First Look: Hemant Bhagwani expands to the Junction with Leela


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A sample of the tasting menu's dishes

Image: Yvonne Tsui

Hemant Bhagwani, one of Toronto’s leading restaurateurs and the man who has taken Indian cuisine in several directions, has opened his newest project, Leela Indian Food Bar, in the Junction. On January 25, it took over the former Avec Panache spot. 

The restaurant’s moniker is a nod to Ramlila ("Rama’s play”) – an epic performance depicting the life of Rama, an incarnation of the god Vishnu. Most stagings of the play lasts upwards of 10 days and Bhagwani wanted to connect the imagery of rich colours, sets and history with the vibrant flavours of Indian cuisine.


Garlic shrimp desi tacos (IMAGE: YVONNE TSUI)

 

“Indian food has become too boring,” says Bhagwani, before stating that the cuisine is either traditional or going modern. He hopes to play with recipes that are rooted in tradition and refine the flavours. For instance, with his HB’s Butter Chicken ($12.95), which is smoked over charcoal and in place of the common canned tomatoes that most restaurants use in their recipes, Bhagwani uses extremely ripe tomatoes to give it the intensity of flavour. (Think ripe bananas in banana bread.) 

The idea of smoking his butter chicken comes from dhabas (truck stop restaurants that are often attached to gas stations in India) where the food is straightforward and sticks to local specailties.  The structures are pretty basic with tandoor ovens built into the ground. Bhagwani’s butter chicken recipe at Leela draws from the unintentional smoke infusion that permeates over to the butter chicken because of its proximity to the underground ovens where naan is baked. 


Charcoal-smoked butter chicken (IMAGE: YVONNE TSUI)

 

For the kitchen at Leela by Amaya, Bhagwani has enlisted chef Sudhan Natarajan who was formerly at Bhagwani’s Middle Eastern-Indian eatery, the Fat Beet. 

The restaurant’s décor is composed of banquettes and wooden tables along with a display of pantry items used at the restaurant. The mural which serves as the focal point of the restaurant is an artistic depiction of Rama. 

You’ll also find menu items that pay homage to cuisines that have been influenced by India. The Kadhai “Kali Mirch” Chicken ($9.95) for example is Chinese wok-fried with black pepper, tossed with onions and banana peppers.

Naan Canai ($4.75) is a play off the dish Roti Canai which is an Indian-influenced flatbread found in Malaysia and served with curry.


Paneer lasagna (IMAGE: YVONNE TSUI)

 

Drawing inspiration from a trip he took to Miami, where he dined at a plant-based restaurant with lasagna that used zucchini instead of pasta, his “Indianized” version, the Paneer Lasagne ($10.95) sees thin slices of paneer as the lasagna sheets and minced eggplant as the filling. It’s a dish he’s particularly proud of.

While most of us may not have the patience to sit through a 10-12 day play about a religious deity, for $35 a person (minimum two diners, $39 for the 15-dish menu), you can experience a tasting menu of 12 or 15 dishes served with rice and naan that will leave you feeling divine.

Leela Indian Food Bar, 3108 Dundas St. W., Monday to Thursday from 5 - 10 p.m. and Friday to Sunday from 12 -3 p.m. for lunch and 5 - 10 p.m. for dinner. 

 


Chef Sudhan Natarahan (IMAGE: YVONNE TSUI)

 


Smoked teekha chicken naan (IMAGE: YVONNE TSUI)

 


(IMAGE: YVONNE TSUI)

 


(IMAGE: YVONNE TSUI)

 


(IMAGE: YVONNE TSUI)

 


(IMAGE: YVONNE TSUI)

 

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Yvonne is a freelance food and drink writer and the Director of Brand Experience at U-Feast, which curates unique, off-menu dining experiences.  Always in search of delicious. Decor and service be damned, food is king. Follow her @life_of_y and @u_feast.  Warning: don't look at her "feed" if you're hungry.

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