I thought the owner of the new little Keralan restaurant on the Danforth looked familiar. Turns out he’s Aravind Kozhikott, formerly the barman at Marc Thuet’s Bistro Bakery Thuet and Conviction. The premises are familiar too, for this was Mong Kut Thai until very recently, when owners Sam and Wan Luechapipat decided to concentrate their resources on the smarter sibling, Mong Kut Thai Gold, a block or two west. Kozhikott moved in, splashing on some yellow paint and putting up a plywood dado. Some art for the walls will be the much-needed next step.
The chef is Aravind’s father, Raj Kozhikott, who has come up with an ambitious idea for his small menu – south Indian Keralan dishes but executed using high-end Canadian ingredients and with a high-end Canadian sensibility. By that I mean small, elegant portions and deliciously delicate textures. If food were priced by weight, these dishes might seem expensive compared with a standard high-street curry house, but mercifully other criteria sometimes come into play. Prices here range from $6 to $9 for appetizers and $14 to $21 for mains.
Dinner begins with the well-informed waiter pouring everyone a glass of cumin water (water in which cumin seeds have been boiled, cooled to room temperature) and setting down a saucer of nibbles – fried plantain chips and deep-fried ribbons of mildly spiced chickpea-flour batter.
We try four of the six appetizers. First to appear is a trio of mini dosas, each not much bigger than a finger. One is filled with grated beet, coconut, mustard seed and a hint of green chili, a super combination. Number two plays with the classic filling of mustard leaves by chopping up spinach, kale, broccoli and swiss chard and seasoning the mix with shallots, garlic, ginger and a tiny suggestion of masala spices. The third one is folded around a bland aubergine paste. Excellent condiments accompany – a rich, tangy tomato chutney and some pickled ground cherries as salty and sour as pickles from Japan. The one drawback to the dish is that it’s really too small to share, and one wants everyone at the table to taste such flavours.
Making very small onion bhaji is a great idea. For once they are not uncooked in the middle or burnt on the surface. Instead the onion is sweetly caramelized and the spiced-up chickpea-paste matrix just so. Pan-seared calamari are admirably tender, glossy with a rich coriander seed-lemon butter that will please lovers of dairy. Crab cakes are also miniaturized, generous with crab and potato and a mild glow of heat, served with yoghurt flavoured with ginger, coriander leaf and cardamom and a thick, sweet-sour tamarind sauce.
There is no meat used in this particular cuisine – just fish and vegetables. We don’t miss it. Nadan fish is a plump fillet of Lake Huron pickerel in a rich tomato-tamarind masala that finally brings a little genuine spicy heat to the table. Alongside are okra sautéed with sliced onion and some moist but inevitably starchy cassava, smashed like mashed potato and seasoned with mustard seed. Flaky parathas share the plate but would have more to do if there was more of that yummy sauce. Boatman’s crab and kappa is a simple dish of crab meat and more smashed cassava, served with Keralan breads and a couple of salty crab legs in their shell.
As a dessert, the waiter suggests a trio of soft, sweet, traditional treats – one of puréed fresh mango, another of vermicelli in coconut milk with nuts and raisins and the third of lentils cooked with brown sugar.
So, let’s imagine that a success will allow Aravind to prosper, to add a little more to the décor and maybe grow the menu a tad. What will Toronto gain from its presence? I can’t think of anyone offering this sort of subtle, refined, contemporary Keralan cooking in the city. It isn’t the place for a bargain-priced blow-out, but there are some interesting ideas about flavour and texture in play. And Kozhikott draws on his own background to put together an interesting little cocktail menu (next time I must try a Cochin Caesar, made with coriander-infused vodka, tamarind, ground cloves, ground cardamom and lime juice). Of the 14 wines on the list, 10 are from Niagara, quite rightly. Fingers crossed for the affable Aravind. I hope it succeeds.
Aravind is at 596 Danforth Avenue (around Logan). (647) 346-2766. No web site at present.