Residents of St. Vital who don't feel like trekking down to the West End for their curries are in luck. A strip mall may seem an unlikely location for a good Indian restaurant, but that's what it turns out to be. At first the tiny space comes as a bit of a shock, and you think there might be more of it hidden in the rear. There isn't, but don't judge Water Lily by its size -- just keep in mind the old adage about good things in small packages, and reserve your table. This is a destination worth the drive, even from the West End.
No frills, but not just a bare-bones hole in the wall, either. It's an intimate and sleekly modern place, with the eponymous water lily motif represented by a few paintings, artifacts and tiny candle holders on each table. But what impresses most are the wonderfully warm welcome and the knowledgeable, helpful and consistently courteous service. Of course, none of that would matter a whit if the food didn't live up to it. But it does, with complex spicing and vibrant flavours that raise a number of the dishes above the ordinary.
Most of the entrées cost from $8.99 to $14.99, including basmati rice and a crunchy papadum. That complimentary papadum, incidentally, is a vanishing practice in many other Indian restaurants, and sets a heart-warming tone of generosity in this one. Adding to that tone is the array of included house-made chutneys and pickles, some of them blazing hot, some of them not, but all excellent, including one particularly fascinating one with olives that give it an almost Mediterranean flavour.
Your server may steer you to two of the appetizers. Don't resist; you'll be safe in his hands. They'll set you back a mere $3.99 each, and they are superb. Aloo tikki chaat is the restaurant's signature appetizer, an inspired stunner of warm potato patties stuffed with vegetables, drizzled with a coriander-spiked yogurt and tamarind sauce, and finished with thread-thin shreds of crushed pastry. The other standout, papdi chaat, is a cool, textural contrast of crisply fried pastry crisps, cubes of potatoes, chickpeas, diced tomato and red onions, bound with tamarind sauce and yogurt.
There's the usual selection of vegetarian and vegan entrées. Most of the eggplant bhartas I've had elsewhere were almost puréed. This version was different, with the eggplant, tomatoes and onions more diced than mashed, but still full-flavoured. Some readers who don't share my fondness for okra might change their minds if they had it here. It is identified on the menu only as bhendi, or lady fingers, but by whatever name the okra is tender and not in the least gooey, whether cooked with onions, tomatoes and cilantro, or with spiced-up potatoes.
You can choose your degree of spiciness -- we found medium to be the perfect medium, with enough heat to be interesting but not overwhelming (if you like yours spicier, just ask them to kick it up a notch). Actually, one of the most impressive entrées was the mildly seasoned korma, made with top-quality shrimp that were big, plump and juicy, in a sumptuously creamy sauce with cashews and raisins. The halal kitchen does a nice job on the meats too, mostly tender chunks in flavourful sauces -- for instance, a dark, onion-based lamb curry, and a velvety, yogurt-enriched rogan josh.
The lamb biryani was nicely spiced and satisfying, but might have been more exciting if sparked by raisins and cashews instead of the perfunctory frozen, mixed veggies. But I'd skip the tandoori chicken altogether. The restaurant doesn't have a tandoor, and the oven-roasted chicken was no better than a lot of roast chicken from anywhere -- in other words, just OK. You probably wouldn't send it back, but the flesh was a tad dry, and the bright orange surface was more pasty than crisp, with not enough yogurty tang.
The cooling cucumber-studded raita and the piping hot, just-chewy-enough naan were both excellent. Not the lassi, though, which was too thin, too sweet, too warm and also too short on yogurty tang. There is an alternative though, in one of the Indian beers.
There were two desserts I loved, neither of them as hyper sweet as some Indian desserts can be. There probably are more than two good ones, but those I had were the creamy rice pudding with the occasional crunch of almonds, a sweet hit of raisins and a hint of cardamom, and a light mango pudding garnished with fresh fruits.
The foods I tried were all ordered à la carte, but like most Indian restaurants Water Lily also offers buffets. The $15.99 dinner version includes pakoras, samosas, yellow dal, three vegetable curries, lamb curry, butter chicken, tandoori chicken and dessert. At lunch a smaller selection goes for $11.99.
To see the location of this restaurant as well as others reviewed in the Winnipeg Free Press, please see the map below.