Ishina, the original, run by the Chhatwal family, is a somewhat dolled-up utilitarian room in an industrial park in Bells Corners. I stumbled upon its daily lunch buffet (offered weekdays) two years ago and became an instant fan.
Since then, I’ve been noticing jars of Ishina curry sauces in select stores around the region. And then last year, shortly after the Geeland Supermarket closed on Carling Avenue at Broadview, a notice went up that this space would be a second location for Ishina. I passed that “Coming Soon” sign for months, even going so far as to peer through a small opening in the brown paper that boarded up the windows for clues of news. This was, you understand, a restaurant more in my ‘hood, and having Ishina closer to home seemed to me a very good thing.
Finally, finally, in March, Ishina opened. Not the restaurant I was expecting, but a large kitchen for its catering operation, and a store, selling containers of curries, appetizers, pastries, along with a weekday lunch buffet. If you want to eat in, there are five stools and a high-top counter overlooking Carling.
So not a restaurant proper, but I thought it still worthy of a column. Ishina takes north Indian cooking standards in this city up a sizable notch. Its curries are well-made, rich and intense, the spices properly drawn out by slow cooking, the sauces layered with flavours.
The weakness – and the only one I’ve found – is with the bread and deep-fried appetizers. Naan is never as good as when it’s fresh from the tandoor, and at this location, the bread is baked and blistered on the tandoor in Bells Corners, trucked over and reheated in a toaster oven. Doesn’t work for me. The samosas I’ve sampled, and the bhaji too, have been left in the warming oven and suffer from that. But I’ve had nothing but good things from both the limited buffet and the take-away curries.
There’s lots to please the vegetarian. The best of the best: a rough mash of tandoor-smoked eggplant with tomato and onion, the campfire flavours seriously fantastic. Chickpeas bob in a dark brown, lightly fired and slightly sour gravy, sprinkled with garam masala in the pindi channa. Creamy soft squares of homemade cheese in the saag paneer are buried in a thick green spinach goo that kicks the tastebuds along happily.
Slow-cooked lamb is beautifully balanced in the rogan josh, with top notes of cardamom. Butter chicken is luscious, the chunks of chicken soft, the sauce not overly sweet, and the beef vindaloo has layers of tart flavour beneath the initial intensity of chili-spice heat.
Ishina’s “Curry in a Hurry” seems to cater more to its catering side than to the customers who drop in for the buffet. Twice they’ve run out of food, and I’ve been directed to the shelves of containers. On Saturday, the website indicates there will be tandoori chicken, but they haven’t any when I arrive. They do have the tasty chaat papri, crispy fried-dough wafers with chick peas and onion, served with chutney, smothered in sweetened yogurt, tartened up with a tamarind sauce, sprinkled with cumin, chili powder and cilantro, and I find myself not missing the tandoor so much.
If you like the ultrasweet Indian dessert gulab jamun, you’ll like the milky balls of dough and pistachios, drenched in a sugar syrup flavoured with rosewater.