It's no secret that some of the best restaurant food can be found in small, family- run diners and obscure holes-in-the-wall. But often, the only way to discover these out - of-the-way restaurants is by word of mouth. I have a few readers to thank for recommending that I visit Classic Indian Restaurant in Waterloo.
Owner Thiru Maran left India in the early '80s to earn his chef papers in Switzer- land. After spending 15 years cooking in several Middle Eastern countries, he and his wife Bhilaka emigrated to the U.S., where Maran worked for a chain of tandoori restaurants. In November 2000, they moved to Canada and invested their life savings in a modest 38-seat restaurant that opened in April, 2001.
The former fast-food joint still has the built-in Arborite pedestal tables, a la Burger King, along with a few Indian-influenced wall hangings. Beyond that, there's not much in the way of ambiance in this strip- mall restaurant. But it's the fresh, home- made food that has earned Maran a loyal following.
The menu offers a few departures from the standard East Indian curried dishes. Maran combines the secrets of South Asian cooking with influences from Singapore and Portugal, and he can tell you precisely where each dish originated.
Everything is made from scratch, from the unleavened breads to the spicy chutneys. Even the yogurt is cultured by hand. I enjoyed my mango lassi, a slightly tart concoction of mango puree and smooth yogurt that resembled a thick fruit shake.
Appetizers include vegetable wontons, chicken spring rolls and crunchy lentil dumplings called masala vada (each $3.95). There's also the traditional mulligatawny soup ($2.95), which means "pepper water," made with spiced lentils and pureed vegetables. Tom yum khoong is a hot and sour soup from Thailand, combining shrimps with veggies and lemon grass ($3.95). Or there's rasam, a consomme of tamarind and tomato with fresh ground spices ($2.95).
We ordered the classic appetizer platter ($9.95), which came with two samosas, three onion bhajias and a selection of chutneys for extra spark. The samosas were quite small with a thick pastry covering soft centres of cilantro-infused mashed potatoes and peas. The bhajias are deep-fried onion fritters cooked in a chickpea batter. They were as light as air and not greasy at all.
Main dishes include several options for the heat -seeking vegetarian. There's chenna masala, which is chickpeas cooked in spiced onion gravy ($5.95); mutter paneer, a mixture of cottage cheese and green peas in mild curry sauce ($6.95), and cauliflower manchoorian made with an Indo-Chinese garlic and cilantro sauce ($6.95).
For the carnivores, entrees include chicken madras in curry with red chili and mustard seeds ($8.95), Malabar shrimp curry with coconut ($9.95), and mild khorma with chicken, beef or shrimps ($9.95).
My guests chose from the list of rush- hour lunch specials, available Monday through Wednesday; The first was tikka masala, a rich, creamy blend of grilled chicken cubes simmered in a tomato-based sauce and served with fragrant basmati rice ($6.95).
The second special was a smaller serving of chicken masala with an even smaller dish of aloo baingan, a melange of potatoes and eggplant in curry sauce along with three mini samosas ($8.95). According to the menu, the lunches come with soup, but it never materialized.
When we arrived, I wondered why there were boxes of tissues placed on the tables. But after a few bites of my beef vindaloo, I knew when I was warned that this is the hottest dish on the menu. I sat there, sniffling and mopping my brow, enjoying every mouthful of the succulent beef strips in fiery tangy sauce ($9.95). It was extreme but delicious.
We shared an awe-inspiring bread creation from southern India called masala dosa ($6.95). This crispy rice and lentil crepe is shaped like a cornucopia with a dollop of spiced potatoes and green peas inside. We ripped off small bites of the super-thin cracker and dipped them in sambar (lentil stew) and green chutney
For dessert, it was pistachio kulfi, a dense serving of frozen sweet milk topped with candied pistachios, tiny butterscotch chips and caramel sauce. It was too sweet for me, but interesting nonetheless.
Lunch buffets are served on Thursday and Fridays ($7.95), and dinner buffets can be requested for groups of 15 or more. Liquor license pending.