Saturday, December 20, 2014

House of Bengal

Opening a restaurant in Toronto that caters to Bangladeshi cuisine in a sophisticated setting is a tricky business. There's not enough Bangladeshis (there's a lot, but not enough) that can comprise a good market, and the general people of Toronto are more familiar with Indian and Pakistani cuisine than Bangladeshi food. Yet, I believe, with the right amount of marketing, location, and most importantly food, it can be done.

On Saturday night my brother and I had the pleasure of dining at the House of Bengal, which bills itself as "the only South Asian restaurant in the GTA specializing in Bangladeshi cuisine", on the Danforth. Now strictly speaking, this isn't true, of course. There's a bunch of restaurants on "Little Bangladesh" (the stretch of Danforth between Victoria Park and Woodbine) that serve Bangladeshi food. However, they are mostly cheap mom-and-pop establishments, usually for takeout, and hardly have an ambience that you can take a date too. House of Bengal has developed a "buzz" on social media, and billed itself as a more upscale take on Bangladeshi food; hence we were eager to try it out.

The only parking available is street parking. I was told there is parking at the back of the building as well, but I couldn't find it. We went at 7 pm on a Saturday evening, and we managed to get a parking spot very easily on the street directly opposite the restaurant (and pay parking is enforced till 6 pm there, so parking was free). The restaurant is more easily accessible via public transit, with Woodbine Station being the closest subway stop.

Décor and Ambience
The House of Bengal hasn't officially opened yet, but it's having what is known as a soft opening. They are still testing out operations, procedures and facilities, with many of their clientele coming via word of mouth or through targeted Facebook promotions.

My brother and I had the pleasure of dining with Yawar Amin, whose brother is one of the owners of the restaurant. Throughout our stay, the owner popped in quite a few times to talk to us, and ask about our meal, and we also met one of his co-owners, an Arab man (who was cooking Bengali food!), and who also decorated the interior of the restaurant. The customer service was excellent throughout. I value customer service very highly - you can often eat at home what you are eating out, what makes the difference is the customer service and ambience.

The restaurant is decorated very nicely, with a contemporary ambience to it, and yes - that's a Surface computer on a table if you have to wait during busy times. At 7 pm on a Saturday night, I would estimate the restaurant to be about 40% full, which wasn't bad for a place that just opened up literally a few days ago.

The restaurant was split into the general dining section, like any other restaurant, with tables and chairs, but also had a "lounge" section. A projector displayed Bollywood and Bengali song videos on a wall at the end of the lounge. I was told that this area is also planned for use for live performances in the future, if needed.

We dined in the regular section.

What drew us to House of Bengal was the promise of Bangladeshi food in a more upscale setting. We were curious to see what it would be. When we were seated, the owner told us the food was more of a fusion of Bangladeshi food and Arabic style of cooking, since some of the owners were also Arab.

I should add that shisha is also available at this time at the House of Bengal, but I didn't try it, and I didn't see anyone try it while we were there either. This might be an issue if you want to bring kids to the restaurant.

Any desi establishment has special drinks and House of Bengal was no different. Their beverages, such as the Lemon Mint Tea, or the Mango Lassi, come supersized (something that I approve - you often pay a lot for say a lassi at a regular desi establishment only to get a small glass of it).

We were given a menu, but we were also told since the restaurant was trying out various combinations in the soft opening, the menu wasn't exactly in sync with what was on offer, and also didn't match up to the website. I was looking to see if they had some Bangladeshi seafood dish on offer, but on the owner's recommendation we ordered a kebab platter, which comes with a beef skewer and pieces of chicken breast kebab, some chutney and raita, as well as a small plate of white rice.

The kebabs were flavourful without being spicy. I also liked the fact that they didn't seem too oily, and actually preferred the beef skewer over the chicken.

We also ordered mutton biryani, which was served in a clay pot. It reminded me of a restaurant I had eaten at in Old Dhaka, near Laal Baagh. The biryani carried that Bangladeshi food / Arabic twist fusion concept; it wasn't spicy, but it was definitely flavorful and tasty, and definitely something different compared to the usual Indian/Pakistani biryani. It's not kacchi biryani though.

As for the food, if you go to the House of Bengal, you have to try their biryani. It's what I would call their signature dish, and it is pretty good. The biryani is a bit pricey, but if you order it, I would recommend ordering it with the garnishing (raisins and nuts) as well. It's just about big enough for two people to share (or one really hungry person!).

We also ordered a side of vegetables to go along with it (again, I missed it on the menu, but went on the owner's suggestion). And finally, it was time for dessert, and we ordered some rasmalai.

This was pretty much the best sweet / dessert dish I have eaten in a while - and as you can see their presentation was pretty awesome as well.

Our whole meal cost us about $15 per person. This isn't bad at all for a weekend dining. If you are bringing a date to the House of Bengal, I would recommend the biryani, and kebab rolls in paratha (not the platter), and mango lassi for the same cost, all to share.

The House of Bengal made a positive impression. It was clean, upscale, and the food was decent. I could definitely see it as becoming a "hip" or "trendy" place for young desi folks, especially Bangladeshi youth, to gather. The availability of shisha make its "cooler", and a more happening place.

If I have to suggest room for improvement before their "official" grand opening next year, it would be to have more Bangladeshi dishes, especially some type of seafood. There's a whole bunch of restaurants all over Toronto that have biryani and kebab, and often much cheaper too. If the House of Bengal has something unique going for it - it's the Bengaliness of it. So I would concentrate on kacchi biryani, ilish (Hilsha, boneless), bhuna chingri and other Bengali treats.

Would I go again? Yes, definitely, but I am older, and have a kid - so House of Bengal would be reserved for when it's just my wife and I, and we are in the mood for Bangladeshi fare. So do definitely go and try it out, and if you do, let me know what you think of it via the comments section.

House of Bengal
2183 Danforth Ave.,
Toronto, ON M4C 1K4
Tel: 416-546-6647


Towfiqa said...

#unimpressed nothing you ate sounds bangali. And of course there is a fusion. The chef is Arab. Of course it will influence the food. You need a biye barir babuexhi fresh off a plane. Great job on decor ambience and marketing. I can see this place being a cool place to Adda FOR bangladeshis. But please don't call it Bangladeshi food. It's too bad I had high hopes

Farah said...

Went there the other day - quite unimpressed to tell you. And I was very disappointed, had high hopes and expectations. The food is not even Bangladeshi! They are just too confused, even their name is House of Bengal in some places, and Bollywood cafe in others. The biryani is good, but not worth $14.

mezba said...

@Towfiqa, I do agree that you need a Bangladeshi chef (or some one trained in Bangladeshi cuisine) to prepare food that can be called Bangladeshi. I do see it as becoming a cool adda type of place for Bengalis, but you do need the Bangladeshi food for it.

@Farah, as I mentioned in the review, the food needs to be more Bangladeshi to do justice to their marketing. I hear their porota is quite authentic.

nadia said...

This is a very detailed and honest review. While I may never get the chance to dine in House of Bengal, I do hope they take your suggestion about introducing more Bengali food (specially seafood) in their menu. Also, they should perhaps set a different time for sheesha, like after 8 pm? LIke you mentioned, families with children would hesitate coming in if the place is filled with sheesha smoke.

mezba said...

@Nadia, absolutely. I know a few other restaurants that start the sheesha later, after "family hours".

Musa said...

There are some dishes which define a "Bangladeshi" place as opposed to a Bangladeshi "run" place; stuff like Borhani, Kachhi Biryani, Chotpoti (not too watery) and Tehari.

Even in cities like London and Dubai with their considerable Bangladeshi diaspora, it is hard to find places with a reasonable ambience offering such items, Kolapata in East London & Food Village in Dubai being 2 places which tick some, if not all of the boxes.
It is interesting though that Toronto which probably has a larger white collar Bangladeshi population than Dubai & a more recent/diverse one than London has not had more such places

Anonymous said...


I totally disagree. Bengali food extends beyond fish and rice. Many think that when a Bengali restaurant serves chicken or mutton they are serving Pakistani food. I assure you, Bengalis have eaten mutton and chicken long before the 20th century. These restaurants aren't just introducing these foods. Our mums cook this stuff, their grandmothers did too, there were no fusion restaurants to teach it to them.

mezba said...

It should be noted that this place is no longer House of Bengal. They changed their name to Chill Grill Café.