Chef Joanna Sable enjoys the layers of spices and ingredients of Indian food at Toronto’s Pukka
By Joanna Sable
I have a set of stairs in my home that is 17 treads long. When I think about Indian cuisine, it reminds me of these stairs. Indian food, unlike Italian, is not based on purity and simplicity, it is based on layers upon layers of spices and ingredients.
Thankfully Pukka and its incredible owners Harsh Chawla and Derek Valleau have come into my life and the Toronto food scene.
Pukka is a fun word meaning knowledge, genuine, and welcome. Like curry, the English have taken this word and created their own vernacular. British chef Jamie Oliver says his food is “right pukka”, which to the Brits means terrific.
Derek is a restaurant man coming out of Crush Wine Bar back in the day as a sommelier and met up with Harsh a while back. Harsh was in advertising but always had a real people side to him and a passion for the wonderful world of people pleasing. Together, they do an incredible job of pleasing their clients, who show their love back by returning to Pukka time and time again.
Pukka is going strong moving into its third year. It is packed most nights and reservations are made well in advance.
Pukka is a restaurant where the classics are respected, but modernized and made to be fun and interesting. Very much like my articles on Great Ethnic Home Cooks one must know the basics and classics of a cuisine before venturing out. Classic ingredients are there, but the belief is that by living in Toronto they are going to utilize as much of Ontario and Canada as possible.
Take, for example, all of Pukka’s meats and poultry. These are purchased from a wonderful butcher just doors away called Roast. Mennonite chickens are in your butter chicken and P.E.I. grass-fed beef is the meltingly tender braised beef ribs. Local vegetables are procured whenever possible as well. Rococoa Chocolates are the Yonge and Lawrence store that create incredible Indian flavours for Pukka to have on offer at the end of your meal.
Pukka has modernized foods and decided that Toronto wanted great wines, cocktails and micro-brewed craft beers and that these beverages too must be given top consideration. In order to review, I prefer to come in announced. I am not here, as you all know, to restaurant bash. I am suggesting places to go to, not places to run away from. This was a fun night as I brought my dear friend Dina Rock, of Mighty Fine Brine Pickles and Ferments, with me. Dina is a challenge because she is a vegetarian. Indian food is made for her and they are so respectful. I, on the other hand, am not, so I wanted to give you a full scope of the menu. With this in mind, we chatted briefly with Harsh and then were left in the incredible care of Nicki.
Find Nicki, hunt her down and say you want to sit where she is. Now, I have to admit, all the servers are great and this is truly a testament to Harsh and Derek; three of their servers are original to Pukka from the day they opened their doors.
The menu is divided into Snacks, Eats (mains) and Adds. I love this. Me? I could eat Snacks and Eats and never touch a main entree not because they are not wonderful, but because I want to taste as many dishes as possible, sort of like Indian tapas or meze.
I am sure that Pukka does a “Feed Me” menu, but it is not advertised and I think that might be one of my suggestions, to place this information front and centre. Possibly even a few price points depending on size and hunger level - that’s food for thought, gentlemen.
We began our dinner with String Chaat, which consists of vegetable strings, moong sprouts, rice crisps, pomegranate, mango, chutneys and yogurt - it’s a salad to end all salads. Give this to your veggie haters. I did a while back and she loved it. The next cold appetizer was Eggplant Tartare: tandoori-smoked eggplant with khasta roti.
A few points to be made: I love the presentation of this dish, but would love if it came to the table a little less cold as it seems to lose some of its delicate flavour. I would also like to see the smokiness more prevalent. I do not taste much smoke and that is fine if it is not advertised as tandoori-smoked. This is also a great time to mention all our “GF” (gluten-free) friends out there. Indian food and GF people love each other as there is so much for them to eat, similar to vegetarians and vegans so why not have a small asterisk beside some of these dishes. I do know from Nicki that the Eggplant can be served with papadams for this very reason.
A warm Tandoori Calamari with coconut chutney and citrus salad was not only beautiful to look at, but tasted incredible. The calamari was tender and meltingly sweet, the citrus salad bracing and the coconut chutney needs to be bottled, as does their Smoky Indian Tomato Ketchup.
Addictive and necessary are the Vegetable Pakoras fried to a crisp golden hue with not a drop of grease and served with that killer ketchup.
Dina could not have been happier when the mains arrived. From the Adds came Swiss Chard Paneer, Pumpkin Curry, Garlic Naan and Fragrant Rice. I loved the Swiss chard instead of the usual spinach. Spinach is mushy and the Swiss chard holds up nicely to being stewed. The Pumpkin….I want to get down on one knee and propose marriage to the pumpkin. I don’t care how you feel about pumpkin, order it. If you don’t like it, send me your bill, like it never happened. The rice is called “rice” on the menu. It deserves a better title and more respect, and this is aged basmati rice steamed with fragrant spices, light and fluffy.
I was the recipient of Boatman’s Fish and Prawn Curry; this may be the only dish I have ever eaten on the menu that was very good, not great. There are only a few easy fixes to elevate it: the sauce, although tasty, needed to be thicker; the pieces of fresh snapper needed the skin off as stewed fish skin is quite unpleasant. Another option would be to crisp the skin and set it on top of the stew.
All in all, the presentation of each and every dish is bang on. I do think that the Add’s could use a little more love in terms of dishes used to present them, but that certainly does not detract from the incredible flavours.
Last up is one of the dishes that cannot leave the menu, or all hell would break loose from the loyal Pukka fans. The Braised P.E.I. short ribs with black cumin, Kashmiri chili, garlic, ginger and onions is a dish that has yum written all over it. You can add rice to sop up the insanely rich beefy sauce or dip naan or both.
It was dessert time and Indian’s love their sweets and so do I. My sweet dreams on this evening were a gorgeous warm Cardamom Scented Rice Pudding with toasted pistachios and their very popular Eton Mess, which has rose water, scented meringues, marinated seasonal fruit and sweet lassi cream. We ordered chai, which is one of my favourite teas, but both myself and Dina found it watery and flat. Hey guys, one of my dear Indian friends used to boil green and black cardamom with a slice of fresh ginger, bay leaf and peppercorns. She then added black tea and boiled for a few minutes. This mixture was then strained and table cream was added along with sugar. Sweet, rich and decadent - give this a try.
Both Harsh and Derek have a love for this restaurant and it is like coming into their home. There is never a “no, we cannot substitute” among other negative responses. This place is a must. You will feel welcomed the minute you step in the door and you will leave carrying a bag because it seems there is always something that you just couldn’t finish that can’t be wasted.