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Tiny St. Anne's Road spot serves up delicious Indian fare

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Sunita Nagpal and her husband Avnish prepare tasty dishes at Sizzling Dhaba.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Sunita Nagpal and her husband Avnish prepare tasty dishes at Sizzling Dhaba. Photo Store

It's tiny and plain, with nothing one could call decor, but there's a feast for the eyes in the big, beautiful painting by a local artist that faces the door (make a point of checking out the other painting just around the corner). And there are intimations of another kind of feast in the aroma of Indian spices that perfumes the air.

However, those who like their spices hot should emphasize that fact. We ordered our food medium, which usually delivers enough zing to tingle our tongues, but, although most of what we got was full of flavour, medium turned out to be very mild (the best bets for incendiary spicing are the vindaloos and zhal frazis). But even though most of our dishes had no discernible kick, no two sauces tasted alike -- each had its own individual flavour.

The menu lists only a few appetizers, and the first one I tried -- alu tikki -- seemed perfunctory, just two stodgy slices of potato, with little flavour apart from tamarind sauce ($3.75). So I was pleasantly surprised, at a second meal, by the excellence of the beef and potato samosas in an exceptionally fine, flaky crust (two for $3.75) and even more impressed by the papri chat -- a glorious toss of pastry crisps, chickpeas and potatoes in a cool, tart-sweet combo of yogurt and the house-made tamarind sauce.

Most entrées cost from $8.75 to $15.75, including the usual lengthy list of vegetarian dishes. Given the sameness of so many Indian menus, we were delighted to find the locally rare sarson saag, i.e.rapini, among them -- puréed almost to a paste, with a slightly and pleasantly bitter undertone that had far more character than the more common spinach (also on the menu in its usual forms, i.e. with potatoes or Indian cheese).

Bhindi masala does appear on most menus, but this one was exceptional -- a sauceless curry of tiny okra pods sautéed with onions and spices to the perfect degree of firmness without (note to those who think they hate okra) a trace of mush. I was less impressed by the bharta, which didn't taste much of eggplant, and had a sweetish flavour from the addition of green peas -- a traditional ingredient in some bharta recipes, but it isn't to my taste. We'd hoped to try the baingan massala of small eggplants filled with spices and stir-fried with onions but, unfortunately, it wasn't available that day.

The greatest highlight was the fabulous shrimp korma -- big, succulent shrimp in a gorgeous cream sauce that was rich but not in the least cloying, and so addictive we were lapping it by the spoonful after we'd finished the shrimp. A slightly creamy and nicely flavoured biryani was also good and generous, not only with those excellent shrimp but with cashews and mushrooms as well.

There is no tandoor clay oven, but the kitchen produces a good, yogurt-marinated tandoori chicken (a gentle orange, not fire-engine red). Most of the other meats are listed as boneless but the cooks are flexible, and anything will be cooked on the bone if requested, which we did, and our bone-in chicken turned up juicy and tender, albeit in a flavourless curry sauce. There was enough forceful seasoning though in the grilled ground beef kababs -- three big, fat ones, which were not only delicious but had a significantly higher heat level than any of the other dishes sampled (chicken kababs are an alternative).

Noorjahani lamb cooked with lentils, spinach, eggs and nuts was tasty but, despite all its interesting ingredients, not as excitingly good as the bhoona curry -- tender, juicy chunks of lamb cooked (in fact, charred in parts) on the eponymous sizzling platter with a wonderfully flavourful mix of onions, tomatoes, green peppers and mushrooms.

The included basmati rice was tasty, and the breads absolutely first-rate ($1.75 to $3.75). A generous portion of puffy and just-chewy-enough naan came drizzled with melted butter and was even good the next day (we had ours plain, but it also comes with garlic, cheese, onion or keema ground meat). Golden brown, layered paratha, thinly stuffed with potatoes and onions, was also delicious, and is available in a whole-wheat version as well. The yogurt is house-made, but was disappointingly thin in two items, on two tries each -- in the raita with cucumber ($2.75) and the sweet lassi ($2.75). We ordered la carte, but there are buffets as well, $10.75 at lunch, and $14.75 at dinner.

Indian desserts are sometimes too sweet for many tastes, but Sizzling Dhaba's are delectable -- gulab jamun in a light syrup, barfi (made of sweetened condensed milk) layered with chocolate, and a fascinating creation of barfi enclosing what appeared to be translucent jellied squash and topped with jam ($2.75 to $3.75).

The service was friendly, extremely patient about explaining the dishes and helpful in leading us to the right choices.

marion.warhaft@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 27, 2014 C5

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