The Little India CafÃ© is an Ottawa West institution. For nearly two decades, chef Ram Chander and his family have been running this snug, nonstop-bustling 30-seater, serving delicious and familiar Indian food. The office crowd has long flocked to its noon buffet, the Britannia neighbourhood pop in for take out, and the movie-bound wolf down curries and rice before heading across to the Coliseum Theatre, to doze through a blockbuster.
The room is plain and pink – pink in curtains, tablecloths, chairs and candles. It’s also cramped – at lunch with the buffet queue, at dinner with a steady stream of those waiting for a table, and still others waiting to pick up a meal. (If ever there were a restaurant that could use a separate take away counter, this would be it.)
But no matter. The Little India CafÃ© remains a very satisfying little restaurant, somewhat a happy victim of its own popularity. The service may be a bit distracted, but prices are fair and the standard of cooking is well above average.
When I first wrote about the LIC, back in 1997, it served dishes almost exclusively from the south – dosas and idlis, vada and bowls of sambhar. But the cooking from the southern provinces is less familiar to us in Ottawa, and the Little India CafÃ© felt forced to refocus. Today, dosas and its like are restricted to the Sunday lunch buffet, and the main menu offers the proverbial dishes of the north – tandoori chicken, biryanis, and thick, moderately spicy curries, with rice and naan. (For good south Indian food, your best bets now are Ceylonta and Coconut Lagoon.)
Enough background. Begin with deep fried things. They are fresh and fragrant. Papadum arrive on the house with house made chutneys. Samosas are filled with soft vegetables. The pakoras are a tangled jumble of yummy. Seek kebabs have a welcome belt of fresh chilli and green herbs. Naan comes hot from the walls of the tandoor, brown and puffed and teardrop-shaped, painted with salted butter and sprinkled with chopped coriander.
If you don’t want to make a meal out of starters and bread – because you sure could – pace yourself. The curries are very good, simple dishes full of complex flavours, served in small copper karahi.
Spiced saag prawns are cooked to firm and retain some bite, while the spinach has melted down to make a thick, rich sauce. The daily fish curry features chunks of moist salmon, coated with a ginger-strong sauce plumped with peppers, tomato and onion. The lamb bhuna is tender muttony meat in a dark, broody sauce, with warm spices. Beef is remarkably tender in a searing beef vindaloo. For those for whom butter chicken is a must component of any Indian meal, LIC’s is a delicious version, rich but not sickly-so, and with a welcome pop of heat. Tandoori chicken reddened and marinated in yogurt before roasting, is moist and fragrant dark meat.
Should all this meat leave you craving the green stuff, Little India CafÃ© delivers on vegetarian dishes in good measure. The best of which is the baigan bharta, showcasing slow roasted eggplant, but tasty too is aloo gobi – a masala of potato, cauliflower and tomato – and one that features mushrooms and milky, fresh cheese.
You won’t find much chilli pow in much of the lunch buffet, but there are chutneys and pickles that will fire up what you may want fired. On it – for the sum of $11.99 – a kachumbar salad and deep fried pastries, six curries, tandoori chicken, rice, chutneys, pickles, pappadum and raita. Fresh naan is delivered to your table.
The rice pudding crowned with pistachios is a fine end to a fine meal.