When you think "eastern" food on Roncesvalles, you'd be forgiven if your culinary map included a vast white space just past the Balkans with "here there be tygers" scrawled in some archaic maritime font. But if your tastes run more towards pakoras than perogies, your appetite will feel right at home at Shala-Mar.
Upon entering the subdued-yet-stylishly decorated dining room, you're greeted with muted browns and rich dark woods, latticed lamp covers, smartly draped ceilings, and the charmingly avuncular owner/chef Khalid Bukhari, who you're as likely as not to find these days working the front of the house.
A 25 year veteran of the Toronto culinary scene , Bukhari reportedly counts the Rolling Stones among the multitude of ardent fans of his current kitchen's take on sub-continental fare, what he terms "ethno-healthy cuisine".
Though not traditionally considered a 'healthy' choice, it would be easy to mistake the fantastic house take on pakoras ($4.95-$5.95) for just that. Piping hot and without a hint of the oil they were fried in, prepare to devour without even a flicker of guilt these lovely, mildly spiced vegetable and garam flour batter fritters bursting with large, flavourful chunks of onion, potato, carrot and pea subtly perfumed with cumin and coriander; although you could easily do without the overly sweet tamarind sauce which tends to overwhelm these apps.
For those of a more carnivorous bent the kabab's complex, spicy fragrant heat along with the addition of a spoonful of the wonderful tangy onion chutney goes a long way to redeeming the slight dryness--no doubt owing to its leanness-- of this minced beef appetizer ($5.95).
Tasty though ultimately forgettable, the pedestrian chana salad ($3.95) combines fresh chick peas, cucumber, tomato and lettuce in a light vinaigrette in what many might consider (minus the pita, natch) little more than a 'deconstructed' falafel.
Several standard, though pricey, a la carte curries make up the bulk of the menu. The wholesome house version of butter chicken ($12.95) finds roasted chunks of perfectly done fowl bathed in a light piquant pulpy tomato and onion gravy redolent with cumin and cardamom but suffers from a lack of flavour depth, or possibly just the actual butter, of more substantial versions of the dish found elsewhere.
And while the toned down heat of the lamb vindaloo ($11.95) disappoints on the scoville scale , it nevertheless delights with succulent, on the bone pieces of lamb submerged in a delicious masala fugue wonderfully sopped up with classic takes on chapaty and naan (both $2 each). Equally complex and arguably a high point, the palak paneer ($10.95) mixes tofu-esque cheese cubes in a spinach puree that should be utterly bland but rather provides a wonderful textural canvas for a wide range of spices and herbs to express themselves.
Having transformed itself from Polish to posh through the magic of gentrification, Roncy's host of family-style restaurants with Zywiec on tap now find themselves displaced by the increasing encroachment of wine bars and more upscale cuchinas on their territory. With new money comes new yearnings and for those looking for something a little lighther and slightly more exotic than your average Krakow carb orgy and find themselves unwilling to park the beemer SUV anywhere near Gerrard and Coxwell, Shala-Mar may just be the perfect neighbourhood place for you.
image courtesy of website
Shala-Mar Restaurant - 391 Roncesvalles Avenue (at Howard Park) - 416.588.9877