As we’ve learned from Anthony Bourdain over the years, some of the best food can be found in out of the way places.
How often have we dreamed of going down some small alley in a strange part of town and discovering a place that is so much better than its divey exterior? Where the food taps into our sense of adventure and the cook is working with amazing flavors and decades of knowledge passed down through the generations?
Oh sure, there was the initial thrill of discovery. A place for Indian take-out not too far from my neighborhood? Great! A market where I can pop in to buy a few things I need at the last minute when I’m cooking an Indian meal at home? Terrific!
The market is small; it’s located on the first floor of an old house on outer Forest Avenue. Ordering is done at the counter. The menu is a bit confusing. Some items, like beef and lamb kebabs, and tandoori chicken, are available every day, while you can only get fish curry on Mondays. Lamb korma, however, is available on Mondays and Saturdays, and chicken korma is available Mondays and Sundays.
The gentleman at the counter then handed me another menu with other things that were available on the day I visited. The menu is still being tweaked, it seems, and being expanded, and so now on, say, Thursdays you can get items that were previously only available on other days of the week – as well as some new dishes, such as goat korma.
It wasn’t a good sign, I suppose, that they misspelled palak paneer.
The pricing at India Bazaar is simple. Most dishes are $7 (or $6.99 as it says on one of the menus). Make it a meal and you add $2. A meal comes with rice, a side salad and raita (only with dry entrees). On the day we visited, we chose the palak paneer – one of my favorites – and the butter chicken. And yes, we splurged and made ’em both a meal. We also got a couple of samosas.
The gentleman who took my order at the cash register- he was the only employee present – went into the kitchen in the back and got busy. While he was cooking, I took a look around the market. The selection is not as good as at Masala Mahal, the Indian grocery in Scarborough (I wish they would do take-out there), but it does seem like a good place to drop in for basics – rice, flours, bulk spices, dals and teas. There’s a limited variety of fresh produce – lots of onion, garlic and ginger – and a good selection of things like chiles and dates. Frozen meats include ground beef, lamb and chicken. For fish, there’s tilapia, magur and pomfret.
As I looked around the market, I heard a microwave go off in the back. Bad sign. I half expected Gordon Ramsay to come running around the corner, shouting insults at the cook. The minutes ticked by, and I was sorely tempted to peek in the back to see how things were going. But something held me back. I didn’t want to look for fear of what I might see. Another bad sign?
Eventually everything came out packaged in styrofoam and neatly packed into plastic bags.
Let’s just cut to the chase: The food was, shall we say, underwhelming. I’d be willing to bet the samosas came out of a package and were the reason for the microwave. The palak paneer, to me, looked and tasted like packaged paneer that had been tossed into thawed-out frozen spinach. As for the butter chicken, it was tender and spiced well, but was, well, just OK. What does it say when the rice was the best part of the meal? It was cooked perfectly.
The salads, by the way, were iceberg lettuce with some pieces of pepper, tomatoes and pickles thrown on top.
The raita was watery. Or was that supposed to be salad dressing?
The bottom line: This place would be fine for neighborhood folks who want Indian food at the last minute and don’t want to drive to a restaurant. On the other hand, there’s a Hannaford just down the street.