Rick McGinnis/Metro Toronto
Amaya The Indian Room
1701 Bayview Avenue
Hours: Mon – Sun: 5pm – 10pm
Dinner for 2 w/tax & tip: $80
Derek Valleau and Hemant Bhagwani met seven years ago when they were respectively the outgoing and incoming sommeliers at 360, the CN Tower’s restaurant high over the city. Six years later, they managed to reach another high point of sorts when Amaya, their brand new Indian restaurant on Bayview Avenue, managed to pull off a hat trick, with thumbs-up reviews from the restaurant critics at all three of the city’s major dailies, and a glowing feature by Toronto Life magazine’s James Chatto on top of that.
Since then, business at Amaya has been booming, as one particular Tuesday night proves, with the room jammed at 8pm, right down to the seats at the bar. The two men had been talking about doing something like this since 2004, but it was a visit to Vij’s in Vancouver – an equally well-reviewed outpost of what’s been called “haute Indian” – that finally convinced Bhagwani that a shorter menu with seasonal items was the way to go.
“We're not reinventing anything,” says Valleau, “we're just repackaging it, giving it a bit more finesse. We've upped the presentation, upped the service, upped the wine program - we're both sommeliers, so we've put some thought into the products that we're offering with the food. We've made it a little friendlier to the general public. That said, we've both been amazed by the education of our customers. It's amazing how many of them a) have been to India, and b) ask if the food is from the north, the south, the east, the west. And we're going, uh, it's just great Indian food. We've underestimated how much people know about food."
For anyone used to the vast catalogues of dishes in most Indian eateries, Amaya’s concise list of entrees – and equally neat wine list – will be a refreshing surprise, and not just because of hit dishes like the Amaya prawns or the meltingly tender Parsi ribs. Bhagwani admits that they’re still experimenting, especially with the wines, their biggest challenge so far.
“It's tough,” he says. “We have 21 spices in there - which one do you match with the wine? You can match all the spices with the wine; we've done it, but it's hard. That's why we wanted to go with 10 wines right now, instead of going with 20 or 30 wines. We wanted to play around and see - we're building a wine cellar for our guests, but it's a slow process. The common wisdom is that only beer goes with Indian food - yes it does, or maybe only chai goes with Indian food.”
“It's a very subjective thing,” agrees Valleau, underlining the sort of relaxed, bistro-like attitude that’s gone a long way to making Amaya a hit. “The whole idea of red or white wine with certain foods is changing, and people drink what they like to drink with the food they like to eat. I think it's the same thing here - it's amazing how much Shiraz we sell here, which is a big, full-bodied, juicy, high in alcohol wine, and those rules are all against spicy foods. You're supposed to drink something low in alcohol, with residual sugar, and it's supposed to balance off the heat. Some people do - we sell a lot of Riesling and gewürztraminer, but you drink what you want to drink.”