Thanjai Ottawa is the baby sister of Thanjai Montreal, which has been serving South Indian food for six years. Three chefs from the Montreal branch regularly rotate through the Ottawa restaurant; all three are from the same area of South India, and two have worked in restaurants in the Middle East.
We start with an onion bhaji to keep the hunger pangs at bay while we work our way through the menu, which is an encyclopedia of Southern Indian food. With wisps of crispy-thin deep-fried onions loosely tangled in a disc, it’s more latke than the bhaji balls I’m accustomed to.
We can’t resist that most traditional of southern foods, the dosa. At Thanjai, the Ghee Paper Masala Dosa, complete with mildly spicy potato masala, stretches off the plate and is both delicate and filling. And because we are in a sharing mood, we choose a lunch thali: a traditional South Indian meal with lots of small bowls that include fish, soup, lentils, a green vegetable that we never manage to identify, and a dessert, as well as rice, naan bread, and a chapatti. Flavours are lively, not overly spicy, and varied.
During a subsequent visit, we begin with a chili idly, curious to see if the double chili sign on the menu will bring water to our eyes. A large pile of disturbingly red chunks of idly arrives. The soft, pillowy cubes of rice and lentil flour, rolled in rice flour and deep-fried for a chewy crust, are dotted with green peppers and flecks of chili pepper in a sticky chili sauce. Within seconds, my guest is sweating beneath the eyes and I’m gulping glasses of water. As our mouths get accustomed to the heat, we make a good dent in a generous serving.
We move on to a Chettinad chicken curry and lamb biryani. The mention of “boneless” elsewhere on the menu should have been a giveaway, but we were both surprised to find fairly large chunks of bone in our food. No doubt authentic, it wasn’t the kind of surprise we were looking for. The Chettinad curry came with a generous sauce, layered with the flavours of spices from the Chettinad region, while a huge mound of biryani in a beautiful beaten-copper bowl offered small pieces of sweet lamb and a whole hard-boiled egg hidden in rice flecked with tomato, with hints of cinnamon, cardamom, and cloves.
On both visits, Thanjai was busy with a good balance of Indian and Western diners sampling this extensive, well-priced menu. Take-out is also available, with a nod towards responsible eating — all containers are recyclable, menus can be found online and there are no plastic straws. Bravo!
Open daily for lunch and dinner; closed Tuesdays.
108 Third Ave., 613-695-1969