by Ed Dugas
When my girlfriend and I first visited Vancouver before moving here from North Carolina two years ago, I remember her telling me about a local Indian restaurant she was dying to try after seeing it featured in a glowing review by the New York Times. Having just a mediocre interest in Indian cuisine, I brushed Rachel’s comment aside and continued to circle in my travel guide all the fish and chips joints we’d be visiting.
We arrived via train from Seattle to Pacific Central Station. It was a beautifully sunny late August morning; the city absolutely shone before us. We had made arrangements to stay with acquaintances of our good friend and neighbour in the States. Armed with an address around Ontario St. and 13th Ave. and a not-so-detailed map, we decided to hop this thing called the “SkyTrain” and go west. Looking at the map like a dog that had just been shown a card trick (maps have never been my strength), I decided that west was towards Commercial Drive. We quickly (or should I say, slowly) became lost.
To make a long story less embarrassing, Rachel convinced me to do the sensible thing and ask for directions. At Broadway Station we were told to take the 99 B-line to Main Street and walk the few blocks to our destination. After obtaining a more helpful map, we jumped on the bus confident that we finally knew what we were doing.
Upon arriving at Main St., I pulled out our travel guide and searched for a place to stop for coffee and a bite to eat. As I was flipping through the book, I heard Rachel exclaim, “baby, look!” I peered up and saw her enthusiastically pointing to a newspaper article pasted on a window. “It’s Chutney Villa!”
“Who’s that, Ché Guevara’s cousin?” I asked, trying to determine if The Windjammer really was in this neighbourhood.
“No, it’s the Indian Restaurant I told you about. Here’s the review I read in the New York Times.”
Amazingly, we had stumbled upon (placed in front of, quite literally) the very restaurant Rachel had wanted to visit the most while we were in town. Not one to take these fateful occurrences lightly, she saw it as a sign we must go in immediately. I was too exhausted to put up a fight.
“Please tell me they have coffee.”
Now I have nothing against Indian food or its many loyal fans; I’m just not that into it. I’d had it only a few times in dreadfully unauthentic establishments (Sammy’s Samosas, anyone?) but I decided to give a well-endorsed purveyor the benefit of the doubt.
I would argue that Chutney Villa’s location and outside décor are both favourable and detrimental. While they’ve become quite prolific in Vancouver, for those who don’t know they’re located just off the busy Broadway Ave. and Main St. intersection, which makes it ideal for access by public transportation but a tricky spot to park. I must also say I’m not a fan of its eave overhang-as-sign, though it is a highly-visible orange. To me it suggests “Angelo’s Take-Out Spanakopita Hut” when it could be a classier, less algae-ridden representation. But they also say the “hole-in-the-wall” approach is charming. I suppose it’s ultimately about the food and service.
It is worth noting that the restaurant looks and feels better in the evening than it does during the day; it also doesn’t function very well near capacity as some of the tables are a bit too close together in this small space. I would recommend 5:30pm on a Friday or Saturday winter evening as the absolute best time for a visit: sparsely filled and quiet with relaxed servers.
At night it’s a very cozy and romantic experience, with soft lighting bringing out the warm espresso hues and dampening the mishmash of colours and Indian decorations. During the day, it’s easier to notice all the costume-shop clutter on the walls (at least it’s not for sale…oh wait, it is). I can’t tell if it’s trying to be upscale or “ask me about my take-out specials.” I wish they would decide. Optimistically, the interior toes a fine line between tasteful representation and self-imposed caricature. But honestly, the food and service bring it over the top.
This is South Indian Cuisine, so you won’t find butter chicken, naan and tandoori platters as these are fare of the north. The menu is anchored by broth-based chicken, lamb, prawn and fish curries, with an emphasis on lentils, dosas and rotating chutney selections.
For my first visit I took advantage of the lunch special, which for $9.99 comes with your choice of a chicken, lamb or fish entrée, rice on the side, lentil soup and a papadam. I ordered the fish curry, which was a touch acidic from the tomatoes but had the right amount of tamarind spice and flavour, with succulently tender portions of fish. Rachel had the lamb curry which she said wasn’t quite as spicy as she’d hoped, but overall tender and expertly flavoured. The lentil soup was just the right consistency and had a pleasantly rich and creamy finish.
When we went again for dinner months later, I was better able to gauge the service and sample more of the complete menu. The servers were very friendly and enthusiastic, patiently and knowledgeably explaining the nature of each dish and with what it was most ideally combined. I knew we’d be getting a lot of small samples, so as a novice I was happy for tips on how to put everything together.
I ordered the mild Chicken Kurma curry and Rachel again ordered the Madras Lamb Curry. Our taali-style options (as opposed to ala carte which has less side dishes) came with pachadi, which is boiled vegetables flavoured with coconut and chilies, rasam soup, vada, a lentil and potato-based savoury donut, rice, three chutneys, crispy crepe and rice pudding for dessert.
Each dish was served in an individual metal ramekin housed on a metal serving platter. The chutneys change from day to day; tonights were onion, pear and cranberry. The best part about the small sampling arrangement is the opportunity to experiment with different combinations, experiencing a number of different flavours. The rasam soup was really sour, but great when used as a dip for the donut, crepe and rice. The vegetables were great with the curry, which was a bit too spicy for me even with the tempering yogurt included with the entrée. The curries were really sweet and great when combined with the tender chicken. Sorry, but I can’t report on the lamb as I don’t eat red meat. You’re just going to have to go in and try it for yourselves.
On a side note, I’d like to mention that Chutney Villa is a member of Oceanwise, uses metal serving dishes in their catering and offers them for sale to customers in lieu of Styrofoam or plastic take-away containers. While this may be avoided by some due to convenience issues, I applaud the sentiment and hope alternatives to disposables will become more common practice for restaurants in the future.
Overall, these and all subsequent experiences have been great and I continue to go back regularly. Chutney Villa is a friendly spot and the best South Indian cuisine for your buck. No matter what your taste, you’ll get an authentic meal, a different bite every time, and the chance to take home that Raja Ravi Varma print you see on the wall.