Oh well, Relish J., aren’t you just so fancy? Brunching at Origin, corporate lunching at hip Korean spots. You’ll just a regular swanky fella. Not so, dear reader. Haighton is un homme du peuple. A regular plebeian. Your average Joseph. He puts his J Brand jeans on one leg at a time, just like you do.
I love a dive. I really do. Some of the best food comes out of the sketchiest, back alley joints in town. I freely admit this. Just don’t compare me to that meatball-scarfing, frosted tipped, bowling-shirt wearing, dipping-chicken-in-pretzel-dust-and-calling-it-food Guy Fieri. The day I say “I’m on the bus to Flavourtown” is the day you have permission to run me over with your red Camaro until I resemble the chili cheese fries at his restaurant.
In that spirit, I write to you this week about one of my recent favourite dive discoveries, and inaugurate my new series: Let me risk salmonella poisoning, so you don’t have to.
My walk home every evening from Dupont station is strangely aromatic. The air is always filled with the pungent smell of Indian food, and not even the AXE body spray emanating from the passing George Brown undergrads can eradicate it. But where did it come from? North of Dupont are train tracks, a parking lot, a small design store, and a Tim Hortons. Unless TimHos had decided to really diversify its menu, I suspected that wasn’t it. When one day, Isabella Broccolini brought that smell into our house, my questions were answered. She was feasting upon this wonderful smelling, but strange looking food. It smelled like Indian, but it was a cube of bread-like material. There were no samosas, no curries, no naan to be seen. “I say,” I questioned, “I say, what is that deliciously smelling cube of food you’re eating?” “What, are you serious? It’s a roti, dumbass.”
Laugh if you will, but I’d really never seen or eaten a roti before. I’d heard of them in a Caribbean context, but, let’s remember folks, I’m a white kid from the country. I come from a town where people think the Eye-talian restaurant is exotic cuisine. I may be a man of the world in many respects, but the odd thing will slip past me once in a while. Once I tasted it, I knew, I knew, this would be something I’d eat a lot of. And it turns out, she’d bought it around the corner.
Steps away from Dupont station is Roti Cuisine of India. You can be forgiven for not noticing it, though its aroma must be detected for blocks. Once you exit the station, and walk past the money-laundering dry cleaner-front operation, the scary alley smelling of urine, the Shoppers Drug Mart where I buy my cheap Ben and Jerry’s to accompany an evening of watching House Hunters and crying alone, there it is, on one side of a plain looking duplex, a few large concrete steps up from the street. The door opens inwards, which I always notice for some reason, and there’s a sign on the door warning you that you about something, maybe that have to wear clothes when you eat there, I can’t remember. Through another door and there you are, inside the fluorescent-lit, tiled restaurant.
Now, I have come in here on several occasions, and there are always one or two of the maybe seven tables in the place occupied. But this is not a place to eat in. Never. Just don’t do it. For one thing, it’s really very sad. Drab and saddy sad sad. The dining room, and I use that term in the broadest way possible, is reminiscent of food courts in run down malls we’d hang out in during high school, without the acne-speckled teens cutting class and fat old people in red scooters. Formica tables, plastic cups and paper napkins. There will be some young hipsters eating there, the uncool kind, with shabbier sweaters and lamer tattoos. A student eating alone with his history textbook skimming chapters on Robespierre and the Reign of Terror. Maybe an elderly couple by the windows, eating silently. There is no ambiance to speak of, no décor of note. A plant might live atop the cooler stocked with Indian beer, and there might be a laminated poster of some Indian country scene, the kind the girl in the falafel shop fell in love to in a Vampire Weekend song. But this is not a place to soak up the atmosphere. This is a place to line up, pick up your food, smile kindly at the twenty-something Indian man in a black polo accepting your debit card (because it’s so ghetto, they don’t take credit) and book it back to your house.
Which means you’ve called ahead. At this point, the number is saved in my phone. I call, and a kindly man mutters something which I imagine to be a greeting, and I inform him, “one butter chicken roti please, for pick-up.” He then asks, “how spicy, sir?” and you respond in kind, “spicy, please,” and none of that ‘white people spicy’ either, son. “Thank you sir, fifteen to twenty minutes, sir.” They have never taken my name, my number or quoted me a price. They trust you’ll come get your food, and that you’ll be able to afford it. And because it’s after work and you’re standing at the corner of King and University about to step onto the subway, that’s exactly enough time for you to ride the subway north, walk the few steps from the station and pick up your delicious prize.
They have a menu, this is true. I may have looked at it once before on their one-step-above Geocities website, with orange graphics, inoffensive guitar music and fat Buddha pictures. It is pretty extensive, and they offer a few biryanis, pakoras and desserts to round things out. But there’s no point- you’re here for the roti. There are many to choose from, and the majority are, somewhat surprisingly, vegetarian. All your usual Indian food choices are represented. Aloo gobi, saag paneer, lamb Vindaloo, chicken Tikka Masala… all in roti form. I have frequently frequently opted for the butter chicken roti, but for your benefit, oh readers of mine, I deviated last week and picked up a korma for variety. You choose your roti, choose your spice, and that’s that.
A roti is in fact the bread that the dish is wrapped in! The bread is a thin, unleavened one, in contrast to its yeast-levened fat cousin Naan. (Don’t lie, everyone has a fat cousin Naan. I was fat cousin Naan from approximately 1995-2006. Back then we called it ‘husky’) With an influx of immigration from India to the Caribbean, this bread was adopted into local cuisine, and it became popular in street food to stuff it with chicken, goat or shrimp. Now, it has been reclaimed back into North American Indian cuisine, and is stuffed with all your favourite Indian foods. THE MORE YOU KNOW.
So, you’ve arrived back at your home, shed the suit that keeps your prisoner all day, put on your sweatpants and plonked yourself down for a Homeland marathon. Time to dig into your dish. It comes in an aluminum container, which I usually eat out of because I’m lazy, but I’m sure it would be healthier and more pleasant for you to move the roti to a plate. They all look the same, a brown bubbly thin bread wrapped dish, steaming and ready for you to eat. You cut open the corner, and the delicious contents ooze forth- big pieces of chicken, a rich buttery sauce, hearty potato, some vegetables, if you’re feeling healthy. You eat, and all the wonderful things in the world are consumed at once. And all is well in the universe.
I swear, it’s the simplest thing in the world, and I have no idea why it’s so delicious. But it is, and I suspect it is particularly delicious at this particular restaurant. The sauce is extremely rich and flavourful. The korma tasting of cashew, the madras of sweet coconut and spice, the butter chicken tasting of… butter, what else? When you ask for it to be spicy, it is really quite spicy. This white boy can handle his share of spice, but eating this spicy roti makes my scalp sweat. Now there’s a pleasant image. But will I ever get it medium, or even mild? Probably not. The spiciness is an essential part of the dish- it enhances the flavour rather than masks it. Isabella unashamedly gets hers “extra mild.” There’s a touch of blasphemy to me about eating Indian food with no heat, but if you, like her, have been raised on a diet of cabbage and pork and cabbage, then feel free to order it however you desire. If the men in the kitchen snigger, let them snigger.
It’s a hearty dish, this roti, and a normal individual might eat half and keep the rest for tomorrow’s lunch. I’m unable to control my impulse to devour the entire thing, so I’ve never gotten that far before. I’m told by those with more self-control that it’s good the next day, if not better if that’s possible.
What’s better than all of this is the price. I dare you to spend over $20 here. One roti is enough for two servings for two normal people, one serving for pig men like me. It would be absurd to add appetizers or anything else to that. Even with a lassi thrown in alongside the most decadent of rotis (the Shahi Shrimp for $12.99), you’re still not even close. The average roti will cost you $10. Now how often can you find something delicious and filling for $10? About as often as Kim Kardashian reads.
So, what’s the verdict?
Roti Cuisine of India is found GUILTY of clogging up their menu with roti alternatives that really, does anyone ever order?
They are also GUILTY of making a flavourful, accessible and delicious dish, with a variety broad enough for everyone to find something to enjoy.
Roti Cuisine is NOT GUILTY of being expensive. When was the last time you ate for $10 and were satisfied that you got a meal worth $10?
We also find them NOT GUILTY of having anything in the way of pleasant atmosphere or décor. Unless you’re into that whole depressing school cafeteria vibe.
All considered, I declare this meal a 7.0/10. I’m pleased to have written this- I was going to buy groceries for the week, but now I think I’ve made my dinner plans for the next three nights.
Roti Cuisine of India is located at 308 Dupont Street in The Annex. Dinner and lunch are served seven days a week. A dose of local Annex thrifty hipsters comes free with every meal. Reservations? Are you kidding me? I don’t even know if this place has a bathroom or not.
Editor’s Note- the author may or may not be eating a lamb madras roti at the moment. There’s a coconut milk stain on his laptop. At least, I think it’s coconut milk…