WATERFALLS (303 Augusta, at College, 416-927-9666) Complete dinners for $30 per person (lunches $20), including all taxes, tip and a pint of organic lager. Average main $18/$10. Open daily 11 am to 10:30 pm. Licensed. Rating: NNN
Flipping through the multi-page menu at Waterfalls, the self-described Indian tapas bar and grill that’s just opened at the top of Kensington Market, I feel my heart fall.
Chicken Supreme ($18.99), rigatoni Bolognese ($13.99), Greek salad ($9.99)? If I were a first-time restaurateur gambling my life savings in a business that sees most start-up operations fail, I might try to appeal to as many people as possible. But c’mon, this is too-cool Kensington, not the Airport Hilton. What pro-organic, local-source-conscious alterna-foodie gets a craving for escargots ($9.99)?
The soul-crushing card also includes an anchovy-free Caesar salad ($8.99) – nobody likes anchovies, right? – as well as a mild-mannered take on pasta primavera ($12.99), the dish known in the biz as “leftover salad on linguine with tomato sauce.”
There’s even chicken fingers ’n’ fries ($3.95) followed by vanilla ice cream ($1.75) for the single-digit set. Of the hipster hordes with their DIY hairdos and earth-friendly shopping bags who debark from the College streetcar and now stream past Waterfalls en masse, I doubt many are eight years old.
I’ve apologized in advance to my regular gastro guinea pigs for dragging them to Waterfalls. The gang’s a bit hesitant. After our recent debacle at Toby’s, one of them tells me, “We thought maybe you were mad at us.”
I’ve warned them that Waterfall’s a humongous space devoid of character. Someone has obviously spent a lot of money transforming the former Xpace art gallery. But the results – warm brick walls, slate floors, lots of dark wood, an autographed Raptors sweater over the bar – give the 70-seat room the look of a Kelsey’s in Oakville.
If restaurant success is all about location, Waterfalls should have it made. It’s on the same Market block as super-popular Torito, La Palette, Supermarket, Urban Herbivore and soon-come Wanda’s Pie in the Sky. Instead, while the street bustles outside with suppertime shoppers, Waterfalls is as empty as it was on my two previous visits.
Seated next to the large wall of glass that’s supposed to open to the street but remains closed despite the balmy weather outdoors, we’re hospitably greeted by owner Mahendran Rasie. We ask if this is his first restaurant.
“Yes, it is,” says our affable host. “But before that I was in the hotel industry for 25 years.”
Ignoring the generic Italiana that keeps everybody happy at a Ramada Inn or a suburban sports bar, we focus on Waterfalls’ unique South Asian tapas card. Rasie soon returns with a complimentary plate of crisp papaddams coupled with a pair of terrific purées, one a spicier than usual coriander, the other a plum-sweet tama-rind.
Those same sassy sauces – mislabelled chutneys on the menu – also help a smallish quintet of vegetarian pakoras ($7.99) morph into something unexpectedly special.
Two sea creatures, three people. That’s the dilemma we face we’re served a pair of tandoor-fired tiger shrimp and another of Cajun-seared scallops (both $9.99 and plated over organic greens). The latter greatly improve with the addition of a tart pomegranate glaze.
But there’s no need to arm-wrestle over the remarkably fresh combo of chickpea chana Peshori with potato and paneer dressed with raw Spanish onion, and al dente saffron-scented dahl, easily some of the best veggie subzis in town.
No surprise once you learn that chef Vijay Kabil last cooked at Siddhartha on Gerrard East.
Madras-style mussels ($7.99) are another big winner. This dish was designed to share, a dozen and a half or so plump bivalves swimming in rich curried cream, sided with plenty of blistered naan perfect for sopping.
But why stop there? Serve them with the skinny fries that come with the house burger ($8.99, virtually identical to the one served at Toby’s, right down to the garnishes of iceberg lettuce, tomato, red onion and sliced dill pickle) and you’d have one of the best moules frites around.
And if the kitchen insists on offering pizza (all $10.99), why not top one Indian-style with the tandoori chicken used in the fettucini ($13.99)? And while we’re at it, could somebody kill the mind-numbingly awful Muzak that tootles away in the background throughout dinner.
An ironic prankster like the Rosebud’s Rodney Bowers might get away with playing cheesy watered-down instrumental cover versions of Roberta Flack hits to downtown hipsters, but anywhere else it’s sheer torture.
Talk about killing me softly!