I received a dear letter about this place a few months ago, which I filed and forgot about.
But two weeks ago, while shopping for school/college supplies with the boys, I was detoured around a disabled tractor-trailer and found myself in front of an orange sign with a name that sounded familiar. “Ishina, fast food,” it said.
It was 1:30 in the afternoon and we were lunchless. So we went in, we ate, and now we’re regulars, prepared to write dear letters about the place.
It helps to know it’s here, but once you know, you’re in luck. Why? Because the north Indian food is very good, the meal is fast, the price is right and the service is gracious.
Though it’s no looker. Ishina is a clean, bright, utilitarian room in an industrial park behind Richmond Road in Bells Corners. The ceiling is warehouse rafters and beams, the floor is black and white linoleum. Long wispy curtains let in some light and manage to block the bleak view. The dozen or so tables are covered with red and yellow tablecloths and a jaunty canopy covers the buffet table.
But as soon as you enter Ishina, you smell all those great C’s – cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, chilies. And you are greeted instantly by other great C’s, the family Chhatwal – chef Manpreet (Baby) and Parminder (Nippi) and daughters Ishleen and Gina (hence, “Ishina”).
They know the regulars by name and the regulars know them. “How’s your mother doing?” “Do you want the usual to drink?”
The regulars tend to walk over in groups – guys, mostly, clad in casual gear who talk about things like RAM speed.
The daily lunch buffet is set out in steam table trays, handsomely garnished and oft replenished. We start with soup (daal one day, tomato and coriander another, both complex, both with some heat) and a soothing kachumber salad of tomatoes, cucumber, onion and coriander.
Steaming tandoori naan arrives to our table while we’re working our way through the line of stews. Beef korma, butter chicken, tandoori chicken, Jeera rice.
There are always two meatless dishes – usually a curry of mixed vegetables inspired by whatever fresh produce is available – beans, zucchini, cauliflower, cabbage – and always a spread based on paneer (fresh cheese). Homemade pickles are more sour than searing and yogurt raita with mint is all soothing.
This is Indian food that takes no shortcuts and it eats accordingly. It is all very good, the meats tender, the chicken juicy, the sauces full flavoured, shot with ginger, garlic, onion and all those delicious spices that murmur through.
If you want them to shout, you will notice the basket of fresh green chilies beside the bowl of raita.
Desserts include a platter of fresh fruit, and the Ã¼ber-sweet gulab jamun – fried balls of dough paddling in a rosewater-scented sugar syrup. And sometimes there is chocolate mousse, which looks suspiciously icky, but is in fact quite delicious.
It took us 23 minutes to lunch at Ishina. The gents beside me clocked in at seven. Back to their computers.
The price: The daily lunch buffet is $9.99, plus tax and tip.
Ishina may be short on style, but it’s long on flavour and thoughtfulness. That computes.