Dining Out: Vivaan's delectable Indian food deserves fans

Scallops appetizer at Vivaan. Peter Hum / POSTMEDIA

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Vivaan
225 Preston St., 613-265-6444, vivaanottawa.com
Open: Tuesday to Sunday 4 to 10 p.m., closed Monday
Prices: appetizers and curries from $14 to $21

In our light-hearted past, there was no need to do a risk-benefit analysis before going out for dinner.

You’re familiar, of course, with the usual pluses of a restaurant meal — the prospects of being pampered, of enjoying delicious food that we didn’t have to cook ourselves, and of skipping dish-cleaning drudgery. But now, we weigh on the other side not only the exertions of venturing into the November cold but also anxieties about possibly being sickened by a global health scourge.

If your decision to stay home or go out is a toss-up, let me add one more specific pro — the dessert at Vivaan that mounds squares of lightly crisped, buttery fried bread in a puddle of sweet, milky, nutty sauce.

Shahi tukda (bread dessert with milk sauce) at Vivaan Peter Hum / Postmedia

That dish, which we enjoyed last week at the month-old Indian restaurant on Preston Street, might sound simple and even homey. But trust me — it’s revelatory.

We had chef-owner Teegavarapu Sarath Mohan, toiling in the open kitchen of the classy space that used to be DiVino Wine Studio, to thank for that perfectly executed meal-ender, and for the parade of treats that came before it.

Chef/owner Teegavarapu Sarath Mohan cooking in his new restaurant Vivaan on Preston Street. Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020. Errol McGihon / Postmedia

Mohan is scarcely into his 30s but the self-taught chef, who was previously a tech worker and food blogger, is already running his third restaurant kitchen in three years. Vivaan presents the latest evolution of Mohan’s cooking exploits, which began at Flavours of Kerala in Kanata and then moved to NH44, his initial venture of his own, on Lancaster Road.

Vivaan offers a curated and elevated Indian cuisine, several notches above steam tables loaded with items at lunchtime. Mohan’s menu ranges from dressed-up street food, which was one of NH44’s calling cards, to well-plated appetizers to curries, rice, flatbreads and desserts.

We went a little heavier on appetizers, thinking they would be better enjoyed on site, unlike other less time-sensitive items we could one day order to go from Vivaan.

Scallops ($16 for three) were nicely seared and complemented by a mild coconut-milk froth. More potently flavoured were Mohan’s tender, spice-crusted lamb chops ($17 for two). The most memorable starter was a plate of humble chicken drumsticks ($16) that were both fiery and tasty, offset by a punchy slaw, some even punchier chutney and a big swipe of sauce made with cilantro, peas and mint.

Scallops appetizer at Vivaan Peter Hum / Postmedia

Lamb chops at Vivaan Peter Hum / Postmedia

“Drums of heaven” at Vivaan Peter Hum / Postmedia

The only street food item we chose was Vivaan’s pani puri ($13). Their crisp semolina shells filled with spiced potatoes require a bit of playful interaction — we added finishing “injections” of cilantro and mint water with plastic syringes.

Pani puri at Vivaan Peter Hum / Postmedia

While Vivaan also serves such Indian street fare as Bombay sliders and stuffed flatbreads, I’m more likely to get such items from Royal Paan, the newcomer Indian street-food eatery on Baseline Road, while preferring Mohan’s restaurant for its most distinctive dishes.

We shared three larger items that we would absolutely have again, and which, I think, would be fine ordered to go.

Mohan is from Hyderabad, India and he makes an exceptional Hyderabadi chicken biryani ($18), notable for its light, fluffy rice, moist and flavourful chicken, and bracing hits of spice paste. For one of my friends, some raita to tamp down the biryani’s heat was a very good idea.

Hyderabadi chicken biryani at Vivaan Peter Hum / Postmedia

The chef also serves Hyderabadi katli dal ($18), which is made with spinach and tamarind as well as yellow lentils. It intrigued me with a depth of flavour that made other dals seem second-rate.

Hyderabadi katli dal at Vivaan Peter Hum / Postmedia

Drawing upon a preparation for seafood from Kerala, the tropical state on India’s southwestern coast, mussels moilee ($21) was packed with plump, toothsome shellfish in a mildly spicy coconut-milk sauce flecked with curry leaves.

Mussels moilee at Vivaan Peter Hum / Postmedia

That sauce, like Mohan’s other concoctions, was too good to waste, and we savoured it as a dip for his made-to-order parotta flatbread ($3) and the even better onion-stuffed kulcha bread ($4).

You already know Mohan’s bread dessert ($9), a version of the Hyderabadi treat shahi tukda, was sublime. Vivaan’s mango shrikhand ($9), made with sweetened, extra-creamy yogurt that had been hung in cheesecloth to shed some of its water content, was compelling in a different way, and would travel better.

Mango shrikhand (yogurt dessert) at Vivaan Peter Hum / Postmedia

Both desserts successfully reflected Vivaan’s desire to improve upon the status quo of other Indian restaurants, which frequently settle for so-so store-bought Indian sweets to conclude their meals.

During prime time for dinner last Thursday, we were the only customers in Vivaan’s spacious dining room, which includes six very distantly separated tables under a high ceiling, all within view of the kitchen. (That meant that Mohan, who knows me, saw I was eating his food and in fact came out to say hello.)

Service was warm and hospitable, and our only complaints were small. We wished that the poppy dinner music had been quieter and that Vivaan offered cocktails as well as basic beers and wines.

Earlier this fall, Mohan told me opening Vivaan was a huge risk. But NH44 was hidden in an industrial park and severely struggling before Mohan closed it in September, and he hoped being on Preston Street would lead to more visibility and business.

For at least the time being, COVID-19 may well frustrate Mohan’s hopes for customers packing his dining room. But pandemic or no pandemic, his food deserves fans, even if they prefer the safer choice of Vivaan’s delectable curries to go.

phum@postmedia.com

 

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