First Look: Hemant Bhagwani opens Indian Street Food Company


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Indian Street Food Company is Hemant Bhagwani's latest project, taking over his former Amaya address.

Image: Suresh Doss

Hemant Bhagwani, owner of the Amaya group of restaurants, is opening the doors to his latest project today. Indian Street Food Company is Bhagwani's love song to the street food commonly found in railway stations across the South Asian country. 

 
Hemant Bhagwani's Indian Street Food Company opens in the former Amaya space on Bayview Avenue.

Bhagwani has been developing the concept for a while following the closure of Amaya and a number of his Amaya Express locations. Throughout our conversations, it's apparent that ISFC is a reboot for the chef and owner who has played a vital role in redefining Indian food in Toronto. "I've been eating through India a lot recently, and I've been inspired by the vast variety of street food available at railway stations. I wanted to do something with street food but with my own take," Bhagwani said during a recent conversation.

 
A large cart sits in the middle of the dining room at ISFC, with a spread of vegetables.

 

He held on to the original Amaya location on Bayview after it closed earlier this summer. The address is dear to Bhagwani. He opened Amaya in 2007 after leaving Kamasutra Indian Restaurant (down the street on Bayview) and shifted his focus to modern Indian cuisine. With ISFC he's hoping to make another shift, this time into casual Indian food where guests are encouraged to share plates of snacks and platters and eat with their hands. 

 
Bhagwani designed the space himself, creating a casual atmosphere.
 

Bhagwani wanted a specific look and feel for the restaurant. The space is entirely different than to Amaya: it's a brighter, open concept, and dressed to the ceiling with a variety of Indian ornaments, serving ware (copper tumblers, carafes) and dozens of photos depicting Indian life from Bollywood to food vendors and iconic monuments like the gateway of India. Silk cloths dress each table and a large cart sits in the middle of the dining room, filled with a variety of vegetables. "The cart was made especially for the restaurant, we also have one in Sindhi. This is a spread of the kind of vegetables we use in our cooking." Bhagwani said.

There are a few more changes Bhagwani wants to make to bring the look together. A gold-plated door is currently being constructed for the entrance and should be installed in a few days.

 
Pappadum platter to share with chutneys and pickles ($5). 

 

Bhagwani oversees the menu and cooking at ISFC but he will be getting help from a number of chefs: Kamleshwar Prasad (curry station), Sudhan Natarajan (south Indian), Devender Singh (tandoor), and Sheikh Anwarruddin (dessert station). 

The menu is divided into a number of sections. A shared "for the table and chaat" list that starts off with a papadum platter. something commonly ordered by families during dinner. At ISFC, house-made chutneys (date, mango, mango and mint) accompany three different types of pappadum: plain, sprinkled with chili powder, and deep fried. There's also a kachumber salad (chopped cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, and chilis). The drink of choice is a sweet mango lassi.

 
Almond crusted aloo tikki ($9)

 

There's a kicked up version of aloo tikki (a deep-fried fritter of potatoes, onions and spices). ISFC serves an almond crusted version stuffed with minced chicken and potatoes on a bed of curried chickepea, deep fried vermicelli, and buttermilk yoghurt. A dollop of tamarind chutney sits on the fritter. 

 
Mushroom and Bhindi Upma ($9)

 

Upma, is a very common South Indian and Sri Lankan breakfast dish. Richly aromatic, it's cooked coarse rice flour or rava that is often seasoned with onions, chilies, cumin, and mustard seeds. Sometimes carrots and peas are added to the mixture. It's served in a banana leaf on its own, or alongside a mint chutney. There's also a sweet version sprinkled with sugar and a little coconut milk that was common in our household growing up. Prasad prepares his version with buttermilk to soften the upma to the point where it looks and tastes like grits. Its served on a banana leaf and topped with deep fried mushrooms, okra and chilies. 

 
Pav Bhaji is ISFC's take on fondue, stewed vegetable curry served with chunks of buttered paan bread.

 

The buttered paan bread also appears in a number of other dishes on the curry menu. Mustard chicken plate ($12) - chicken chunks cooked with potatoes coriander in a yoghurt curry. There's a snapper curry dish ($15) with whole fish drowned in a buttery tomato Masala curry. For both curry dishes I found the Baigan fries (eggplant fries with a mustard yoghurt dip, $8) and the Arvi Tuk (deep fried taro with mixed spices and watermelon radish, $8) to be great accompaniments.

 
Arvi Tuk ($8) - fried chunks of colacassia (taro) served with a chili Indian yoghurt, tamarind chutney. 

 

ISFC's drinks menu features a mix of cocktails named after the legendary kings of India. The Murabba Mule (homemade ginger beer with vodka and mango, $12) and the Tipu (curry date syrup with green apple and vodka, $11) were memorable. 

 
Baigan fries ($8) - eggplant fries served with a mustard yoghurt dip.

 

Bhagwani is also re-working his tipping policy. There is a "no tip policy" at ISFC that will be enforced. "ISFC will pay its employees a fair wage and they share profits, so no tipping, please," he insists.

Food critic Ryan Sutton wrote a piece for Eater about restaurateur Danny Meyer radically eliminating tipping at all 13 of his full-service establishments. An explosion of comments for and against the idea spread through Toronto's hospitality industry. I haven't seen anyone follow Meyer's footsteps in Toronto just yet but chefs and owners are strongly discussing the quality of life in their restaurants. 

Bhagwani says he's never heard of Meyer and adds: "In my past many years of being an employee around the world or being an employer for last 15 years and as a diner I have noticed it is hard to find and keep the best talents, especially in Indian restaurants. I want to change that by making ISFC the best place to work and share the benefits with my employees. I am hoping to retain the best talents in the kitchen and outside on the floor. A 12% administrative fee is added to every bill regardless of the bill size, to offset our costs. It is not a tip and none of it is distributed to the specific employees who serve you. The restaurant will add 10% of profits to it and will distribute evenly between kitchen staff — cooks to dishwasher to servers in their salary — instead of paying minimum wage (as most restaurants do) we will pay a higher wage."

 
Chilled seafood bhel ($9) -- Indian ceviche with green mango-date chutney, chopped red onions, and lemon. 

 

Indian Street Food Company is officially open for dinner seven days a week (5 p.m. to 10 p.m), with lunch and brunch Fri-Sun (11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.)

Indian Street Food Company, 1701 Bayview Ave., 416-322-3270

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Suresh Doss is resident food and drink writer and associate web editor at Post City Magazines. In addition to covering the culinary scene, Suresh regularly hosts food events across the GTHA. You can follow him on Twitter (@spotlightcity) or Instagram (@suresh) or email him at sureshdoss@postcity.com.

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