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Vancouver Sun: Swad’s Indian food travels the country

Taken from The Vancouver Sun. Original article can be found here.

You’d think a lambasting and two-day silent treatment from his teenage daughter would have Kamal Mroke on high alert for celebrities in his restaurants. He still has no clue.

Mroke runs India Bistro on Davie Street (open for 11 years) and the recently opened Swad Indian Kitchen in West Vancouver’s Ambleside. When Robert Pattinson was filming Twilight a few years back, in Vancouver, he ate at India Bistro several times, sometimes with then-girlfriend Kristen Stewart. Mroke thought he was a very nice young man. His daughter found out via a YouTube video of Mroke walking the star to a cab outside the restaurant.

At Swad, customers have pointed out a big star who comes in regularly. Mroke couldn’t think of the name when I ask.

“I’ll get back to you,” he says. It’s Robert Carlyle (Trainspotting, The Full Monty, Angela’s Ashes) who has been part of the popular miniseries Once Upon A Time shot here. He orders takeout for his family.

I went to Swad because a Sun reader — that’s you, Michael Greenway — emailed me several times urging me to try the food. A wonderful addition to the West Van scene, he said. Couldn’t get in last weekend — had a half-hour wait; Swad has had quite an impact in West Van, he said.

Well, Michael, you’ll be happy to know I liked the food and the hospitable attitude even more. Food flavours are mellow and fresh and dishes aren’t limited to the Punjab area like so many Indian restaurants in Metro Vancouver (including India Bistro). The menu flits all over India and the food is light and healthy. And Mroke makes sure everyone gets a gracious welcome. Our server, though cheerful to the max, seemed unclear about names of dishes and what was in them.

“I told the chef to do two things in West Vancouver,” says Mroke. “No butter and cut back on salt. I didn’t want it too heavy or too spicy. I want light,” says Mroke. He also told chef Sumil Dutt (who cooked at the high-end Hyatt Regency in Delhi) to eliminate wheat except in the naan breads (and there are quite a few of them.) Chickpea flour (gram) is otherwise used, for example, in dishes like palak kofta (spinach dumplings). Mroke says instead of commercial tenderizers for meat, chef adds raw papaya to the marinade.

The spinach kofta ($15), he says, is a top seller. Oblong dumplings, deep-fried, are cut down the middle to reveal concentric layers of spinach, paneer and gram dumpling. The sauce is thick with onions, tomatoes, spinach and spices with a bit of heat.

Kashmiri naurattan ($12), a lightly fluffed saffron-hued rice dish, is sunshine in a bowl; the rice is slow-cooked in the oven and dried fruits, nuts, and brightly hued pineapple and mango are tossed in or on it.

The one tandoor dish I tried, nargisi kebab (lamb, $21) had five big pieces of lamb, off the skewer; it was sprinkled with khoa, a dry cheese made from cooking and reducing milk. Although it was cooked in a tandoor, it seemed too gently cooked, not subjected to a hellish temperature. It was tender and (perhaps too) mildly flavoured via marinade.

The Nilgiri chicken ($15) arrived bathed in a herb-coloured sauce. At first I thought whoa, too much sauce, but when I tasted it (lots of mint, with coriander, chili, and onion) I went at it with my naan. (Nilgiri is a state in southern India.)

The naan, like the lamb, hadn’t been tortured enough in the tandoor; I liked mine heaved with bubbles and charred, blackened eyes. Maybe I’ve fallen prey to trends. Blackened, charred things are all the rage.

“We burn the hell out of bread,” chef Jon Sybert of the fashionable Tail Up Goat in Washington, D.C. told the Washington Post recently. At Swad, plain naan is $2, you can order them stuffed with, for example, cottage cheese, spinach and masala sauce or dried fruit and mango chutney.

I had to try chemeen, pan-seared fish ($19) with an Alleppey-style sauce with soothing coconut milk. I’d spent a few days in Alleppey in January (generously referred to as ‘Venice of the East’ for the latticework of river channels and canals cutting through the area and not for magnificent buildings) exploring the backwaters in this laid-back rice farming region. In our guest house by a river, a local fisherman paddled his dugout canoe to the shore with his daily catch and our hosts would buy some for part of the next-day’s lunch and dinner. Even their newspaper was delivered by dugout canoe.

Dessert was another burst of sunshine. Rice pudding was more a mango pudding with some rice and mango purée. An embellishment of whipped cream looked like it came from a store-bought canister.

On Mondays and Tuesdays at dinner, there’s a 25 per cent discount and on Wednesdays, wines are 50 per cent off. Wines are well-recognized popular choices. The beer list could use some interesting local products to lift it out of the lacklustre.

Mroke has a kind heart — he and his brother make regular trips to North India to operate a three-day “eye” camp in collaboration with the government, providing free cataract operations to the poor.

“The farmers work so hard, they’ve not money to buy glasses. It gives them back their lives. I want to be there and work and see where my money goes,” he says.

Greenway is right. Swad is a wonderful addition to West Van, a quiet community not known for a lively restaurant culture. (Longtime award-winner, La Regalade recently closed and word is, a tapas restaurant is going in.)

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