Bistro India

780 482 1700

10203 116 St.

Food: 4 of 5 Suns

Ambience: porch, 4 of 5 Suns; indoor, 3 of 5 Suns

Service: 4 of 5 Suns

Dinner for two (excluding beverage and tip): basic, $35; loaded, $60

It’s a gamble.

You’ve driven by the restaurant 100 times, it looks interesting.

But you’ve had no word-of-mouth report, it’s never been featured by Yelp or Urbanspoon.

On a quiet stretch of 116 St. but a block north of Jasper Avenue is an older, sprawling residential home turned restaurant.

It seems to be where restaurants go to die. Gilligan’s, Dr. Zhivago, Blue Lotus and Way of Life have all occupied the space.

For three years it has been Bistro India, featuring the lesser-known cuisine of the southern half of the great subcontinent.

Curiosity got the better of me. In we went.

Fortunately, it was an inspired choice.

Bistro India has excellent food, Indian but subtly different from the many Indian restaurants now dotting the Edmonton landscape. Just as important, the friendly host and co-owner (with her family) of Bistro India, Shanthi Saunder, is proud of her culinary heritage and loves talking about her kitchen and its cultural identity.

The most obvious difference is the prevalence of dosa over chapatti and naan breads. Chapatti and naan are the unleavened breads of north India, but in the south you find dosa — a crispy crepe made from rice and lentil flour, then fermented over several days to create an appealing touch of sourness.

We have one of the most basic dosas as an appetizer, the hot, fresh-off-the-grill large crispy crepe wrapped around paneer (cooked vegetables and cheese), served with a light lentil stew called sambar plus coconut and tomato chutneys.

It all works beautifully together and is an introduction to the subtler, more fragrant and, one might say, lighter tastes of south Indian cooking — or at least Bistro India’s south Indian, modified to Canadian tastes.

When there’s unusual seafood on the menu, that’s where our eyes linger. Bistro India offers a Goan-style shrimp in tamarind and red curry. The traditional allapey fish curry dish from the deep south of Kerala features haddock chunks in coconut milk and ginger.

Both were delicious … though we learned after-the-fact that Goan style shrimp — despite the name from the coastal Goa province — is considered a “northern” dish popular in Mumbai.

What you pick up on immediately at Bistro India is a softer, gentler style of Indian cooking as opposed to the brash, bold, spicy tastes of the north. The sparse use of chillies and spice heat came as a surprise. I had always thought South Indian cooking more spicy than Northern, but such is not the case at Bistro India.

These seafood dishes were light, clean, soft, floral and fragrant — like Thai curries but without the fierce heat. In fact, it was a treat to savour the softer spices, for once not covered up by over-powering spice heat.

You cannot leave Bistro India without ordering kulfi — south India’s answer to ice cream. Cashews, pistachios and almonds are crushed into condensed milk, simmered with saffron and cardamom, then frozen. This is a taste from the Indian gods.

Bistro India’s coffee is a must as well — made from south India coffee beans, boiled together with the milk chai-style. With a little pre-mixed sugar, it’s a smooth accompaniment to the kulfi.

We caught one of those last warm autumn nights on Bistro India’s magnificent porch. The interior — being a house, is chopped up into five different areas, somewhat dark, but cosy come winter.

Bistro India is open for lunch and dinner seven days a week, with a “dosa brunch” on weekends. As the Saunder family owns the building, Bistro India is unlikely to suffer the fate of its predecessors.

A pleasant surprise — the Weekly Dish must venture off more often onto these culinary roads less travelled.

Graham Hicks

780 707 6379