back a few days later to assemble a takeout feast from Sidhartha's moderately priced à la carte lineup.
I was so impressed with the naan at lunch that I'm a bit disappointed to find foil-wrapped Saadi Roti whole wheat chapattis (99 cents) have gone rubbery by the time I get them back to the lab, a fate shared by Gobi Parantha stuffed with minced cauliflower and garlic naan (both $2.99). Tip: cut them into wedges and reheat them in the toaster instead of the microwave.
There's nothing particularly remarkable about Sidhartha's Special Tandoori Platter ($11.99), a couple of pleasant drumsticks and ground herb-flecked lamb kebabs on a bed of raw Spanish onion.
But be prepared to be blown away by Chicken Bolcha ($7.99), a slightly sour chili-stoked main swimming with large chunks of moist boneless tandoori chicken. So this is where they hide the good stuff!
Pair it with sensational Matar and Paneer Pulao ($3.99), plain white basmati rice thick with green peas and deep-fried cubes of creamy paneer. And while it's not in the same stellar company, Mutton Vindaloo ($7.99) still hits 4.5 on the Richter, a not unpleasant tingle on the tongue.
Former Dhaba server and affable first-time restaurateur Chowdhury would like Sidhartha to be considered among the best Indian restaurants in town.
It's not there yet, but its certainly the best in Little India.