– Voracious Column with Allan Reid
Varsha occupies a two-storey red brick building at the prominent downtown corner of Government and Pandora (across from the McPherson Playhouse), with entries off both streets. I choose a seat at a tall table in one of the large, bright, mullioned windows that fill both street-facing walls, people-watching as foot traffic passes up and down Pandora.
Within, Varsha feels like a fish-and-chips shop stripped of its novelty paraphernalia: no netting, no wooden fish, no Japanese glass floats. And yet the decor is distinctly old English seaside shanty, with cream-painted shiplap and bare brown brick covering the walls, and still more shiplap encasing the few mid-floor booths. The floor is polished concrete along a path that leads from one entry to the other, swinging along the kitchen counter on the way, and flanked by “patios” of barn-wood vinyl plank. A crystal chandelier in the shape of a lateen (a type of tall ship) prominently displayed in one of the Government St. windows is the only overtly nautical novelty in the place.
Alas, no fish and chips grace Varsha’s menu, though one can order the Tandoori Fish ($17) and pair it with Masala Fries ($8), both off the Starters menu: an adventure beckoning. In fact, adventure seems to be the theme here, for though the menu does offer some standard Indian-restaurant fare, Varsha is not bound by tradition. The extensive Starters list invites sharing, tapas-style, mixing traditional fare with less common items such as Butter Chicken Samosas or the Indo-Chinese Chilli Chicken. Of course, there is a good list of curries and biryanis, but then also Bollywood Burgers and Tandoori Chicken Burgers, among others.
And this is all before I reach the Fusion part of the menu (served before 5 pm). Here are Varsha’s Tacos, Pork Belly Naanwiches and more. I went with the Shrimp and Mango Quesadillas ($13): four large triangles thick with mozzarella-encased shrimp, pickled peppers, onions and Varsha’s own quesadilla sauce. The mango, though invisible, provides a fruity freshness that cuts through the creamy umami of the cheese and shrimp. I paired my quesadillas with a small bowl of Kachumber Salad ($9). Yes, it does contain cucumbers, as well as tomato and red onions, all marinated in lime juice with chilli and fresh herbs. On this day, the red onions were wickedly hot and palate-killing. One tangle of onion left me unable to taste anything else while my sinuses ran and my eyes watered. I had to put aside the salad and consume half my quesadillas before I could begin to find their subtle mango nuance again. When onions are that hot, they should be cut fine and used sparingly.
I washed down my meal with a steamy mug of Chai Masala Tea ($4). This is black tea mixed with milk and cardamom and other spices, but here it is served unsweetened. I often don’t order Chai because it is invariably sweet, but Varsha serves the sugar on the side so I can sweeten, or not, to my taste. Thank you. Varsha is Indian cuisine with a twist. Enjoy.