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Montreal South Indian Throwdown: Jolee vs. Maison Indian Curry House

Posted by Amie / June 7, 2010

Montreal South Indian Throwdown

Jolee (5495 avenue Victoria) | Maison Indian Curry House (996 rue Jean-Talon West)

●●●●●○○○○○ | ●●●●●●●○○○

5 out of 10 | 7 out of 10

When you think of Indian food you probably think of butter chicken, tandoori chicken, paneer, fresh naan (another tandoori specialty) and unidentifiable vegetables and meats stewed in heaping amounts of deliciously spiced, oil-suffocated sauces.

This is not South Indian food. Sure, you can get these things at Jolee Restaurant and Maison Indian Curry House, but I went to these places looking instead for dosa, idli, sambar, coconut chutney, and vadai.

The biggest differences between Northern and Southern Indian cooking are the popularity of milk, cream and wheat (for sauces and breads) in the North, and the focus on rice, lentils, mustard seeds, fenugreek, fennel, tamarind and coconut in the south. Of course, this is an over-simplification, since dairy is used in the south and lentils are definitely in the north. So, like you can find southern foods in the north (and vice cersa), you can find southern specialties in non-South Indian restaurants here in Montreal.

Enough history. More food.

I get dosa cravings. If dosa is on a menu I have to order it, which is how I stumbled across dosa at Indian Maison Curry House. The owners are actually Punjabi, so Northern Indian, but the entire first page of their menu is South Indian specialties. The rest of the menu is comprised of their $5, $6 and $7 thali specials and slightly more expensive a la carte offerings of vegetable and meat curries, rice dishes and naan. As hard as is it to say no to those prices and tastes, I did, and I wasn't disappointed.

Masala Dosa Masoor HotFor $6-$7 you can get a giant cone of a crepe wrapped around a spicy mashed potato filling. Kind of like Sunday dinner mashed potatoes except instead of sour cream, butter and milk these spuds are cooked in oil, turmeric, mustard seeds, red chili powder and salt. Sometimes, as in the case of the Masala Dosa Masoor Hot at Maison Indian Curry House, there are red lentils (masoor) mixed in for some more protein. Then the whole thing is wrapped up in a very-un-French crepe made of pulverized rice and black lentils that have been soaking in water overnight. Salt gets added to make a batter and then the whole thing is left again overnight to ferment. The fermentation makes it easier to digest the un-cooked lentils and rice. Take note, raw foodists! Also, imagine planning to make fermented crepes two days in advance...what would the French say? That's a whole lot of fore-thought.

Have you ever marveled at the crepe makers in any of Montreal's fine establishments? It's tough to get the batter ridiculously thin and make sure there are no accidental holes. Well the dosa-makers at both Indian Maison Curry House and Jolee could easily find a second income at crepe places. These guys are good.

Jolee Resturant is actually Sri Lankan, but offers South Indian, North Indian and some Chinese specialties as well. The spices of the Sri Lanklan food will remind you of Thai cooking - tamarind and coconut - thought they are also shared with South Indian cuisine. Both restaurants agree that in their neighbourhoods (Parc Extension for Maison Indian Curry House and Cote-Ste-Catherine for Jolee) there is a large South Indian clientele looking for dinner to justify the food's inclusion on the menus. Anyone else who stumbles into the restaurant is just lucky to get to experience a different kind of food. Be warned, however, that it's not all good, and one restaurant is certainly better than the other.

BEST DOSA: Maison Indian Curry House
Chicken DosaThe greatest downfall of dosa is that it can be too greasy. The oil from the interior potato mixture can soak through the lentil crepe, or the oil used to fry the crepe can soften the shell. Here, even if the middle is a bit squishy from oil, the dosa is so incredibly wrapped that the ends fold around each other and crack like fine parchment. You can actually taste the slight fermentation of the lentils and rice (it's just a little lemony) and the potato mixture inside tastes like potato, not mush.

The spicy verision, Masala Dosa Masoor Hot, loses points for being a little under-spiced, which is kind of disappointing since "masala" means spice blend. You can see the mustard seeds and a few chili pieces, but nothing has an effect on your tongue. Maybe I didn't look like I could take the heat? How do you prove something like that? BYO-chili peppers?

A nice touch was the sprinkling of red chili powder (more for colour than for heat) and salt on the top of the dosa. Even though the potato was a bit bland, the accompanying sides of coconut chutney (the white sauce in the photo), mint chutney with yogurt, (the green sauce in the photo - I didn't think this was usually made with yogurt?), and sambar (the aluminum bowl of oily, soupy stewed vegetables with mustard seeds and not much else...mmm...I actually love falling apart zucchini) gave more than enough variety of dipping options for the dosa. The coconut was very fresh and the yogurt tang was a nice complement to the fermented tang of the shell. The sambar really didn't taste like much.

Another dosa option at Maison Indian Curry House is the chicken dosa. Normally a dosa wouldn't have meat in it but it turned out that this version was filled with deliciously tender tandoori chicken pieces! Now that's fusion. Take a North Indian specialty and stuff it inside a South Indian one. The result was absolutely delicious, the chicken having much more flavour than the potatoes. It is marinated in yogurt for a long time, but sometimes often the pieces dry out from being cooked in the tandoor and then left sitting for too long in a chafing dish or under a heat lamp before being served. These pieces were beautiful and fresh, not the leftovers from some bird cooked for another table. There was so much meat in this that you would probably be sick if you finished the whole thing in one sitting. Actually the same goes for any of the dosai. So you're paying $7 for one dosa, but you're probably paying $3.50 per meal if you take the rest to go.

This is compared to Jolee's dosa, which is just not as impressive a roll, even though this picture is of only half the dosa:Onion Masala DosaIt's $5.50 but a lot more oily. It seemed a little smaller, but that could just be the presentation, since the wrapper doesn't extend too far beyond the fillings like at Maison Indian Curry House. The wrapper itself I liked better here, since it was studded with spices and had a more interesting, hole-riddled texture. Even though Jolee's dosa options include a version with really nice red onions and another with delicious fried onions, your stomach will feel more than a little bogged down once your digestion gets over the initial shock and starts working again. Not to mention that the mustard seeds and other spices are even less present in the mashed potato masala. Oh, and there were a few hairs...apparently this place has had a some bad health inspections in its past. Walking to the washroom you start to regret having drank so much water. Hygiene aside, it's also a bit unappetizing to see the 20 bottles of vegetable oil stacked in the hallway. To be fair, most of this restaurant's clientele do take-out, so never need to use the washroom. That also makes me a bit nervous in how often it gets cleaned...

Maison Indian Curry House, on the other hand, is a very nice space. The clean and beautiful wood paneling on the floors and walls makes you feel welcome and warm in this cosy second-floor nook of a restaurant. The washrooms don't scare you away from touching the door knobs or taps...or eating your food. I also think the food is fresher at Maison Indian Curry House, since Jolee features a take-away counter of snacks and mains that sit...and sit...and sit...and wait to be bought. It makes me nervous about what comes from the back.

Enough about dosa and hygiene.

BEST IDLI: Maison Indian Curry House wins again!
Idli at Indian Maison Curry HouseIdli are steamed disks of fermented rice and lentil, just like the dosa shells. The only difference is that the steaming instead of frying can leave them pretty bland, and they're certainly not stuffed with anything. So at Jolee the disks tasted tough and paste-y and at Maison Indian Curry House they were light and fresh. Again, you could taste the fermentation. You'll also be very full after a meal of these guys, once the uncooked rice and lentils start to expand in your stomach. It's the accompanying chutneys and sambar that make this or break this, though, and at Jolee it broke. Idli with Coconut ChutneyThe coconut chutney tasted salty and metallic, as if it had been sitting in a metal container for far too long, and the coconut should have been thrown out a few months ago. The sambar was bland, lacking tamarind and curry leaves, but so was Indian Maison Curry House's version.

BEST VADA: JoleeJolee VadaiThe big difference between the vada at Jolee and Indian Maison Curry House was the method of serving the deep-fried donuts of lentils. Apparently, when made correctly the donuts shouldn't be too greasy since the built up steam within the vada pushes the oil away from the middle. So you should end up with a crispy outside, since the vada are often coated in a kind of lentil flour, and a softer, doughier inside. At Jolee the whole fried donuts were plopped into sambar soups. You quickly lose the crisp exterior, but the inside stays unnaturally firm. At Indian Maison Curry House the deep-fried donut is cut into 4 smaller pieces, all of which get soaked in the sambar soup. Vada at Indian Maison Curry HouseSo as tasty as the ball was, it completely lost its texture. It was served right away, so the pieces didn't fall apart, but it would have been nice to have the donut pieces served on the side. Serving it in the sambar seems to helps the restaurants cheat on making it less greasy since the surplus of grease can swim out of the ball and into the soup, and you won't be able to taste the original texture anyway. So, kind of disappointing, except that finally the simple spices were nice - mostly salt, onion, and some ginger. At Jolee you also get two donuts per order for about the same price as the one you get at Indian Maison Curry House. Quality difference?

BEST SERVICE: While staff were friendly at both places, it was maybe TOO fast, but in busy restaurants a lot is pre-made, especially with Indian food, where dishes need to stew for long periods of time. Both restaurant's staff happily answered my annoying questions about what was traditionally from the South of India and what was from the North, and while the server at Maison Indian Curry House tried to convince me that naan doesn't have dairy in it (maybe if you're talking about the Uighur style in North Western China, but it always has yogurt and/or ghee in India) I believed most of what I was being told about the dishes.

Some South Indian connoisseurs will note that I didn't even mention the dosa at Bombay Choupati in Pierrefonds. It is closed until mid-summer while the family who owns the restaurant is on vacation. When they come back, it will definitely be worth checking out. Their answering machine has more details. Until then, enjoy Indian Maison Curry House, or if you really must go to Jolee, maybe stick to the chicken roti to go and the Sri Lankan stringhoppers just because you've probably never had that kind of noodle before.

Maison Indian Curry House
996 rue Jean-Talon West
Expect To Pay: $8-$13, including tax and tip
Licensed: Yes

Jolee Restaurant

5495 avenue Victoria
Hours: Noon-11pm, daily
Expect to Pay: $7-$10 including tax and tip, less on take-out.
Licensed: In theory, yes, but they don't sell alcohol and you can't BYOB, so probably they don't have a license anymore.



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