[FOOD~REVIEW] | Pukka | Inspired Indian cuisine for the 21st century | by Natalie Singer
[dropcap]A[/dropcap]s a Hillcrest Village resident and a faithful dog owner, I am often out walking along St. Clair West. Whenever a store closes and is papered up, and especially if it’s a restaurant, I eagerly anticipate what will take its place. Most recently, I was thrilled to discover a new Indian eatery opening near the corner of Arlington.
Now that I’ve been (twice!), let me be clear – this is not in any way a typical Indian restaurant. It is so much more, by being… well, quite exquisitely less. Instead of heavy and oily, the dishes are light and clean; instead of aggressive and hot, the spicing is delicate and subtle; instead of a dark and busy room, the space is modern and airy. As the sign in the window reads, Pukka is not your mother’s Indian. Derek Valleau and Harsh Chawla, the co-owners of Pukka, have created something truly unique in Toronto: an Indian menu for the 21st century.
A certified sommelier, Derek wanted to offer plates that easily paired with wine, and even brought on Peter Boyd – the sommelier from Scaramouche – to develop the impressive wine list. With so many complex flavours and disparate dishes, beer is typically the beverage of choice for Indian cuisine. But with the heat turned down, and the flavours expertly layered, wine pairs just beautifully with the Pukka offerings.
Harsh, who hails from northern India, has always had a passion for food. With a background in restaurant development, he saw the opportunity for a new kind of Indian establishment. Together with Derek and their team of three chefs, they created an Indian menu that draws upon classical French technique.
Having spent most of the 1990s in India myself, the food and the culture hold a very special place in my heart. I enjoyed my fair share of daal, rice, chapati, gravies and starches, but was always left longing for one dietary staple – a fresh, crisp salad. Pukka, with a thoroughly contemporary approach to Indian cuisine, offers two such salads, both of them nothing short of fabulous: the baby kale salad and the vegetable string chaat. The baby kale, lightly tossed in a spiced cashew dressing and adorned with lotus chips and sweetened dates, deftly weaves nutrition with tradition. The vegetable string chaat composed of puffed rice, sprouts, chutney and sweet yogurt, hit all the right notes with its sublime taste and crunchy texture.
Already a top seller, the Chicken 65 is a starter plate of tender south Indian fried chicken, lightly dusted in a chili tamarind sauce. There may be some comparisons to Kung Pao chicken here, but the 65 is a lighter and healthier variation with a subtle Indian twist. A truly unique dish is the spinach and mushroom stuffed paneer. Elegantly layered, it sure has the “wow” factor when presented to the table. A paneer fan, I am thrilled to see this Indian cheese the star of the plate rather than drowned in a traditional palak sauce. The pistachio korma sauce provides a lovely creaminess that both compliments and elevates the moist paneer.
Sometimes it’s a relatively simple dish that makes the biggest impression. For me it was the humble green beans. The crisp French beans are infused with caramelized onion, turmeric, mustard, curry leaves and coconut. I now want to put this flavour combination on just about everything.
Dessert is typically where my love affair with Indian food ends. I have never been a fan of burfi or gulab jamun, and ate the sweets on Indian holidays only. Inspired by the west, the fantastic Eton Mess may change your impression of what an Indian dessert can be. A rosewater meringue cookie sits atop a lovely sweet lassi cream. Drizzled with pomegranate and mango, this just happens to be a few of my favourite things all in one pretty dish.
I am so pleased to have the Pukka team a part of my ever-evolving neighbourhood. They are a super friendly bunch with a menu that can accommodate a host of diets including vegetarian, vegan, kosher-style and gluten free. With exceptional food, a great wine program, chic atmosphere and professional, yet unpretentious service – this will surely be a hot spot which draws people from across the city, and beyond.
Restaurant Name: Pukka
Location: 778 St Clair W., 416-342-1906, Web: pukka.ca, Twitter: @pukkatoronto
Neighbourhood: Hillcrest Village, Wychwood heights #WestVillageTO
Owners: Derek Valleau and Harsh Chawla
Chefs: Cornel D’Silva and chefs Kirti Singh and Dinesh Butola
Natalie Singer is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist, food & lifestyle writer and a former world traveller. She has worked in the natural products industry for 16 years and sells organic, fair trade and gluten free gourmet gifts online: www.pushcartpantry.com