While it's hard to get an accurate read on what the afterlife might look like, if there is one, it's almost certainly a big pool of butter chicken. That or an Indian restaurant, period. While pious adherents to the world's unknown number of religions might suggest this classification to be a bit reductionist, I think many would agree—especially those who've tasted butter chicken, along with those who aren't lactose intolerant—that Indian food rules. Sure, it can be a bit heavy, and its version of 'mild' spice can still give a desert camel a runny nose, but for variety, aromas, picturesque beauty, flavour, and overall experience, Indian food (as a pan generalization disregarding specific regional styles), is a strong contender for the 'best food ever' and 'desert island food' awards. And while there are as many faux poseurs in Toronto's Indian restaurant market as any other, the cream in this restaurant's proverbial chicken korma rises to the top and warrants serious attention.
Banjara interior. Photo by Banjara.
Enter Banjara Indian Cuisine. Without reading (or writing) another word (after this one): go there. Having eaten at a healthy swath of Toronto's Indian food joints, Banjara is the only one whose name I remember (and constantly think about when mulling dining choices.) The back story is a little confusing, but generally goes like this: in 2000, owners Raj Veerella and Anil Gurijala acquired "Mr. Maharajah Indian Cuisine" located just south of Yonge and Bloor, a restaurant which gained much popularity and positive media attention. In 2003, they changed the name to Banjara, (a Hindi word meaning 'nomad') and moved to 796 Bloor West, near Christie Pits Park. They opened a second location on Eglinton close to Yonge, offering the same succulent fare and ambiance. While not sure whether the name has more of a story behind it, the term could certainly be used to describe the restaurant's penchant for drawing on dishes and traditions from both the north and south of India. Either way, the food is magical, plain and simple.
Tandoori Chicken. Photo by Banjara.
Banjara does an excellent job of offering a wide variety of dishes that, while being firmly rooted in the tradition of Indian cuisine, still present options for those more occasional or outright beginner venturers into this culinary climate. Add to this victuals for vegetarians and meat lovers alike and you get a pretty well-rounded menu (more on this below). Now, to the goods. For this review, we've selected the Bloor and Crawford location at 796 Bloor St. West, though fans should know that both Banajara locations sport exactly the same menu, flavour consistency, and welcoming staff.
Decor and Atmosphere
Banjara deftly negotiates the fine line between offering clientele a unique and firmly placed decor, and making every average eater feel comfortable. While its butter chicken coloured walls and fiery drapery make no small nod to its lineage, Banjara's interior provides a very comfortable, homey, and welcoming place to eat. The seating is laid out in a quite solidly feng shui (pardon the cultural crossover) arrangement, where only one table really straddles the busy front entrance and the route to the washrooms (and even still, it's pretty private.) Having separate lunch and dinner seatings, the restaurant has a slightly cumbersome two-hour closure period (from 3-5pm); and while an understandably necessary recoup and prep interval, I've more than once shown up with take out designs during this period only to find them closed.
Banjara Patio by Evelyn A.
When considering lunch or dinner (both phenomenal) the restaurant can pull a Jekyll and Hyde on you, where at slower points you can enjoy a quiet, reflective meal compared to the din and blur of bodies during peak hours. Whichever your pleasure, Banjara is rarely empty, and when it's full, the bustle and rumpus of a busy night adds to the experience. And it stands to reason the old adage that a busy restaurant is a good restaurant. Banajara is fairly large, especially with the relatively new winterized greenhouse-esque patio wrapping around the front and side of the existing structure, and can easily seat up to 100 with enough elbow room to not knock over your neighbour's mulligatawny soup. That being said, the tables are jostled in close together and a loud voice will certainly carry. With nearly two full walls of windows in the interior main room as well as a glassed-in patio space (two walls and the ceiling), Banjara has an abundance of natural light that gives the space a larger feel, and offers alternately warm sunshine in winter, and well, warm sunshine in summer (with a blast of AC to help with the sweating.) Limited parking is available in the restaurant's private lot directly out front, which is convenient (and rare downtown) though a lot of the time it's occupied, and the lot itself, with two shipping containers (which presumably house dry goods, etc.), along with slightly potted concrete, make the entrance and frontal appearance a tad shoddy looking.
Banjara Plate by Bernie C.
Menu offerings and price range
Banajara's menu is relatively affordable, and though portions for many mains come in small-ish sized steel bowls, they are plenty filling. Tasty finger food apps run from $3.50 to $6.50, soups and salads run from $3.99 to $6.50, and their mains fall into categories of protein type and style ranging from Tandoori ($12.99 to $17.99), to chicken ($11.99 to $12.99), lamb, beef, goat ($12.95), seafood ($14.99) and vegetarian ($9.50 to $10.99). There are a plethora of rice options ($3.25 to $12.99), in addition to naan breads ($2.50 to $4.50) with sides ranging from papadams to yogurt ($.50 to $2.50), and desserts including $3.50 rice pudding and $4.50 rasmalai (traditional milk curd patties.) Banjara also has extremely tasty and convenient combo platters including lunch ($10 to $12.95) and dinner ($11.99 to $14.95) which offer a greater range of dishes in one meal. The drink menu is extensive, with a swath of non-alcoholic options including pop, juice, coffee, tea, the coveted Indian "lassie" (plain yogurt or the beloved mango version), as well as chai tea. They also sport an impressive range of alcoholic beverages, including a pleasantly surprising list of more adventurous beers in both bottle and draft (Sleeman, Upper Canada, in addition to the standard Coors and Heineken, plus a couple Indian brands), and a great wine selection (including a couple of my favourites, Yellow Tail and Wolf Blass), all of which are offered at affordable prices.
Cauliflower pakoras, butter chicken, and a spinach daal main course, papadams as a pre-app, and chai tea for dessert.
The papadams were airy and crisp, thin, light, salty, and delicious. With a generous helping of cumin seeds, these papadams have more punch and flavour than most, and avoid the slightly fishy overtone that can plague the delicacy at other restaurants. I could eat a mountain of them. An order of two comes almost instantly upon sitting at your table, and while being advertised at $.50 on the menu, you rarely get charged for additional helpings.
Naan and Papadam by Bernie C.
A traditional Indian finger food that's battered and deep fried, the cauliflower pakoras had the perfect cauli-to-batter ratio. They were lightly breaded and even lightly-er fried, which was a nice surprise compared to the norm of thick, almost fish-and-chips style batter with an overly oily finish. They actually appeared baked and had a light, flavourful taste with no oily residue. They arrived at the table quickly and were deceptively hot in temperature. With the house duo of sweet brown sauce and spicy white yogurt sauce, the pakoras were a hit and the perfect space-saving, stomach prepping pre-meal appetizer.
The main event was a robust butter chicken and delectable spinach daal. While initially ordered as two separate eye popping dished, these mains turned out (like many on the menu) to be perfectly paired. As one might expect, the butter chicken was a mouth watering bulldozer of a rocket propelled grenade to the stomach. You know, in a good way. Classically cream-heavy, Banjara's butter chicken makes your pants fall off. The chicken was succulent, tender, and perfectly diced to bite sized proportions. The only complaint is there wasn't enough of it. It was far more saucy than chicken-y, but the heft of the sauce more than made up for any lack of chicken in terms of satiation.
Butter Chicken. Photo by Banjara.
Spicier than the butter chicken, the spinach daal was a great textural and flavour complement. One big plus too was that it did not have an overly spinachy flavour: something anyone who eats spinach can sympathize with. You got spice, lentils, and salt foremost on the palate, and the spinach came across more as an appearance, texture, and nutritional component than anything. Nearly as filling as the butter chicken, the spinach daal appeared (like the butter chicken) to be a slightly meagre portion upon first glance, but, like its compatriot, did its fair share of damage to the constraints of my stomach.
Sides and Drinks
Two portions of garlic naan bread acted as a rice-replacing complement to the meal. The Banjara version of this staple flatbread certainly puts the vampire back in garlic. There must have been 40 cloves mashed into a paste that covered the entire bread surface. And if it sounds like it was too much, it wasn't. If it sounds like it would choke a small donkey, it would. Bursting with flavour, the naan substituted magnificently for rice and cut the gluten/carb count somewhat (although the butter chicken pretty much kills any effort at calorie counting.)
While I didn't get an alcoholic beverage with the meal, Banjara has a bountiful selection of both red and white wine (including favourites like Yellow Tail and Wolf Blass), in addition to a surprisingly adroit beer list—a big plus for the beer lover, especially as this is something you might not expect from an authentic Indian restaurant. A big fat gold star to Banjara for this one. For non-alcoholic options, there are a raft of juices, teas, coffees, and of course the highly coveted lassie variants (i.e. mango lassie), a traditional yogurt based Indian drink that is a gift to the planet.
Mango Lassi by Itamara C.
The menu offers a variety of delicious dessert options which largely center on milk and cream based treats, which, after cheating on my normally lacto-free diet for the majesty of butter chicken, was too much cow enzyme for one evening. And so I went with a chai tea for dessert, which, while still milky, was an absolutely amazing post dinner libation. Banjara's chai tea comes unsweetened and with the perfect ratio of tea to milk. Just half a packet of sugar added the ideal amount of sweetness, and provided the perfect digestif to help settle the stomach.
A close second to the excellent food at Banjara is the friendly staff. Servers welcome (and usher out) guests with such friendliness it could be thought of as weird. But the good kind of weird. And it's not weird. It's great. Banjara also does a great job of staffing even their slower days and seating times with the right number of staff so you don't have to wait forever to order, or feel you're overburdening the one poor sap most restos will schedule for lunch hour. They also supply each table with its own electronic service bell. Now before you go getting all Downton Abbey about, well, people ringing bells for other people, these little would-be doorbells give a subtle ring out to the kitchen signalling a specific table has a request. I know, still possibly questionable ethically, but it's tough to actually say they aren't great and don't work. Considering Banjara's aforementioned large footprint and the mixture of indoor and outdoor wraparound floor plan, the electro-bells are actually a necessity, especially on a busy night. Bells notwithstanding, there are enough staff in attendance on an average night to fill the Rogers Centre, so it's not like you're going to be ignored, regardless of where you sit. Which again adds to the restaurant's ability (and reputation) to offer quick and friendly service. My server waited until I rang the bell to come take my order, and I had papadams and water on my table within minutes. The mains and naan arrived in under 10 minutes, and I was checked on an ideal number of times throughout the night to be helpful but not overly doting.
Bar. Photo by Banjara.
The post-meal aura was initially a little heavy; an expected comatose state what with the blessed marriage of butter, cream, and bread. But with a little time, pepsinogen and gastric lipase, it felt like a big warm hug. In a word, Banjara is filling. Don't be deceived by the apparently small portions. They pack a punch. And the spice is just right, leaving you with a nice post-meal glow. Especially as the nights start turning cooler, a dinner out at Banjara sort of feels like you just turned on the fireplace and are ready to collapse on the couch with a good book (or another glass of wine.) In summation, you didn't need to read this far to realize I was right when I said in the first paragraph: go there.