INDUS JUNCTION (811 Queen West, at Claremont, 647-428-7119) Complete dinners for $40 (lunches $25), including all taxes, tip and a glass of Indian wine. Average main $12. Open for lunch Tuesday to Sunday noon to 2 pm, for dinner 6 to 10 pm; bar till close. Closed Monday, holidays. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN
How hot is Indus Junction, sisters and first-time restaurateurs Alka and Poonam Dhir's newly launched Indo fusion spot on Queen west of Bathurst?
Why, just when we're about to tuck into a cartload of curried combos at the elegantly appointed resto, the fire alarm directly above our table goes off loudly and at length.
Sadly, it's kitchen exhaust and not the incendiary quality of chef Sanjiv Malhotra's safely spiced north Indian fare that sets bells a-ringing so loudly they can likely be heard at the firehall blocks away on Claremont. What's even more alarming is how the Junction's well-meaning menu gets things so inexplicably wrong. Not that there's any faulting the food, which at times is quite commendable. It's the way it's served that's problematic.
I don't know about you, but when I go out for an Indian meal, I expect a panoply of palate-pleasing plates, a little aloo gobi, some grilled kebabs from the tandoor and a host of scintillating subzis colliding like a symphony on the tongue, all scooped up with cracker-crisp naan and washed down with a soothing lassi. Who wants boring meat, two veg and pudding? But that's how they do things at Indus Junction.
Order lamb korma ($13) and get maybe a cupful of relatively tender pieces of meat stewed in a nutty cashew cream accented with dried papaya, sided with a fragrant brick of pre-formed basmati studded with bay leaf and a scoop of turmeric-tinted potato curry.
Decide on cauliflower and paneer ($11) and receive a few slices of cauliflower and an equal number of mild cheese cubes in a familiar sweet tomato gravy that screams butter chicken and gets automatically sided with the identical rice and potato. Ditto slightly salty chicken curry ($13) flecked with curry leaf and coriander.
All are also identically accompanied by a plate of quartered naan, one order near perfection, the next puzzlingly undercooked and doughy. So, after dropping nearly 40 bucks pre-tax and tip, your table looks like this: three small portions of curry that in total wouldn't amount to an $8.95 entree on Gerrard, a very basic potato subzi and twice as much rice and naan as you require.
Mind, some of it's quite tasty. I'd gladly eat a plateful of deliciously sweet and sour eggplant ($11) especially if it came with its advertised but no-show roasted peanut and onion salad topping. But sided with even more rice, spuds 'n' naan? No, thanks.
And get this: other than a small bowl of dahl makhani lentils ($7), the only sides available are rice ($5) and more damned naan ($3 to $4).
Starters are better, but maybe that's because they're not saddled with r*** and n***. Mixed cauliflower, red bell pepper and zucchini bhaji ($7) look like free-form fritters and explode with flavour once dunked into chili-spiked tamarind chutney. And though a four-some of vindaloo shrimp over too few leaves of baby spinach, sauced with drizzles of coconut dressing and coriander chutney ($9) may only rate a three out of 10 for heat, like almost everything here, it's a good indication of the kitchen's creative capabilities.
After a few hesitant sips, we're far from impressed by the house white, an Indian Sauvignon Blanc ($7 glass/$30 bottle) we find blandly inoffensive at best. But once the taste buds have been warmed up, it delivers a fruity sweetness that complements the curries perfectly - more so than a bottle of Fanta ($2.50).
Desserts are a mixed bag. Warm rice pudding ($4) arrives gorgeously garnished with what taste like crushed macadamias but the menu claims are almonds. But there's absolutely nothing remarkable about the house's "ultimate chocolate brownie" ($5 with vanilla ice cream), a dried-out finish that any eight year-old could whip up in an E-Z Bake Oven. And whose bright idea was it to remove samosas stuffed with dark chocolate ganache and smoked cashews from the initial prix fixe card, a lineup even more restricted than the current one?
Despite its flaws, Indus Junction has much to recommend it. The room is lovely - walls painted rich spice-box browns, chairs padded for comfort in faux lizard naugahyde, and a pair of futuristic chandeliers casting atmospheric shadows on a warm copper-tiled ceiling - and the food's often dazzling.
All the ingredients to make Indus Junction an unqualified success are in place - they just need a little fixing. Starting with the fire alarm.