Ben Thanh 500 Fairway Road South Kitchener, ON N2C 1X3…
12-200 Lorraine Avenue
Kitchener, ON N2B 3R3
Dinner for two with apps, mains, dessert and tea: $50
Open: Tuesday-Saturday at 11 a.m.; Sunday at 4 p.m.; Closed Monday
Back in the early 1990s, 200 Lorraine Avenue, in Kitchener’s Stanley Park neighbourhood, was home to Ennio’s Pasta House. That successful business has moved on to not one but two locations, one on Fairway Road in Kitchener and the other on King Street North in Waterloo.
Other restaurants at the address have not been so lucky. They have moved on only to the great collection of forfeitures, bailiff’s notes taped on doors, defaults, lock-outs, and midnight restaurant abandonments in the sky. Let’s hope that is not the case for Nisha and her kitchen, which opened in mid-July last year. It’s a nice food addition for the neighbourhood to have.
In some ways, you will get a sense of Ennio’s from the booths that remain and the general layout of the 50 or so-seat dining room. A new bar area that seats 10 brightens things up, although the approach, at least for now as a relatively new restaurant, is to keep things plain and simple, if not bare bones. Fair enough. Service is straightforward, friendly and simple too — and delivers a pleasing fennel-rich bowl of traditional muhkwas that helps cool your mouth and aids digestion after dinner.
The cook and co-owner of the eponymously named restaurant was formerly proprietor of a Waterloo Region-based catering company. Nisha’s dishes are primarily northern Indian in origin; her menu is divided into several sections as you might expect — the favourites are all there: the pakoras, the rotis, the tandoor-cooked, the butter chickens. There are about 15 main dishes — nine of which are chicken-based — and an extensive 17 or so vegetarian dishes, not including a few rice dishes.
That vegetarian element, the pure joy that can be found in a rustic and classic Punjabi aloo gobi or the garbanzo goodness of a chana masala, is what has Indian and Pakistani fare throwing its weight around in its desire to be one of the world’s great cuisines. It certainly is a popular cookery in Waterloo Region.
Fish pakora is a crisp and light appetizer. Its preparation combines that crisp exterior with a tender and light whitefish inside for a clean taste with a hint of herbs. The smaller pieces are the best — the crisp to soft ratio generates a better bite. It’s golden colouring, a contrast to the vibrant herbaceous green sauce, is a pleasure to look at.
Chicken or potato and samosas are about $4. The flavours are there but a slightly longer time in the oil to crisp up would make them excellent. Aloo tikki is a potato cake that needs that same balance of crisp and soft and is served with chick peas. The flavour is good nevertheless. Naan on different visits might be thin or thick but in each case delicious.
The classic basmati rice and vegetable pilau is fresh and richly savoury — what I certainly need in a veggie dish — and packed a good amount of heat. It’s virtually a welcoming meal in itself. Ghee-driven dal tarkha is nicely spiced and had a similar amount of heat but a degree of which that still allowed good appreciation of what is the wonderfully textured lentil.
Mughlai’s chicken lababdar is curry-based and creamy with boneless chunks of chicken, onions, tomatoes and spices. Chicken vindaloo, a pretty hot dish no matter where it is prepared, sorts itself out with a decent balance of flavours and spicing amidst the red chili-pepper hotness.
Bhuna gosht is another hot dish — the goat gives it excellent earthiness, body and texture while cumin, turmeric and cardamom flavours prevail; the garnish of cilantro cools things down a bit. I expect this dish will be a favourite of mine.
A meal at Nisha’s could end with a delicious ras malai (pictured above), a sort of hybrid flavour and texture that is somewhere between a light flour cake and a cheesecake. The mild spice undertones, along with its milky submergence, is at once soothing to the heated palate and, it would seem, providing a digestive quality that is entirely satisfying — and in a way that I didn’t expect it to be.