Kudos to the Chowhound community who quickly recognized and broadcast the quality of The Copper Chimney when it opened last September. And thanks to my friend Vee who passed on the buzz to me. I must confess I was a tiny bit sceptical at first when I looked at the menu. Recent interest in food from the subcontinent has been focused on regional cuisines or else the lightweight, elegant, westernized New Indian cooking of such places as Amaya and Vij’s. This menu is long, geographically eclectic and studded with familiar dishes from the post-World-War-II flock-wallpaper curry-house oeuvre that most of us grew up eating. Then again, it is wrong to pre-judge a restaurant, especially one where the chef is Jokh Rana, who cooked so well for so long at Cuisine of India in North York (that renowned spot now razed to make way for a multi-storey building). So off we went late on Friday night, up, up, up Avenue Road, almost to the 401, until we glimpsed the bright orange signage, knocked the snow from our boots and stepped inside.
The décor will never make the front cover of Interiors magazine but it’s rather a relief to find walls that haven’t been stripped back to the brick and a ceiling where ducts and piping are discreetly hidden. The room looks fine, with basic lighting, crimson carpet and tablecloths, big mirrors and Gujurati cushion covers framed on the walls and little beaded tea-light holders providing a tiny modicum of glamour. It doesn’t seat more than thirty but there were at least three dedicated and attentive servers working that night and I’m glad we booked because the place was full. We ordered a bottle of wine from the tiny, inexpensive list of LCBO standards and considered our options.
But let me cut to the chase at this point. The food was uniformly excellent, dishes diverse and distinct, portions so big we needed two satchel-sized doggy bags and a weekend to finish our order. Herewith, some highlights.
Amritsari fish. When one plays Fantasy Restaurant, imagining the ideal restaurant and the brigades who staff it, it goes without saying that the cook in charge of the frying station comes from India. Indian cooks are simply the best in the world at frying. This dish is a case in point. The fish used is basa, also known as Vietnamese river cobbler, a clean-tasting Asian catfish with flaky white flesh. Here the kitchen dips it in a flavoured batter spiced with turmeric, ground coriander seed, garam masala and two or three other secret ingredients and fries it to a greaseless golden crisp, leaving the actual basa delectably moist. Served piping hot, it comes with a bright green sauce made from yoghurt, cilantro, mint, lime juice and garlic. I have no idea if this is what fish tastes like in Amritsar, but if it does, more power to them.
Lucknowi reshmi kebab. Brijesh Kumar is the tandoor chef at The Copper Chimney and as central to the experience as his colleague, Chef Rana. In visits to come, we will explore the rest of the tandoori menu. This time we had the Lucknow-style kebab, massive pieces of marvellously moist and tender chicken breast that had been marinated in yoghurt, saffron, pulverized onion and garlic and some delicate spices, threaded on a spit and cooked in the tandoor. It reached the table on a very hot metal platter, sizzling and smoking and surrounded by julienned onion, pickled onion, cabbage and other vegetables. Chef Kumar had timed it perfectly, the chicken cooked through but awesomely juicy, the marinade slightly browned in places.
Chili lime wings. I know – it doesn’t sound entirely authentic. So think of it as this restaurant’s gesture towards the fusion dishes of the New Indian movement. The sticky glaze has a nice balance of sweetness, tangy lime and chili heat and there are more lime wedges to squeeze, if needed. Even people who don’t see the point of wings will enjoy these babies.
Baigan Patiala. This is one of The Copper Chimney’s star performers, a rich, heavy dish of eggplant stir-fried until it’s so soft it almost begins to dissolve. Inextricably integrated is garlic, tomato, corinader, mango and – the key ingredient – masses of fresh, sharp raw ginger that cuts through the smotheringly unctuous textures and warm, whispering flavours, dragging you back into the light.
Lamb vindaloo. The ongoing tour of India takes us to Goa for an authentic version of the traditional macho tester. The lamb was lean and tasty but a tad dry and fibrous – the only textural flaw in the evening. The sauce was super, packed with vinegar and pepper and just enough heat to bring a prickle of perspiration to the pate of my head. (That’s my chili meter though it seems to vary with our species. I know some people break into a chili sweat on their foreheads or even under their eyes… Perhaps a kind reader will explain why people differ.) Big chunks of fried potato resting on top were a wicked garnish.
Prawn Coconut Curry also seemed like a Goan dish, its green sauce thick and rich, sweetened with coconut but then sharpened with tamarind, the flavours deliberately restrained to allow the taste of the prawns an opportunity to take a shy little bow.
Sundries such as basmati rice, raita and excellent breads from the tandoor did not let the side down and the kitchen took extra trouble with hot plates and frequent changes of cutlery.
Almost forgot the ras-malai for dessert. We were stuffed but somehow managed to finish the goblet of double cream flavoured with cardamom and crushed pistachio and the small, flattened balls of fresh cheese drowned therein.
Prices, incidentally, are very reasonable, most mains costing around $12.
The Copper Chimney is at 2050 Avenue Road (two blocks south of Wilson). 416 850 9772. www.the-copper-chimney.com.