SURESH DOSS

Toronto chef's Goan seafood curry 'preserves' taste of western India in every bite

Spice Indian Bistro's Goan seafood curry features a medley of seafood, roasted spices and creamy coconut gravy that tastes like western India, says Metro Morning food guide Suresh Doss.

Spice Indian Bistro is at 320 Richmond St. E, unit 107 in Toronto

Spice Indian Bistro's Goan seafood curry is chef Debu Saha's most 'memorable' dish, says Metro Morning food guide Suresh Doss. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

Before the condo boom in Toronto there were tiny food neighbourhoods scattered throughout the city. Small laneways, or mini plazas, were home to some of the most interesting mom-and-pop shops. One of which was my all-time favourite — Roy's Square, located one block south of Yonge and Bloor Streets. 

Roy's Square felt like its own neighbourhood. At the peak of its popularity, there were nearly a dozen small cafes, restaurants and general stores along this tiny laneway. It had many cultural characters, including South Asian, French and Canadian influences. My parents first introduced me to the tiny laneway. 

We visited the city for an event in the late 90s and ended up at Roy's Square for dinner. That's when I was first introduced to Debu Saha, a young Indian cook, who was slinging plates of vegetarian Thali and biryani out of a small take-away spot in the square. My mother pointed out to me that this was one of the most memorable plates of Indian food she had enjoyed since arriving in Toronto.

Indian Chef Debu Saha is adept at mixing and roasting his own spices. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

I started frequenting Roy's Square after that, making it a point to eat at Debu's Biryani House every chance I got. The food was cheap. For just $5 I would have a plate of rice and some of the best curries the city had to offer.

Saha had a knack for two things — his ability to punch your senses with spice and his flair for modernizing classic plates with the slightest touch, whether it's in the form of a non-traditional sauce or the addition of a side dish. 

Then the age of high-rises arrived on Yonge Street. Roy's Square was shutdown to make room for a condominium development, kicking out all the food vendors.

Saha moved Debu's Biryani House south to Yonge and Wellesley Streets, where he continued his eclectic approach to modern Indian food. But the biryanis remained a mainstay while Saha slowly started to flex his culinary muscles and expanded the menu.

In the mid-2000s, Saha left the operation abruptly when his career took a different trajectory.

He opened a restaurant in the city's Mt. Pleasant neighbourhood where he focused almost entirely on Nouvelle Indian cuisine. The food was inventive and memorable, but it didn't quite find its footing. Four years later, Saha shut down the operation in 2012 to travel. 

This dish from southern India is a mix of seafood, roasted spices and coconut-based gravy, says Metro Morning food guide Suresh Doss. 0:48

I have never kept tabs on a chef before. But following Saha's restaurant closure, I would email him every few months to touch base.

"I'm consulting at this restaurant, come by," he wrote. 

Another time he said: "I'm cooking at this pub, but I have a secret menu."

In the age of celebrity chefs, Saha remained an unsung hero. He didn't like being in front of the camera, preferring instead to be the cook. In kitchen circles, young Indian cooks revered him. They would talk about how Saha had inspired them to learn more about Indian cuisine.

Now, Saha has returned with a recently opened eatery along Sherbourne Street, near Queen Street East and Richmond Street East, called Spice Indian Bistro. 

While the décor is slightly cosmopolitan Indian, Saha has preserved the spirit of his cooking career. The menu reflects many of his classic dishes, some dating back to his sweaty kitchen days in Roy's Square.

The menu is largely based on central and northern Indian dishes. Saha refers to it as "Mughlai cuisine", referancing dishes made in the Mughal Empire in the 1500s.

"This is my restaurant, I am back," said Saha when he greeted me a few months back.

I was tipped off by a longtime friend that heard about Saha's new restaurant.

I immediately went for a plate of lamb biryani. A mound of fluffy Basmati rice dressed with fried onions, nuts and boiled egg, served with tender pieces of marinated lamb curry.

Cumin, star anise and cloves are roasted whole to give the Goan seafood curry 'its signature sour taste.' (Suresh Doss/CBC)

Saha is adept at mixing and roasting his own spices.

"That is my signature taste. That is how I achieve my spice specialty," he said.  "I roast and mix spices for each dish." 

After a few mouthfuls, everything felt right again. Saha was back and he hadn't missed a beat.

When I visited again a week later for more biryani, Saha suggested I try something new, a favourite dish of his — Goan seafood stew.

"I learned this dish so long ago and I have tried to preserve it," he said. 

My first taste of this dish was enlightening, like Saha had managed to transport me back to the curry restaurants of Panaji, India. There was a perfume of cumin, star anise and cloves, followed by a creamy stew that had the signature Goan sour taste.

It's a classic Indian dish from from Goa, a southwestern state, with elements that are inspired by the regions Konkan coastlines. 

Goan seafood curry features a medley of seafood: clams, mussels, squid, white fish and prawns that's cooked in a coconut-base gravy with a dozen ground spices. 

It's a thick and grainy curry that sticks to each piece of seafood, giving it a gritty feel on the palate.

Saha uses dried kokum berries in the spice mix, which gives the stew its signature sour taste. This is something intrinsic to Goan cuisine. It's a berry that needs to be used sparingly or the stew quickly becomes tart.

In my opinion, the Goan seafood curry is one of Saha's best dishes.​

Spice Indian Bistro is at 320 Richmond St. E, unit 107 in Toronto

Suresh Doss's weekly food segment airs every Thursday on Metro Morning. Watch for video of his jaunts across the city on CBC Toronto's Facebook page.

Do you know a GTA restaurant that Doss should visit? Tweet us @metromorning or send us a message on Facebook. And if you try any of the places he features, we want to see photos!

About the Author

Suresh Doss

Suresh Doss is a Toronto-based food writer. He joins CBC Radio's Metro Morning as a weekly food columnist. Currently, Doss is the print editor for Foodism Toronto magazine and regularly contributes to Toronto Life, the Globe and Mail and Eater National. Doss regularly runs food tours throughout the GTA, aimed at highlighting its multicultural pockets.