I complain too much about the mediocrity of ethnic food here in Montréal. But I shouldn’t complain about this when most of the food offered in the city is so good, right? I mean, we have so much good bread, amazing French food, an abundance of maple syrup, and all the cheese that you can only wish for outside of Europe.
So when I start complaining about food in Montréal I know my friends back home in Toronto are just rolling their eyes. I get it, I do. You yearn for what you don’t have. The grass is greener on the other side. Yada yada. But when you grow up with good Indian food everywhere, and for mere pennies really, then you move almost 600 kilometres away and keep running into crappy Indian food…it’s disconcerting. It’s sad.
Montréal doesn’t exactly have a high population of Indian immigrants so the few Indian restaurants that pop up in the city don’t face the same kind of fierce competition seen in places like Toronto or New York. In those cities, if you open a mediocre Indian restaurant, you can’t survive. The Indian immigrant population will try it but steer clear after the first awful tasting and spend their dollars at places that actually taste like home. The non-Indian population, having been exposed to quality Indian food, will be able to discern the difference and also follow suit.
But here in the province of Québec I get the feeling that a lot of diners don’t get to experience what good Indian food tastes like because many Indian restaurants in the city will alter the dishes to a more French Canadian palate. I don’t blame them as you do what you have to do for a business to survive. And this fact was brought home when, along with some friends a few months ago, we decided to order delivery from a popular Indian spot here in the very francophone neighbourhood of the Plateau. Everything smelled so good before we ripped apart the delivery packaging, and we were excited to dig into our large order. Then we tasted it and we looked at each other with so much disappointment. How could something that looked and smelled so good have no spicing, no flavour, and fall flat on taste?
Lunch special combos on the menu
This run-in with a horribly disappointing Indian restaurant was, unfortunately, much too common. I never had such bad Indian food as I have in Montréal and this particular neighbourhood spot was one of many. My background might be Korean but growing up in Toronto amongst so many Indian restaurants, and having so many brown friends, really trained my taste buds. And even if I wasn’t particularly attuned to what *good* Indian food tasted like, I would have definitely known something was amiss whenever the I tasted the dull-tasting Indian dishes when I moved into the city. Since then, I have been on a quest to find good Indian food — excellent is not necessary — as my standards are now set low. I just want alright, edible Indian food that is close to the real thing. Is this so hard?
It seems that it is indeed difficult to make good Indian food here in Montréal. And often times it is only at the higher-end Indian restaurants where you can find good Indian cuisine. And that makes sense to me to price such offerings at a premium because people are willing to pay for it in a market where everything else is dismal. So, during the first few years of living in Montréal, I would drop by Gandhi in the Old Port or Le Taj downtown so that I can meet my cravings for decent Indian food. Gandhi and Le Taj, while the food is decent, is not amazing. But decent might be enough and for the longest time was what I settled for.
Onion bhaji (left) and vegetable samosa (right)
That is, until I found Bombay Mahal. Bombay Mahal is located in Parc-Extension (also called “Parc-Ex”), a working class neighbourhood comprised of a high population of South Asians, including immigrants from India and Pakistan, in addition to those from Latin America and Haiti. When you walk along rue Jean Talon in the main strip of Parc-Ex, the street is lined with various South Asian grocery markets, sari stores, and other retailers run primarily by South Asian immigrants. The neighbourhood is also considered to be pretty rough and tumble, and since it is out of my way I never visited the area. But when cruising for food with a friend, we decided to check out Bombay Mahal since he had a car and because I had heard that I may be able to get some quality Indian food at this restaurant.
Bombay Mahal, like its neighbourhood, is no-frills and not fancy along the lines of Gandhi or Le Taj. It is an apportez votre vin, or bring your own wine, and as such does not serve any alcohol that is not brought in by its customers. The restaurant is open seven days a week for both lunch and dinner, and serves lunch specials priced at $5 to $8 CDN on segmented platters called thali. You can also order items à la carte for both lunch and dinner, and since we dropped in on a week day afternoon after a day of hiking, we were hungrier than usual and ordered both appetizers and main dishes. We decided upon the vegetable samosa and onion bhajis to start, with my friend ordering the butter chicken thali lunch special. I ordered the shahi paneer, or cheese curds cubes in a creamy spiced sauce, with naan and rice.
Shahi paneer and rice (top) and butter chicken thali lunch special (bottom)
Just like our first visit many years ago, the food was served quickly, and the flavours complex and tasty. There was no “dumbing” down of the flavours or spicing. Our appetizers — the samosa and onion bhajis — were perfectly fried without being too greasy or burnt. We ordered two different appetizers because both my friend I love Indian starters so much. Interesting, Bombay Mahal also serves chaat papri, the chickpea street food, though we stuck with only two orders. The samosa’s crust was the right mix of crunchy and flaky, and the potato and peas filling made my tastebuds happy.
My friend’s $7.50 CDN butter chicken thali lunch special came with the butter chicken, beef, green salad, curried okra, and naan. Needless to say, he had a lot of trouble finishing it. The green salad, made of iceberg lettuce, was the low point of the meal — I never understood the use of these iceberg lettuce salads served in any restaurant — but everything else he absolutely loved. I also shared some of my order with my friend, the shashi paneer, and we split the naan and rice. I rarely order paneer, the cottage cheese cubes, probably because I eat a lot of tofu and they are relatively similar. (In fact, I know a friend whose family, being of Indian descent, make “paneer” dishes at home using tofu instead of making the paneer from scratch.) However, eating the paneer dish was lovely and I enjoy the spongy texture of the cheese enveloped in saucy goodness.
The restaurant’s wall of critical acclaim
I don’t visit Bombay Mahal as nearly as often as I like to since it’s a bit far from my neighbourhood. But, if you do live in Montréal, the restaurant is pretty accessible by public transit as it is a stone’s throw away from Station Acadie on the Blue Line. And for such low prices and quality Indian food, it’s hard to find this pairing elsewhere in the city. Especially the part about quality Indian food. Montréal, you break my heart. But as long as Bombay Mahal is around, I may be able to forgive the fact that my Indian food options are limited. Long live Bombay Mahal.