I’m not a stranger to South Indian food, but that’s not because I get around to the close-to-none restaurants serving it around here. I’m lucky to have family friends that cook it daily and often spare a plate to feed me. As sweet of a deal as that is, I can’t appoint them to cater to my every craving – mainly because my mom frowns upon it. Otherwise, I would totally impose…because I’m shameless like that.
So, when South Indian restaurants are way too few and far between in Montreal, where’s a hungry human to go?
If it weren’t for Thanjai, a South Indian restaurant that debuted uptown two years ago, I wouldn’t have any leads. From humble beginnings as a small, take-out joint on Victoria to a roomy space able to seat hoards of I-want-to-eat-right-here-right-now customers on Van Horne, Thanjai and its owners Kumaresan and his wife are committed to introducing locals to the flavors of Southern India.
Those delights include a vast selection of dosas, vadas, idlis, utthappams and kothu parottas. Don’t know what any of that stuff is? Pre-browse the menu online and Google Image everything that grabs your attention before dropping in. I urge you to take that initiative instead of relying on your waiter for recommendations because I guarantee you’ll hear butter chicken if you’re not brown.
I skipped the vadas and idlis in favor of fish patties ($2.50) only to realize I shouldn’t have. These deep-fried nuggets of flaked tuna enveloped in dough were in need of some serious oomph by way of more spices and salt. Not even the sweet and sour notes of the accompanying tamarind sauce could compensate for the lack of flavor. Next time, I’ll go with the savory doughnuts or steamed rice and lentil cakes.
Despite the disappointing starter, the meal took flight with the Chicken-65 ($8.99). The menu suggested it was fried chicken, and it was fried chicken, only without the batter-dipping or breading step. Rubbed and marinated with a medley of spices and salt, boneless chunks of chicken bobbed in oil and emerged tender, juicy, nicely-seasoned and short of heat.
The dosas took up three pages of the menu. Translation: Thanjai's specialties. Being a fan of palak paneer, I couldn’t overlook the palak paneer dosa ($8.99). Cooked to order on a flat griddle, the batter was spread thin like a crêpe, smeared with spinach paste and topped with a black mustard seed-spotted mixture of potatoes and cottage cheese before the folding process. The edges remained delicately crisp while the core softened from the moisture of the filling that was delightfully simple in both ingredients and taste. To enhance each bite, I alternatively reached for the spicy sambar (a runny lentil and vegetable stew flavored with mustard seeds and curry leaves) and the creamy tomato chutney while rejecting the coconut chutney for tasting like flour.
Finally, what’s an Indian meal with a saucy dish? The pepper chicken curry ($9.99) proved to be a great alternative to butter chicken. It featured bone-in pieces of moist chicken simmered in a tomato-curry sauce distinctively spiced with black pepper. If you want it, spare $2.99 for plain basmati rice because it’s absolutely necessary.
There might be less than a handful of South Indian restaurants in Montreal, but with Thanjai up and running, there might not be a need for more. Unpretentious and honest food? Check. Fair rates? Check. An education on South Indian cuisine? Priceless.
N.B. Closed Tuesday | BYOB
4759 ave. Van Horne | map