Chef Debu Saha says you can’t find Debu’s Nouvelle Indian Cuisine style of fare in Little India.
DEBU’S (552 Mt. Pleasant, at Belsize, 416-927-9340) Complete prix fixe brunches/lunches for $35 per person (dinners $75), including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Average main $14/$25. Open for brunch Saturday and Sunday 11:30 am to 2:30 pm, for lunch Tuesday to Friday 11:30 am to 2:30 pm, dinner Tuesday to Sunday 5:30 to 10 pm. Closed Monday, holidays. Licensed. Delivery. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNNN
Debu Saha doesn't think too highly of his competitors.
"They're not that different from anything you'd find on Gerrard," sniffs Saha, the owner/chef of Debu's - or Debu's Nouvelle Indian Cuisine, as it's called in full. "The food's all the same, only it's more expensive."
Saha is referring to the slew of upscale Indian restaurants that have opened recently in the culinary backwater that is north Toronto. There's Amaya on Bayview, which calls itself elegant and sophisticated, and its spinoff, Bread Bar, with its "neo-Indian food." Then, north of St. Clair on Yonge there's "nouveau contemporary Indian" at Jaipur Grill as well as "carefree yet very tasteful and fashionable Indian" at Tabla. Jaaadu hypes its "gourmet touch authentic Indian cuisine," while Chakra flies the flag for "simply revolutionary Indian cuisine."
So why would one of Toronto's most forward-thinking chefs, who along with Dhaba's P.K. Ahluwalia introduced Toronto to the concept of haute Indo cooking almost 10 years ago at Biryani House, open up shop uptown?
Seems these days downtown real estate is just too damn pricey.
But it isn't just the location of his new digs that has me puzzled at first. His inaugural card is equally perplexing.
Mains like chargrilled Greenland (!) caribou crusted with pink peppercorns in dry-fruit korma sauce, sided with snap peas, potato rings, asparagus and beetroot rice ($30)? A starter called Three Ways Eggplant ($20)? I've never been intimate with a vegetable (other than my ex), but if I were ever so inclined, I doubt it would be in a ménage a trois with an aubergine.
Saha has since toned down the extravagance. He's re-installed the five-course prix fixe ($50/$40 vegetarian or vegan) that made the old Biryani House a hit with local foodies in the first place, and goes one better by offering a $20 three-course lunch 'n' brunch meal deal seven days a week.
And that's what brings us to Debu's this sunny Sunday noon. Downtown dwellers all, we're a bit taken aback by upper Mt. Pleasant's
complete lack of pedestrian traffic. Maybe everyone's closing up the cottage.
The former My Thai Kitchen 2 and Allo Bistro (never heard of 'em either) is another surprise, a chic 40-seat supper club sporting charcoal-grey flagstone walls and a long black leather banquette flanked by two-tops draped in dazzling white napery. And completely empty.
But it won't be for long. First up, thick deep-fried slices of Yukon Gold potato come crisply battered with besan gram flour studded with garlic, chiles and cumin seeds (masala wedges, $4 a la carte). Accompanied by a pair of sauces cleverly presented in Chinese soup spoons - tangy tamarind and creamy mint - they're also garnished with arugula. Not to be missed.
A plump pea-packed samosa gets teamed with a tasty root veggie croquette dusted in panko crumbs and crushed coconut, while five-bean chaat finds an alarmingly fresh heap o' black-eyed, green and chickpeas tossed with kidney beans, edamame, red onion, Roma tomato, cracker-esque papri and jaggery dressing (both $5).
Between courses, Saha's wife, Sikha, emerges from the open kitchen carrying a custom-made wrought iron stand holding cone-shaped paper-lined baskets of ridiculously delicious garlic naan ($5). Blistered and nicely charred from the tandoor, they're equal to Libretto's pizza perfection.
Already stuffed, we soldier on. A massive three-egg omelette gets wrapped around moist chicken tikka and sided with mesclun in lime vinaigrette.
That Indo resto cliché butter chicken is transformed - great chunks of boneless breast in a nutty raisin-sweet tomato sauce.
And Goan cod curry in coconut gravy (all $14 and sided with long-grain basmati) would make a terrific Subcontinental take on ye olde fish and chips if partnered with those delish masala wedges.
Though we've hit the wall, we move on to Debu's Happy Dessert of the Day ($4). Sikha returns with three plates holding three desserts each: hollowed-out breakfast muffins dolloped with house-made yogurt sweetened with whipping cream and ripe raspberries, phyllo pastry purses of marmalade-tart carrot halva with berry coulis, and purple pistachio-dressed gulab jaman.
"If this place were on Ossington I'd be here all the time," quips the Literary Device uncharacteristically picking up the pre-tax $60 tab. So what's Debu's doing in the boondocks?
"I wanted to open on King West or Church but I couldn't afford it," says Saha. "The rent's much cheaper up here, and the dining-room is the perfect size."
All Debu's needs now is customers.