Twenty years ago, anyone with a hankering for the city’s best curries would head over to Little India, that pocket of South Asian restaurants and shops lining Gerrard Street from Greenwood to Coxwell Avenue. After getting your fill from any of the area’s outstanding buffets, you might casually browse the exotic wares, fingering silk saris and maybe picking up some fragrant spices. But that was about it, really.
Things have certainly changed.
The last few years have seen a significant shift in the area, as the Indo-Canadian communities began to carve out their own niches in places like Brampton, Mississauga, Scarborough and Markham. This left a bit of a vacuum in Little India — one that’s now being filled with a greater mix of services and stores reflective of the increasingly diverse neighbourhood.
There are still plenty of bargain silk and sari shops around. Places like 6 Kumars Silk House (1400 Gerrard St E) and Maharani Fashions (1417 Gerrard St E) still have retro ’80s signs and basic interiors, while the bright blue and fuchsia facade of Chandan Fashion (1439 Gerrard St E) positively screams hip and trendy. If you’re looking for a stunning cobalt-blue sari or an embroidered Sherwani coat with Nehru collar, then any of these places offer a fabulous selection at quite reasonable prices.
There are also a slew of authentic Indian restaurants, ranging from the casual fast-food atmosphere of Bombay Chowpatty (1386 Gerrard St E) to the sleek new Gautama (see sidebar review). If you’re a vegetarian, then you will thank me for recommending Udupi Palace (1460 Gerrard St E).
But even after you’ve picked up your new silken duds and gorged yourself on biryani, there’s still plenty to take in. Perhaps the most unexpected of these is the Zero Gravity Circus (1300 Gerrard St E), a production house and entertainment agency of the big-red-nose variety. Their Circus Academy is situated next door and features classes for adults and kids ranging from basic clown and juggling to high-flying aerial acts and even tai chi and jujitsu.
But if trapeze work seems a bit ambitious after your huge meal, there’s the GAS (for Gerrard Art Space) gallery (1390 Gerrard St E) just a few short steps up the street. This membership-based collective also offers classes, hosts special events and features work from both visual and performance artists.
Like most shopping hubs, Little India has begun to succumb to the coffee house phenomenon. But in a refreshing change of pace, it’s the independent java joints that seem to be pulling in the most customers. Lazy Daisy’s Café (1515 Gerrard St E) is lots of fun, with its cow motif and nicely designed interiors. Chalkboards are filled with options that put Starbucks to shame, and the tasty lunch menu is both reasonable and varied. They even offer classes for budding kiddie pop stars out back.
But my favourite stop has to be the Flying Pony (1481 Gerrard St E), a brand new café and gallery with a genuine neighbourhood feel. I love the huge wooden harvest table, smack dab in the middle of the shop, replete with free books and magazines for people waiting to start up a conversation with a pleasant stranger. Big comfy chairs, eclectic décor and the sunny gal behind the counter make this an attitude-free place with fantastic locally roasted coffee. Oh, and the aged cheddar scones, baked in-house like all the other pastries, are to die for.
The owner is an artist named Andrew Horne, a 10-year neighbourhood resident who only recently decided to get into food service. “It’s to subsidize the art, really,” he says, laughing and gesturing to the colourful canvasses that line Flying Pony’s walls. Horne is an artist by trade, creating vibrant paintings of storefronts, roller coaster rails and other everyday objects. He’s also quite the carpenter, having built the harvest table and gorgeous curved wood counter himself. “A lot of it is salvaged wood and materials from the building,” he says. “The building was derelict for more than 12 years, and we had seven months of renovation.”
Erin Salisbury owns The Swag Sisters (1511 Gerrard St E), just a few doors down, and was thrilled to see another coffee place on the block. “We have been trying to encourage people to take a chance on Gerrard Street East,” she says. “It’s definitely worth a look.” Swag Sisters is coming up on its second anniversary and is jam-packed with kids’ toys, costumes, party supplies and the delightful goody bags upon which they’ve built their business. Salisbury also lives in the area and hopes the rest of the city gets on board with Gerrard East’s renaissance. “We feel like it can be yet another great pocket in the city with some good shopping and things to do. You can do some shopping, grab a coffee or a meal, and take a yoga class. It’s getting better and better.”
SVA Yoga Studio (1477 Gerrard St E) is another of the street’s newcomers, and, somewhat surprisingly, the only place you can get your downward dog on in the immediate area. Owner and teacher Meera (just one name, like Cher, but in Birkenstocks) hails from Sarnia, has 14 years’ experience and says her studio offers enthusiasts something a little different. “We teach Sattva yoga,” she says. “It’s a combination of every branch of yoga in one class. It’s Kundalini, Hatha and Asana, all in one session.” SVA also offers classes in each individual yoga discipline.
Those familiar with my previous neighbourhood profiles know that I love me some jumble stores. There’s just nothing better than foraging around in a packed-to-the-rafters shop, seeking that one unexpected treasure that makes the dusty effort worthwhile. Matter of Time Antiques (229 Jones Ave) offers a solid hour of browsing. There’s a wall of vintage cameras and radios (that still work!), Tiffany lampshades, stained-glass panels and aged furniture that bears the patina of something well made and dutifully used. I can only hope that someone hasn’t already bought the tomato-shaped coffee creamer set that I foolishly passed on the first time around.
Finding a good Indian restaurant in Little India isn’t a terribly exact science. Just close your eyes, spin around a few times, and try whichever one your eyes happen upon first. With occasional exceptions, they’re all pretty amazing compared to, say, the Eaton Centre food court. Gautama is one of the newest eateries to open on Gerrard East and manages to hold its own against more established neighbours — quite a feat when the excellent fine-dining of Siddhartha is just up the street.
But for buffet-goers, Gautama offers a solid selection of curries and some of the best tandoori chicken in the city. There are all the Indian buffet staples here, executed to varying degrees of success.
My favourites are the vegetarian options, beautifully spiced and decidedly non-oily. The vegetable curry is different from any I’ve had: small dumplings in a delicious sauce that has a nice little kick. There’s also a fantastic potato and eggplant curry that reminds me of diner-style home fries, with succulent chunks clothed in a sticky curry coating and fried to perfection. I also love the pakoras, with their crisp deep-fried coating and light fluffy insides. You might want to give the undercooked cabbage a miss, however.
Butter chicken is always a favourite among North American diners, its creamy tomato curry sauce appealing to even the most neutral of palates. While Gautama gets the flavour right, their makhani sauce is disappointingly watery and does no justice to the tender chicken pieces within. A lot of restaurants use leftover tandoori chicken for their curries, but I’d wager that these morsels are freshly cooked specifically for the dish. If only the sauce were more luxuriant. Ditto for the daal, which seems more soup than curry.
The palak paneer is also a letdown, if only for its complete lack of paneer cheese in an otherwise delicious spinach sauce. It’s a shame, given the dish’s perfectly balanced blend of cumin, cinnamon and cardamom. But if you’re not going to include the paneer, then you might as well just call it palak curry and be done with it.
Fortunately, Gautama’s biryani saves the day, mixed in with the yummy palak sauce and mopped up with the fluffy naan bread. By accident or design, there are some delicious garlic naan mixed in with the regular bread, a nice touch, considering these generally cost extra.
We finish our meal with a fragrant rice pudding and a soggy gulab jamun dumpling in honey sauce. Like most Indian desserts, it’s insanely sweet and utterly satisfying.
Given that this was a buffet lunch, one can’t expect much in the way of table service. But water refills and drink reorders are almost nonexistent, necessitating repeat trips inside to request another mango lassi and more H2O. But the staff are pleasant and are perhaps more attentive to the evening crowd.
Certainly the biggest attraction for summer diners has to be Gautama’s large, airy patio. I love that the entire patio is non-smoking, encouraging a leisurely meal amongst the tasteful greenery, canvas awnings and comfy chairs. Extra bonus: no wobbly tables!