Table Talk: Joanne Kates reviews Pukka

Last year, when I went to India for the first time, I was shocked by the food. Even at the high end (which was fabulously snazzy), the food was somewhat disappointing. Not bad — never bad — but kind of blah, like what we get in a good curry house in Little India. Long-cooked stewed curries, food mostly green and brown, nothing even vaguely modern or fusion or light.

Which makes the nouvelle Indian of Toronto seem even more exciting. Amaya’s prawns and chaat and lamb are all far better than anything I ate in the fanciest hotels in India. And now we have Pukka on St. Clair West’s restaurant row, a pale grey bistro with painted bricks, red sconces and a clear commitment to modernize the cuisine of the subcontinent.

Gunpowder prawns are big fat shrimp rolled in garam masala for heat and barely cooked, sitting on a  warm salad of mung beans and carrots with piquant pineapple salsa on top. Eggplant tartare has been smoked in the tandoori oven and cleverly spiced. Wow! Light, delicate, full of traditional Indian flavour but newly wrought.

And ditto the mains, which also tend towards Indian iconoclasm — with somewhat inconsistent success. Take, for example, the lamb lollipops, a classic of the nouvelle kitchen. Nicely cooked lamb chops (although for my taste they could be rarer) but they are sitting on a turmeric cream sauce (according to the server), which is what happens when good people make bad choices in the kitchen. An otherwise sane Indian chef might make a cream sauce for lamb chops because he’s aiming for fusion, and cream is French.

Bad call. The cream sauce is heavy and does no favours for the lamb. Better chef had used his restrained pomegranate coulis or his tomato chutney (which would be even nicer with less sugar) to set off the lamb lollipops.

Palak paneer is one of my perennial Indian favourites. Even when the spinach has been stewed to darkened perdition, I always appreciate the gentle counterpoint of fresh cheese against the intensity of cooked spinach. Pukka updates and refines it by pan-frying winter greens (usually a mix of kale, rapini and swiss chard) with small cubes of paneer (fresh cheese) and also of sweet gilded onion, with shards of young ginger on top. This is what nouvelle Indian should be.

As a long-time aficionado of Indian food, I cherish the chutneys and breads almost as much as the main event. Here Pukka has some work to do. I always drain the yogurt when making raita, so as to thicken and enrich it. They could do that — or for longer if they’re already doing it. The green chutney wants more coriander, but the hot pickle and mango chutney are both perfectly assertive. And the garlic naan, hot from the tandoori oven, is soft on the inside, crunchy on the outside, and redolent of enough garlic to awaken — and scandalize — my mother from the grave.

PUKKA, 778 St. Clair Ave. W., $80 Dinner for two

Joanne Kates trained at the Ecole Cordon Bleu de Cuisine in Paris. She has written articles for numerous publications, including the New York Times, Maclean’s and Chatelaine.

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