Along St. Clair Avenue in Toronto, just west of Bathurst Street, there’s a myriad of restaurant offerings; the staples of old school Italian and Jamaica are now joined by southern barbecue at The Stockyards and classic fish and chips with a modern twist at Sea Witch.
But for residents wanting a hit of the subcontinent’s cuisine, the neighbourhood had no options for Indian cuisine until eye-catching Pukka at St. Clair Avenue West and Arlington Avenue opened, becoming the new kid of the restaurant block.
On a Tuesday night, owners Derek Valleau and Harsh Chawla (formerly of Amaya on Bayview Avenue) were turning away several locals, their fingers crossed that reservations hadn’t scooped all the tables.
For residents of Hillcrest Village, Pukka offers a modern interpretation of the Indian restaurant.The décor is simple and contemporary, with blonde wood furniture accented by colourful art and pops of red in the décor. The service is attentive and friendly, with warm plates and clean cutlery brought with each course. There isn’t any serving table groaning with buffet options – this is sit-down dining. (Note to diners – ask the server which dishes can be easily shared, as its not apparent on the menu.)
Everyone has their favourite Indian dishes, but for once, consider skipping the aloo gobi and the butter chicken. Challenge your perceptions of what’s typical for an Indian meal and consider ordering something completely different. As for me, who grew up on the wide variety of Indian cuisine and whose palate is satiated by spices regularly, I admit my bias – I like it spicy and smoky.
For my first experience at Pukka, I attended the restaurant’s monthly Fall Wine evenings hosted by Peter Boyd, featuring Henry of Pelham vintages and co-owner Daniel Speck. And for those who don’t think Indian and Ontario wines can work together – it can.
Sweet potato samosa ($7.90) was my first move to go beyond the traditional – tasty but more spice is needed to balance the sweetness of the potato, as sweet as the accompanying tamarind sauce. The tandoori chicken tikka ($13.50) was flavourful thanks to its herb-infusion, but not as smoky as expected (or for this diner’s palate).
The kale salad ($9.90) is a creamy yet light combination of the healthy greens, dates, crispy lotus root and cashew dressing – wonderful and unique and I would recommend only sharing with one other diner. And to drink – the crisp 2013 Henry of Pelham Sauvignon Blanc.
Seafood lovers will want the Gunpowder prawns served with moong bean salad ($18.90) – it’s all that and more – delicate, smoky and perfectly cooked (even better paired with a glass of Henry of Pelham Estate Riesling) while the new to the menu pan-roasted Sea Bass with curry leaf and tamarind is a wonderfully savoury dish, thanks to the deft hand of the culinary team who knows how to insure the spices don’t dominate the delicate fish flavour.
For those who need a bit of old-school tradition, the Punjabi Chicken Curry ($17.80) is rich, flavourful and pairs well with the butter naan ($2.80), fragrant basmati rice ($4.80) and a glass of Henry of Pelham Family Tree Red.
The Lamb lollipops ($25.70), served with a turmeric, mint and coriander curry, could have withstood a bit more grilling to enhance the smokiness, while the sauce was worthy enough to eat on its own with naan or rice. A side of French beans ($10.80) that came with carmelized onions, turmeric and coconut, unfortunately and was surprisingly bland.
I didn’t get to try any of the menu’s standard desserts, but the accomplished culinary staff had made delicate, lovely chocolate truffles – which may not be traditional, but then neither is Pukka. I praise the inventiveness, and recommend diners to try the seafood – the highlight of my meal.
778 St. Clair Avenue West (at Arlington Avenue)
416-342-1906 (reservations recommended)
Open daily for dinner starting at 5:00pm
The writer was a guest of Pukka. The restaurant did not review or approve this article.