Pukka opened last year along the relative foodie-free St. Clair West area. Until then, I’ve always associated the word Pukka with something that happens after a few too many pints or the name of a popular pie advertised at football matches across England. It’s real definition is “genuine”. Pukka touts itself as being the “best modern Indian restaurant in Toronto”. To date, most Indian restaurants in Toronto have been either small, family run hole-in-the-wall cubbies, extravagantly decorated upscale chains such as the Host or all you can eat buffets which dull down flavours to appease the boring palates of Caucasians who just looovvvveee Indian food. Pukka takes a page from Vancouver’s Vikram Vij, an international celebrity chef who gained fame by introducing Indian flavours into mainstream dishes in a stunning environment with excellent service.
Unlike Vij’s, Pukka takes reservations, so that’s a great start. I booked a table to have dinner with some colleagues. The decor mimics numerous other Toronto dinner hot spots. It’s cozy and noisy with a huge bar and colourful art all over the walls. The staff were courteous, dapper and as I would find out later, very knowledgeable.
First off was the drink order. Choices include wine, martinis, a small beer selection and traditional cocktails such as mojitos and old fashioneds. I was intrigued by the Chai town ($8.40), a clever mix of bourbon, chai tea, pomegranate liqueur and bitters. It tasted a bit like a Negroni’s younger brother. It had a pleasant sweetness coupled with the subtle tickling of chai on the tongue.
The menu is divided into snacks, eats and sides as well as bread and rice. We got the normal banter of how many dishes four grown men should order to ensure they leave happy. From the list of snacks, we ordered vegetable string chaat, tandoori chicken tikka and gunpowder prawns.
The chaat was one of my favorite dishes and certainly was the lightest. I’d best call it a bowl of Rice Krispies gone Bollywood. Visually stunning, the flares of colour and flavour provided a different snap, crackle and pop to this vibrant dish.
The chicken tikki was another visually stunning dish. More importantly, it maintained the moisture commonly lost when smaller pieces of chicken are overcooked. The seasoning was subtle and authentic and the saffron butter sauce added brilliance to the dish.
The gunpowder shrimp with moong bean salad was twice the price of the other snacks. Four hearty shrimp were presented atop of an earthy bed of beans. They were well seasoned although maybe a tad overcooked.
For “eats”, we ordered the boatman’s fish and prawn curry, the madras pepper steak and beef short ribs. As one of the most expensive dishes on the menu ($25.80), I was hoping for a little more content. Only a few prawns and a couple of chucks of fish swam in the thin but flavourful broth. One of the sides was Bhindi bhaji; tender okra which simply seasoned with onion, ginger and garlic. It was a fresh addition to the heavily sauced entrees which surrounded it.
The pepper steak ($19.70) was a flat iron cut served in a fragrant sauce with pepper, onion and coconut. Although it didn’t swell with Indian flavours, technically it beat others I’ve had from the likes of Ruby Watchco and Bestellen. The meat was tender and cooked beautifully, needing little more than weak pressure of a butter knife to get through. The side of green beans were jazzed up nicely with onions, tumeric and coconut. They kind of reminded me of a healthy version of pakoras.
The highlight of the night was the beef short rib ($22.40). The cook on the meat was perfect….no grit, no string, no chewiness. The sauce was an aggressive blend of traditional Indian flavours which enhanced the star of the plate instead of drowning it.
Naan ($2.70) and basmatic rice ($4.60) were offered as sides. I swear Mason jars make everything just a little more expensive.
From the small dessert menu, I went for the sweet plate ($9.80) as I was intrigued by the marshmallows rolled in garam masala sugar. The plate also came with a torte dipped in ginger and topped with whipped cream and tandoori pineapple. The third was naan khatai, a traditional Indian sugar cookie. The marshmallows were a tease and I easily would have traded the rest of the plate for four more.
My colleague ordered the toasted coconut panna cotta topped with lemon and tandoori pineapple. I had a morsel which was quite brilliant. It was a tad unorthodox, lacking the extreme sweetness of traditional Indian desserts.
Pukka could be the best modern Indian restaurant in Toronto. It fuses traditional but subtle Indian flavours with a decor and vibe indicative of Toronto’s trendy dining scene although it’s in a bit of an odd location. The dishes avoid the salty/fatty flavours that have become the seasoning of choice for many other nightspots and replace them with vibrant flavours including a whole lotta coconut.
The staff were friendly and knowledgeable, replicating a passion that mimicked the flavours that radiated from the plate. The chaat was brilliant. The meat dishes were executed to near perfection although the seafood was steeply priced and a little less impressive. The panna cotta and marshmallows were delicious.
If you’re looking for your taste buds to get slapped around by a dabba for a great price, one of the many mum and dad shops may serve your purpose. If you’re looking to overindulge on limitless portions of curries, there’s many a buffet for that. If, however, you want more subtle Indian flavours fused with trendy dishes at lofty prices in the context of a modern automat, Pukka is your place.