EXOTIC TANDOORI (11 Charles West, at Balmuto, 416-964-1616) Complete meals for $11, including all taxes, tip and a pop. Average main $6. Open Monday to Thursday noon to 10 pm, Friday and Saturday noon to 11 pm. Unlicensed. Access: five steps at the door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNNN
Jammed into a well-worn hole-in-the-wall, this family-run operation toils in the shadow of Yonge and Bloor's conspicuous consumption.
With no budget for gimmicks or decor, Exotic Tandoori relies on flavour and hospitality. And while its six small tables are short on ambience, you do get to watch a procession of extremely friendly and helpful staff/family members take their turn behind the counter or as guides at the buffet table.
The specialty here is Pakistani Kashmiri cuisine, which features the tandoor-fired meats, incendiary curries and syrup-soaked sweets of northern Indian food, but also includes beef - allowed among Muslims - and bread instead of rice with everything.
Deft preparation of spices and chilies goes a long way to making the short menu a real contender in the battle of Toronto's South Asian restaurants. For the two meat curries ($8) we select beef nihari and chicken korma. The nihari is a dark bowl of intense flavours and chili heat complemented by lemon juice added just before serving. The korma's yogurt base has cooked down to a creamy sauce in which delicate, savoury spices show through. The perfect naan ($1) disappears rapidly, dipped into these energetic concoctions.
The two vegetable curries ($6) are a ready match in flavour. The juicy tomato-based sweet pepper curry has a lot of heat, but the chilies are backed up by the rest of the dish. The okra curry has more body, the normally bland vegetable effectively soaking up the spices of the dish.
A large portion of Exotic's business is takeout, which is easy to understand once you sample the seekh kabob roll ($2.99). Who wouldn't want to walk down the street unwrapping the foil from one of these tandoori-roasted beef kabobs wrapped in warm, tender nan. Toronto's hot dog vendors' buns would be toast if seekh kabobs like these were ever available from a cart.
Exotic can also calm things down with a ridiculously low-priced two-piece chicken biryani ($3.50). It's a pretty simple take on what can be a luxurious dish, but it's still an incredible deal.