India, north of border

Dhaba adds spice to Toronto

Chef P.K. Ahluwalia taking a naan from his tandoor oven. His restaurant uses one tandoor to bake breads, another for meats. Chef P.K. Ahluwalia taking a naan from his tandoor oven. His restaurant uses one tandoor to bake breads, another for meats. (Necee Regis for the boston globe)
By Necee Regis
Globe Correspondent / February 4, 2009

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TORONTO - Strolling along King Street West, it's easy to be distracted by all the restaurants, wine bars, pubs, clubs, and theaters that line this lively street in the heart of Toronto's Entertainment District. If you don't look up, you might miss the bright orange letters that say, "Dhaba." And that would be a shame.

The complete name of this second-floor restaurant is 309 Dhaba Indian Excellence. This longer moniker combines both the address and the essence of this chef-owned establishment. Climbing the stairs to the deep and narrow, stylish space, one leaves behind North American sensibilities and enters a welcoming environment full of the smells and sensuous spices of India. "In India, a dhaba is a roadside joint," says owner and chef P.K. Ahluwalia. "You get the freshest and best food at a dhaba. The farmers live behind the road. They farm and cook."

Open daily for lunch and dinner, the restaurant attracts tourists as well as Torontonians to sample dishes such as New Zealand lamb tikka with masala sauce, chicken vindaloo, and prawns biryani. "I like to cook very simple but the flavors have to be complex, with many layers," says the chef.

His complex flavors come from marinades made every day with a wide range of spices that Ahluwalia imports whole from India and then grinds, including fenugreek, cardamom, cumin, turmeric, coriander, and allspice. "Before the food is cooked, the marinade is important. I make it so you can eat the marinade with bread. It's not a dressing - it's a base of food. Still, you want the lamb to taste like lamb. If the marinade is too strong, the chicken won't taste like chicken," he says.

Ahluwalia, 44, took a circuitous path to this successful restaurant, which he's been operating for eight years. Born in Punjab, Ahluwalia studied economics, psychology, law, and hotel management before moving to England to study food service at Thames Valley University in Berkshire. A corporate job in a hotel restaurant brought him and his family to Toronto, where he also worked a stint driving rigs to and from New York State. In 1998, Ahluwalia opened a small restaurant in a Toronto suburb. Great reviews led him to move to this downtown location.

Punjab, in northern India, is a region known for its moderately spicy and thick curries, its use of dairy products, especially yogurt, and for its many breads. Dhaba offers a wide selection of the latter, including garlic or fenugreek naan, whole wheat roti, tandoori naan, flaky stuffed parathas, and onion or paneer stuffed kulchas, made from flour dough. The roti and naan are made in a traditional clay oven known as a tandoor.

Fueled with wood charcoal, a tandoor absorbs and then throws back heat to cook the food. Dhaba utilizes two ovens imported from India, one with higher temperatures for bread and the other with lower temperatures for meat, poultry, fish, and kebabs that are skewered and cooked without touching the glowing coals.

On a recent visit, the New Zealand rack of lamb had been tenderized with raw papaya, and then marinated with garlic, rosemary, yogurt, mustard, honey, and Spanish paprika before cooking in these special ovens.

"You should be down to earth when cooking," says Ahluwalia. "My mother would say, 'What you are thinking affects the food. Think pure.' You have to be a passionate person to cook good food."

Dhaba is a family-run organization. Ahluwalia's wife, Taruna, 43, grew up in Haryana, next to Punjab. As general manager of operations, she serenely seats guests as her husband darts in and out of the kitchen to chat with patrons and discuss the menu. Dhaba is one of those rare restaurants happy to customize items for specialty diets. "We are known for our flavors, spices, and hospitality," says Ahluwalia. "In India, if you stop and ask someone for directions, they will first take you to their home, feed you, and then take you to where you are going."

If where you are going is Toronto, make sure you get directions to Dhaba.

309 Dhaba Indian Excellence, 309 King St. W., Toronto, ON, 416-740-6622,