More fizzle than flame at ex-Charlie’s

We were in the mood for something new, so off we trotted to Flame of India in Richmond Hill. Only this spot is not entirely new at all. Let me explain.

Remember Charlie Superstar, that once-fun pizza joint at the corner of Stanley and Bain Streets, which was bought over by Debbie Singh about two years ago?

Debbie has since tired of pizzas and decided in December to transform Charlie’s into an Indian restaurant. And by transform I mean a lick of orange paint, complete with “flames” coming out of the walls, and a poster of the Taj Mahal.

Oh, and a brand new Indian menu, of course. Only she can’t seem to decide whether to go all-out Indian or cling doggedly to the ghost of Charlie, so at the top of the menu you have “Charlie’s Flame of India”. And yes, pizzas are still served.

My dining partner in crime, hubby Salvelio, and I found it slightly tricky to get our heads around that. But we were more perturbed to find Flame of India completely empty on a Thursday night when the Richmond Hill restaurant “strip” was so packed we’d had to park a block away. During the evening there were only two other tables, unless you count the two sets of patrons who came in, sat down for five minutes, then quietly crept out without ordering. I confess we had the same impulse once or twice, considering the place was as lively as a crypt.

But manners prevailed and we did not want to leave without giving Flame of India a chance. However the tone for the evening was set when we learnt from our waiter that only two of the seven starters on the menu were available, as “our equipment hasn’t arrived from Cape Town”. Why have seven starters on the menu if you are only able to serve chilli bites and samoosas? I’d understand it if you’d had expensive menus printed and a glitch with your supplier, but c’mon, Charlie’s Flame of India’s menu is a crumpled, photocopied A4 sheet of paper. They could easily have updated it to reflect what was available.

So, chilli bites and samoosas it was. These, though simple snacks, can be a marvel when properly made, but luck was not on our side, as the chilli bites (R30) were so charred on one side we had to send them back, while the samoosas (also R30) were no more special than the ones from the corner cafe, only oilier.

Mains were more successful, at least for Salvelio. His lamb rogan josh (R85) was a treat; a dish rich in flavour, the lamb succulent and the spices fragrant and beautiful. But my paneer curry (R65) was so spicy (don’t get me wrong, I love a hot curry) that I couldn’t handle more than two bites and was unable to distinguish anything but burn. We were told by Debbie afterwards that the curries came in three strengths – mild, medium or hot – though this was not stated on the menu nor mentioned by our waiter.

And, though the menu said “basmati rice” (for which we were billed) what we got was Tastic.

So what next. Dessert, right? Trouble is, the waiters (and Debbie herself) literally walked past our table 20 times without offering us a dessert menu, and eventually we found out why.

Of the four desserts (the menu says ‘desert’ – perhaps prophetic) none was available. This a clearly annoyed Debbie blamed on her staff, saying they hadn’t told her “both our desserts are finished”.

So, waiter (the same one who did not know what several of the menu items were when we ordered mains) tells us, Debbie is making you XYZ (insert Indian name) for dessert. No choice, just XYZ. We try to ask what the alternative is. There is none, unless you want to wait 20 minutes for her to make ABC. Waiter cannot explain to us what either ABC or XYZ is, so we resign ourselves to XYZ, which turns out to be stodgy, unsweet, hot semolina piled in a bowl with a few sad nuts on top.

Debbie rather aggressively inquires, “well, did you like it or not?”, and when we say it was not really to our taste, she first suggests we know nothing about Indian food, then concedes this dessert is meant to be made ahead of time, then cooled, cut and served in blocks. At least we weren’t charged for it, though that was little comfort indeed after a dismal night out.

This restaurant visit was unannounced and paid for in full.

– Louise Liebenberg

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